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Can an action hero take real action?

Schwarzenegger’s movie roles mesh with his political career

At my polling place on Tuesday in Los Angeles, there was a young man who held up a line of voters waiting to cast their ballots because he insisted on having extra butter flavoring with his popcorn. He fit the typical Arnold demographic: 18-to-34, limited vocabulary, easily distracted by flashes of light. It took almost 30 minutes before we convinced him that this was a statewide recall election, and no refreshments were being sold.

His young female companion tried to intercede, but we couldn’t understand what she was saying, since she had a mouthful of Milk Duds that she apparently had snuck in from home.

Arnold Schwarzenegger has been elected governor of California, and he got there the same way he reached the top of the box office: By appealing to people with incredibly short attention spans. His movie roles and his foray into politics have turned out to be a perfect mesh. He is an action hero, and voters want action from their elected officials. You can understand how something so simple would appeal to the simple-minded.

In Hollywood, studios pin their hopes for a picture on a catchphrase, a snazzy poster and a big opening weekend. Keep it brief and punchy. Sell the sizzle and forget the steak altogether. No one embodies this philosophy more than Arnold Schwarzenegger, an actor whose idea of a monologue is, “I’ll be back.”

Coincidentally, over the past 20 years or so, those marketing experts whose bailiwick is the American political scene have taken interest in the approach by their Tinseltown brethren and have grown to understand the benefits of coaxing the electorate with canine commands. For instance, go to any campaign rally, watch as the candidate tells the audience, “Terrorism is bad,” and then count the nodding heads.

That is why Arnold is governor-elect of the Golden State today, and no amount of exploration into his character, qualifications or views on the issues could alter the course of history.

Power of advertising
I really only have been aware of two Arnolds in my lifetime, and both were in show business: Arnold Schwarzenegger and Arnold Ziffel from “Green Acres.” Until recently, only one was widely recognized as being a pig. That was before allegations surfaced days before the election that over the last 30 years or so Schwarzenegger treated womanhood as if it were a produce stand.

At least 15 women came forward and charged that Schwarzenegger groped, fondled and otherwise harassed them on movie sets over the course of his career as an actor. The allegations were chronicled in great detail in the Los Angeles Times about five days before the recall election. Such rumors had long swirled around Arnold, but no one had ever made these charges public for fear that Arnold was too powerful in Hollywood and would squash their careers.

So what was the reaction from our discerning voters? “Arnold good. L.A. Times bad.” Now, I think it’s safe to say that if I were at someone’s workplace and I reached over and grabbed a woman’s breast without an invitation, it would be received badly. I would probably have to find a bail bondsman, a lawyer and a new line of work. With Arnold, such repeated behavior — if true, and I can only go by Arnold’s own catchy admission, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire” — thrust him into a comfortable lead in a hotly contested gubernatorial race in one of the country’s largest states that is mired in an unprecedented financial crisis.

Ah, the power of advertising to the movie-going public.

Now, Gray Davis had the opposite problem. He may or may not have been a lousy leader, but it didn’t matter. He was perceived as one. What he should have done is color his hair, spend a few days in a tanning salon, get his scrawny self into a gym, and most important of all, turn complicated issues into easily digestible slogans.

He tripled the car tax, which angered citizens up and down the state. But if he had only said, “Tax the car, we’ll go far,” he would have opened big, and his act would have had legs.

Schwarzenegger refused to debate the other candidates in the race except one time, and only if he could have the questions in advance. Ordinarily, this might reflect a lack of understanding of the myriad issues that would confront a governor. But the voters gave him a pass, figuring that he’s a guy who appreciates a good script, and anyway, forcing Arnold to explain specifically how he expects to resolve the state’s $8 billion budget deficit without raising taxes would just needlessly complicate the storyline and delay his final confrontation with the villain.

Now that Schwarzenegger is governor, he is already working on streamlining his platform. Earlier, one of his most controversial stances — “We need more books for the children” — was deemed too cumbersome by his advisors, and thus was shortened to, “I lead. They read.” Now you can see where the state of California is headed.

Be warned, there are those within the state who believe that Arnold’s principal qualifications for the job — body-building, acting, womanizing - are woefully inadequate. There are already rumblings from his opponents of a “Recall Schwarzenegger” movement.

Rather than enraging the voting public by this, people are already lining up. You know how much fans of action movies love sequels.

Pass the popcorn. Let’s see our hero get out of this one.