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Do Voters Want Less Smut, More Substance? Oui

September 02, 2003|Patt Morrison

It's tough to pull off a disappearing act when you stand 6-feet-something tall and you're built like an Amana side-by-side.

But he managed it. Arnold Schwarzenegger was invisible so often over these last few days that I thought he might have added Siegfried and Roy to his campaign team -- poof, there he isn't.

He finally breached on Labor Day, the last day of the traditional big three-day debut weekend for candidates, at the state fair in Sacramento. Look fast. The only guaranteed date he has with the voting public -- the millions who don't listen to conservative talk radio, the favored, friendly Schwarzenegger meet-and-greeting grounds -- is a televised candidate debate three weeks away.

Of the several debates crowding the calendar from here to Oct. 7, the Dodginator says he'll probably only show up for one, in the third week of September. I guess we should count ourselves lucky he didn't insist on pay-per-view.

Remember how the recallers started this by feeling betrayed because Gray Davis lied and dissembled about the budget deficit until the polls closed? Not until we'd reelected him, they said, did Davis let on how bad things really are. Imagine, a politician lying.

So we'll be expecting some specifics from all of the Davis plug-and-play replacement candidates. Exactly what will Mr. S. be cutting from the budget? Or won't we know until after he too is sworn in?

Richard Nixon ran for president in 1968 with a secret plan to end the Vietnam War, but he wouldn't tell us what it was unless we elected him. If some guy tried that con on a street corner, the cops'd be on him like Bill Clinton on a glazed doughnut.

And when Schwarzenegger does answer questions, I still have questions. The Times asked the seven leading candidates about higher education issues, including ethnic diversity. "I am convinced," said Schwarzenegger, "that we don't need quotas to achieve diversity."

That's good, because quotas are illegal, and have been for years. Isn't anyone checking the candidate's homework?

The best sport in any election is watching campaigns upend the laws of political physics. It just tickles me to see them twist and bend like the Cirque du Soleil to adapt old standards to new circumstances. Schwarzenegger has pledged not to take special-interest money from "the Indian gaming or from the unions or anything like that" -- meaning Democratic money.

Instead, he told Reuters, "I get donations from business and from individuals." Huh? How is that not special-interest dough too, when the state does business with business and business-minded individuals?

Which brings us to ... the sex thing. The 1977 Oui magazine interview with Schwarzenegger, with detailed answers about using dope and having group sex and women as "relief." Nobody trailed Schwarzenegger home here, nobody spied on him -- he sat down to be interviewed.

As for his various rejoinders when he was asked about this: He'd "made statements that were ludicrous and crazy and outrageous ... because that's the way I always was," he told a radio station. Then, he couldn't remember any such interview (meaning he did remember the sex and drugs?).

And my favorite, "I never lived my life to be a politician. I never lived my life to be the governor of California." What does that mean? That he wouldn't have smoked hash or had group sex, or that he wouldn't have admitted it? Are politicians supposed to have some higher moral standard? Was his conduct suitable for an aspiring actor but not an aspiring governor? Beats me; I'm still trying to figure it out.

His supporters have rushed to his defense as ardently as Bill Clinton's did for him. The past doesn't matter, they insist. So then what's all this furor about Cruz Bustamante and his youthful fling with the wild-eyed Chicano group MEChA? If the past doesn't matter, why is it OK to be young and reckless from the waist down, but not from the waist up? If the past doesn't matter, Tom Hayden, come home. All is forgiven.

Schwarzenegger is being helped by the mainstream press in this -- by our soul searchings and mea culpas about reporting the private parts of public people. The very grossness of the Schwarzenegger interview manages to protect Schwarzenegger because family newspapers like this one won't print the details.

And each scandal somehow stops a bullet for the next one. The public's disgust at the Clinton impeachment hoisted the bar of privacy to the height of an NBA hoop. It meant that candidate George W. Bush could draw the line on questions about his drug use and his spotty military record, in the name of privacy, and no one pressed the issue.

I was for some years a friend of Judith Exner, the woman who was "outed" as the mistress of President Kennedy, Schwarzenegger's uncle-in-law, who carried on flagrantly even in the White House. She said the official D.C. suits and the press boys who knew about JFK's myriad affairs -- and they were boys -- nudged and winked and figured, "Lucky Jack, good for Jack." How much privacy is too much?

This 1977 interview might not be such a big deal were it not for other reports of Schwarzenegger's boorish and unwelcome conduct toward women. There are 35 days left to close the gender gap already noted in a recent Times poll -- 50% of likely women voters have an unfavorable impression of Schwarzenegger compared with 38% of men.

I was talking about this over the weekend with my friend Sue, who wondered whether this is just the way Schwarzenegger deals with women: "Maybe Maria doesn't care," she said, "but I do."

Maybe the guy can do wonders with the deficit, and more power to him. But would we have to put in a budget item for sexual harassment suits?

Patt Morrison's columns appear Mondays and Tuesdays. Her e-mail address is patt.

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