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Reaping wild oats

With voters more tolerant, the California gubernatorial candidates may benefit from the colorful indiscretions of their younger days.

September 08, 2003|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

One of them confessed in a skin magazine interview to smoking dope and having group sex during his hard-bodied, heavily lubricated past. Another was involved with a radical-progressive (some would use less flattering terms) Chicano student group while in college. A third was straight out of Britain's Cambridge University when she fell in with a controversial New Age, California-based religion, and a fourth was a straight-arrow Boy Scout who came of age politically via the Reagan Revolution.

Today these people -- Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, Arianna Huffington and state Sen. Tom McClintock -- are candidates for governor of the Golden State, leaders and mentors, pillars of the Establishment, their utterances treated as weighty pronouncements, their profiles plastered in People and Newsweek. But in youth and young adulthood, they were doing what most people that age do, whether Republicans or Democrats, whether living in a West Hollywood apartment house or a hut in Samoa: experimenting, questioning their elders' wisdom, trying on new personas, test-driving new passions, sowing their wild oats (intellectual, erotic) and embarking on odysseys of self-discovery. In short, they were becoming the full-fledged adults and aspiring leaders now clamoring for our votes.

Call these activities youthful high jinks, salad days, rites of passage, spiritual apprenticeships, sentimental educations or dazed and confused interludes that fell somewhere between "Sesame Street" and Social Security. In practically every human life there's a period of holding opinions, sporting fashions and hanging out with people you wouldn't want to be caught dead with 20 years later. Or maybe you would. For some people, the formative years of young adulthood are a once-in-a-lifetime dalliance, a work in progress, a mere warmup for bigger and better things. For others they're a prototype for everything that follows in life, locking a person's character, beliefs, career, wardrobe, sexuality and significant other into place as firmly as a 30-year fixed mortgage.

The key question this election season, in this tolerant, forgiving, amnesiac state of second chances, where self-reinvention is an article of faith, may be: Do many people care very much anymore what a candidate said or did 20 or 30 years ago, or with whom, or how many times? And if we do care, do we feel better or worse knowing or not knowing the truth, warts and all?

"Obviously the culture changes, our expectations change," says British biographer Nigel Hamilton, who has written extensively about the twentysomething predilections of two U.S. presidents in "JFK: Reckless Youth" and the forthcoming "Bill Clinton: An American Journey." "The public is pretty sophisticated now, and I think we would prefer to know the truth in advance than to have it spill out later."

Even in this land of perpetual sunshine, infantilized celebrities and surfer ditties, adulthood has to begin somewhere, and politicians must go through this passage no less than the rest of us. But while some California gubernatorial candidates are taking heat for what others have dubbed their youthful indiscretions -- Schwarzenegger's libidinous revelations in Oui magazine; Bustamante's college membership in the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan (Chicano Student Movement of Aztlan), a.k.a. MEChA, which McClintock has likened to the Ku Klux Klan -- it's hard to know how voters will respond at the polls Oct. 7.

In a state where practically anything goes, at a time in history when the character gold-standards of the so-called Greatest Generation are beginning to lose their currency, voters may not be much more interested in whether a candidate long ago used steroids and had sex with strangers (Schwarzenegger) or served as a minister in a group called the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness (Huffington) than if a candidate played water polo for San Jose State University (Peter Ueberroth).

So while national pundits smirk and shake their heads about flaky ol' California and the screwball comedy going on in Sacramento, those of us who make our homes here at ground zero of Ayn Rand-style individualism, in the birthplace of the modern self-awareness movement and the backyard of the porn industry, may take it for granted that our political candidates haven't exactly led Ozzie and Harriet lives or held themselves above the tumultuous social currents that have swirled around them.

As Scott Herhold of the San Jose Mercury News put it in a recent column, commenting on the recent Schwarzenegger disclosures: "Anyone who professes to be shocked by the Oui interview is either completely ignorant of California culture in the 1970s or as disingenuous as Claude Rains in 'Casablanca,' who professed to be shocked, shocked that gambling was going on at Rick's Cafe."

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