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The State | George Skelton / CAPITOL JOURNAL

Schwarzenegger Tries an Update of the Role Reagan Defined

September 15, 2003|George Skelton

There is a familiarity to this movie. I keep thinking I've seen it before.

Actor runs for governor. Star-struck crowds get excited.

Rivals claim the actor's a political amateur, totally devoid of government experience. Moreover, he speaks -- or script-reads -- in generalities; he doesn't offer specifics.

Toward the end, opponents think -- wishfully -- that voters will come to their senses, be leery of the unknown and retain the status quo. Choose the devil they know. Back then it was Gov. Pat Brown. Today it's Gov. Gray Davis.


Actor wins.

That's the basic story line. This latest movie, however, has noticeably different scenes and characters than the original. So we can't yet be sure of the ending.

Actor Ronald Reagan long had been active politically and only two years previously had given a stem-winding TV speech promoting the GOP's presidential nominee, Sen. Barry Goldwater. In contrast, actor Arnold Schwarzenegger -- aside from his successful promotion of a spending initiative for after-school programs -- is a political amateur.

In addition, this is not an ordinary election like Reagan's. It is an unprecedented gubernatorial recall that should give voters extra pause.

Reagan ran as the Republican nominee. Schwarzenegger is being annoyed by a credible party rival, state Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks), as well as a Democrat, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante.

Reagan ran conventionally around the state -- no Oprah interviews for him -- and was readily accessible to voters and political reporters. Schwarzenegger is cloistered, usually allowed out in public only when his surroundings are tightly controlled. Questioners often lob softballs.

Most candidates who attend a state political convention, for example, welcome the opportunity to hold a news conference. Schwarzenegger refused Saturday at a Republican meeting in L.A.

Also -- and this particularly is a noticeable difference -- Reagan was "the great communicator." A honed master of verbal inflection and cadence.

Schwarzenegger certainly has a commanding presence. But he does not have full command of the English language. It's just a fact -- Davis' careless comment about his Austrian accent aside.

So what? So this can hinder the candidate's oratory, get in the way of his message and distract the listener.

There was a good illustration of this at the Republican state convention. Schwarzenegger had a dynamite speech text, written by a former speech writer in the Reagan White House. But the delivery, while powerful, fell short because potent punch lines were read without the Reagan rhythm.

Not all actors are the same.

Reagan, of course, also was an unabashed conservative. Schwarzenegger, overall, is a moderate -- despite his stressing of conservative values at the convention: anti-taxes, anti-spending, anti-illegal immigration, anti-communism. Anti- Davis and Bustamante, "the Twin Terminators of Sacramento."

But nary a word about his support for abortion rights, gay rights and gun control.

Schwarzenegger evoked Reagan in calling on conservative Republicans to unite behind his candidacy and abandon the truly conservative McClintock.

"In 1964, Ronald Reagan gave a speech [for Goldwater] called 'A Time for Choosing,' " Schwarzenegger said. "That is what we face today. We as Republicans have a choice to make. Are we going to be united or are we going to be divided? Are we going to fight Davis and Bustamante, or fight among ourselves?"

This brought the loudest applause and cheers from the roughly 700 delegates at lunch.

In a dinner speech, McClintock also cast himself in a Reagan hue: "Never has there been a more important time to heed the advice of Ronald Reagan to paint our positions in bold colors and not hide them in pale pastels.... This is no time to change our principles. This is the time to showcase them."

"That's right!" yelled a delegate as others cheered.

McClintock's speech, in some ways -- fire, brimstone, specifics and delivery -- was better than Schwarzenegger's. But Schwarzenegger's was better received.

Delegates are looking for a winner and smell victory in the actor.

He seemed specific enough for most of them.

"We can win with him. That's No. 1," said delegate Noel Irwin Hentschel of Los Angeles, who owns an international travel company and once ran for lieutenant governor. "No. 2, he can bring the fiscal changes that we need.

"He'll be tough. He's Austrian. Austrians are organized."

This movie isn't over. Scenes will shift. Lines are yet to be delivered.

What began as implausible fiction and turned into a comedy now has become exciting drama. The voters could craft a surprise ending.

But right now, this is resembling the remake of an old classic.

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