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Schwarzenegger Snatches a Milk-Bone From the Jaws of Defeat

Only an action hero could have escaped this one.

June 30, 2004|Patt Morrison | Patt Morrison's column appears on Wednesdays. E-mail: patt.morrison@latimes.com.

The secret's out. Green kryptonite can make Superman knuckle under, and a little brown-and- white spaniel named Casey can make Arnold Schwarzenegger say "uncle."

Executing a spin faster than Michelle Kwan, the governor of California has salvaged his political future by saying it was all a mistake, that he would never, ever balance his budget on the lives of household pets.

I exaggerate about his political future, but not much. Execute a mentally impaired killer and you can become president of the United States. Save a few bucks by gassing innocent puppies, kitties and potbellied piglets and you truly won't even get elected dogcatcher.

Schwarzenegger's own brush with political death began with The Times' front page article Friday that the governor's budget would save $14 million -- which also happens to be the price tag on the jet Schwarzenegger got for starring in "Terminator 2" -- by letting animal shelters kill lost pets after three days instead of six. Only after his phone lines were overrun, after the "pet terminator" story made news from Brisbane to Edinburgh, after shelter dogs staged a poop-in on the Capitol lawn and Casey the rescue dog wore a yellow sign pleading "Don't kill me Arnold" did the governor say it was an "oversight" and he'd never dream of yanking that money.

"That's not me. I'm an animal lover," he said. Back at chez Schwarzenegger in Brentwood, Sarge the cockapoo and Sammy and Spunky the yellow Labs could prove it.

Look fast because it doesn't happen often: This time, Schwarzenegger's instincts, or his handlers', or both, almost failed him.

Schwarzenegger at his savviest, seeing the story at breakfast, would have instantly dispatched an aide to borrow a prop dog from the Sacramento shelter and called a news conference in his jammies.

Instead, it was late Friday afternoon when Schwarzenegger finally announced that he didn't mean it. By then, even L.A. Mayor Jim Hahn, who has the TV-Q of a Q-Tip, had already sagely ordered his city to ignore the pending Schwarzenegger doggie death sentence.

Schwarzenegger's other remarkable U-turn happened last year over his plan to cut about a quarter-billion in benefits to the developmentally disabled. Then, as now, he heard from the same focus group: his family. Then it was his mother-in-law, Eunice Shriver, doyenne of the Special Olympics.

Now, it was his daughter, he says, who brought him to heel. Can you blame him? I'd rather inform the GOP caucus that I'm going to tax handguns than hear my kids ask: "Are you really going to kill puppies to save money? You can have my allowance -- will that help?"

Animal rights protesters in Monrovia must have read the Saturday headlines and wondered what the heck they were doing wrong. How could Arnold Schwarzenegger, the billionaire meat-eating, alligator-shoe-wearing, Hummer-loving Republican, snatch a Milk-Bone from the jaws of defeat and become the savior of creatures great and small? Meanwhile, they, risking prison and penury to save animals, are reviled?

The protesters, who had spray-painted "puppy killer" on a Monrovia house, were hounded by neighbors videotaping them and calling police. The man who lives in the house supposedly works for a company that has tenuous ties to a company linked to another company associated with firms that have conducted cruel animal research. He was a poor target, and his Spanish Revival house was a weak symbol. It once belonged to Upton Sinclair, the onetime California gubernatorial candidate who exposed, among other things, the Chicago slaughterhouses that degraded men and animals alike.

Upton Sinclair was a vegetarian. He influenced me to become a vegetarian. I have broken the law to save animals; I spend money on rescues the way John Belushi spent money on cocaine. It's not the protesters' goals I fault; it's their tactics. Their vandalism raised more sympathy for the homeowner than for the creatures they seek to protect.

Evangelizing for a cause requires making a sale, and every sale is a kind of seduction. You want to stop the killing of dolphins? You don't accomplish it by trashing the cannery. You slap a sticker on every can of tuna reading, "40 dolphins died in a drift net so you could have a tuna sandwich. Save lives -- eat peanut butter."

The genius of Schwarzenegger is that he understands all of this, down to the soles of his cowboy boots. And that's how he made "businessman" plus "Kennedy in-law" plus "pro-choice" plus "gay marriage, no big deal" plus "marijuana inhaling" equal Republican governor. And just about everyone is clamoring to buy.

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