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Welcome back, 1912

Bloomberg, Schwarzenegger and the dream of larger-than-life politics.

June 29, 2007|Joe Mathews | JOE MATHEWS, a Times staff writer, is the author of "The People's Machine: Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Rise of Blockbuster Democracy."

But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth

When two strong men stand face to face, tho' they come from the ends of the earth!

Rudyard Kipling, "The Ballad of East and West"


THE TWO POLITICAL celebrities liked those lines so much that they put them on their campaign poster. The words framed a portrait of the two-man team: a popular, charismatic governor of California and a wealthy, well-known politician from New York.

It was 1912. The New Yorker, former President Teddy Roosevelt, had left the Republican Party to take the presidential nomination of the dissident Progressive Party. ("We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord," he declared with characteristic bombast.) The Californian, Gov. Hiram Johnson, had helped talk Roosevelt into the move and abandoned the GOP himself to take the second spot on the Progressive ticket. The two big personalities were motivated by a mutual need for attention and a shared disgust with interest groups and partisan politics.

Last week, two more outsized politicians from both coasts, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, stood together at a conference in Los Angeles to denounce Washington and partisans of both parties. Schwarzenegger publicly encouraged Bloomberg to make an independent run for president, and Bloomberg took a step in that direction, announcing that he was dropping his registration as a Republican.

The two men even arranged themselves in a familiar pose for Time magazine. The inside shot is similar to the 1912 campaign poster. Like Roosevelt and Johnson, Schwarzenegger and Bloomberg, wearing suits and serious expressions, were photographed from below, in a way that made them look taller than they really are.

"Who Needs Washington?" asked the Time cover headline. Inside, the magazine labeled its article "The New Action Heroes" and raised the possibility of a Bloomberg presidential candidacy in 2008.

It wasn't Kipling, but the message was familiar. The dream Schwarzenegger and Bloomberg embody -- of a unity politics practiced by larger-than-life men who are bigger than geography, bigger than ethnic or religious origins and bigger than party politics -- remains as alluring as it was 95 years ago.

The Time article went so far as to quote Warren Buffett suggesting Schwarzenegger run as Bloomberg's vice president. The idea of a Bloomberg-Schwarzenegger ticket soon made its way through the media universe, trumpeted by the Associated Press, the New York tabloids, the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Jose Mercury News and even the website of this newspaper. That such a notion got such play, even though a Schwarzenegger vice presidency is blatantly unconstitutional (a foreign-born person isn't eligible to be president and hence can't be vice president either) testifies to the enduring appeal of political celebrity and independence.

Still, the governor could be a force for Bloomberg even if he can't run with him. And if the mayor takes the governor's advice and does run, and if Schwarzenegger throws his celebrity into backing Bloomberg, the history of the 1912 campaign will be relevant.

Alas, its lessons do not bode well for either man. Bloomberg, like Roosevelt, is a reluctant candidate who seems in no hurry to get in the race. Given the procedural demands of such a campaign, that reticence could prove costly. Roosevelt suffered by starting late. (Johnson's papers, on file at UC Berkeley, are full of letters to Roosevelt, begging him to commit to making a race.)

The campaign was disorganized and plagued by calamities. Less than a month before the election, Roosevelt was shot in Milwaukee. He survived, but he couldn't do much on the stump. Johnson, a far better speaker than Roosevelt, took over and performed ably, but it wasn't enough. The ticket finished second, beating the incumbent Republican president but losing the presidency to Democrat Woodrow Wilson.

Venturing so much and losing, both men forfeited power and influence. Roosevelt did not run for office again. He died in 1919. Johnson, returning to Sacramento as a Progressive, was abandoned by important allies and proved so ineffective that he jumped to the U.S. Senate midway through his second term. He returned to the Republican fold, but lingering suspicion about his partisan loyalty helped deny Johnson the Republican presidential nomination in 1920.

Schwarzenegger and Bloomberg, popular lame ducks, have uncertain political futures. Both have been talked about for state offices -- Bloomberg for governor, Schwarzenegger for Senate -- but neither post would seem a natural fit. An independent presidential campaign would raise their national profiles. But what chance would there be of success?

Given the 1912 campaign, not to mention the third-party attempts since then, the answer might have been expressed by Kipling, in two verses immediately preceding the ones that Roosevelt and Johnson used in their poster:

Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet

Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God's great Judgment seat.

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