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Steve Lopez / POINTS WEST

Rehearsed Lines Are for Movies, Not Debates

September 21, 2003|Steve Lopez

My life could have been different, I'm sure of it.

If only Sister Roberta had told me what was going to be on that sixth-grade vocabulary test, I wouldn't have gotten hit in the head with the spelling workbook and suffered lasting damage.

If only someone would have slipped me the questions to the SAT in advance, my choice of colleges would have been better.

Arnold Schwarzenegger's got the right idea. He's only going to participate in one debate -- the one where they hand out the questions ahead of time.

His opponents in California's gubernatorial recall campaign had threatened to boycott the event, which would have made for a hallmark moment in the history of American politics. In the most widely televised debate of the campaign, the actor might have sat alone on a stage, giving scripted answers.

"Not that he'd be the first politician to memorize his lines," smirked Gale Kaufman, a Democratic strategist in Sacramento.

She's right. Politics is nothing if not performance art. But this could have been masterpiece theater, starring a world-famous action hero in a one-man show on the death of parody.

I prayed to the Virgin Mary to make it happen, but the other candidates are backing off their boycott vow. It was probably never more than a publicity stunt, anyway. They knew they'd end up on the street outside the debate hall, telling their story of high principles to two reporters, a bag lady and a sleeping dog, while Arnold, in full makeup, grabbed the spotlight.

And speaking of principle, do you get the feeling Cruz Bustamante -- whose campaign guru has been a lobbyist for labor unions and Indian tribes -- would do a rain dance on the Capitol steps if there were another nickel of casino money in it?

The unscripted question I'd like to see him answer is this: Would you mind explaining, Big Chief BustaMoney, how you're an improvement over Gray Davis?

While we're on the subject of Davis, the best photo of the entire recall campaign was the one of him hobnobbing with Jack Nicholson and Bruce Willis, after which, the three amigos went cruising for chicks. I thought it was a file photo from a Laker game, but it turns out Nicholson and Willis are anti-recall and attended a $1,000-a-head fund-raiser at the Century Plaza Hotel.

Ahhh, California. What a grand time we'll have this week in the Golden State, with just two weeks to go until Oct. 7. And yes, you can bet your mortgage the federal appeals court will dropkick the election delay within the next few days. If it doesn't, I'll be Arianna Huffington's butler for a week.

By the way, I requested an interview with Schwarzenegger weeks ago, and I'm still waiting to hear back. Maybe I'd have a better chance if I sent him the questions in advance. But with so little time left, maybe I should go for broke and send him the answers.

Schwarzenegger disappeared from the campaign trail Friday to study the Cliffs Notes on state government in preparation for his big test. Actors get paid to memorize lines, which would seem to bode well for Arnold, but have you seen any of his movies?

We're not talking "My Dinner With Andre." My guess is that the average 8-year-old could memorize an entire Schwarzenegger movie script in the time it takes to eat a Pop Tart. And instead of having Larry King coddle him or Oprah Winfrey blow air-kisses, he's going to be ganged up on by all the other candidates.

And Maria won't be there to muzzle him when Arnold reverts to a 14-year-old with raging hormones and starts mixing bodybuilding terms with tales of conquest.

As a performer, he'll probably come up with something to say, and to be fair, he's rolled out a genuine idea or two lately. But he's still on training wheels, and there are only so many times you can say "I'm going to pump up Sacramento" before folks start wondering if someone's pulling a string in the middle of your back.

I'm not too proud to admit that like a lot of students, I used to write cheat notes on the palm of my hand or the toe of my shoe. I wasn't on camera, of course, like Arnold will be, but if you can fool one nun, Lord knows you can fool millions of TV viewers.

With Arnold's money, along with all the millions he's raised after promising not to, maybe Mr. Political Outsider has had a headset surgically planted beneath his hairline to take cues from his squadron of political insiders.

However it plays out, having the test in advance is no small advantage.

That's why I'd give this week's paycheck if the announcer's first words on Wednesday are:

"Ladies and gentlemen, just for fun, we decided to change all the questions at the last minute. Enjoy the show."


Steve Lopez writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday.

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