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Jewish World Review March 9, 2001 / 14 Adar, 5761

John H. Fund

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Terminated -- CALIFORNIA Republicans are putting away those "T2 in '02" T-shirts they snapped up last month at their state convention. The Terminator is sticking to the silver screen for now.

Only a month after Arnold Schwarzenegger threatened to flex his biceps in the political arena, he disappointed political writers this week by announcing he won't be challenging Gov. Gray Davis after all. His spokeswoman announced "the timing's not right," while emphasizing he would consider running in the future--perhaps in 2006 when term limits would prevent the Democratic incumbent from running again.

Democrats clearly took the prospect of the cinematic "Terminator" running for office seriously. In 1966, another Democratic governor, Pat Brown, scoffed at the notion that a 55-year-old actor named Ronald Reagan could beat him. His supporters actively rooted for Mr. Reagan to win the GOP primary that year, and Mr. Reagan wound up winning in November by a million votes.

This time, Democrats moved quickly to douse a Schwarzenegger candidacy in ice water. "What Gray Davis doesn't want is another Jesse Ventura phenomena," said Bruce Cain, a political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley. "Voters could get caught up in the charisma and novelty of a celebrity candidate." Indeed, Minnesota's governor and the Austrian-born actor are old friends from Hollywood and have discussed the challenges facing tough-guy actors running for governor.

So it's not surprising that Garry South, Gov. Davis' tough-guy political adviser, made sure to fax every reporter in his Rolodex a copy of an uncomplimentary profile of the actor from the latest Premiere magazine. "Re: AH-nuhld's Piggish Behavior (Maybe It's the Pig Valve?)" was the heading of Mr. South's unsubtle fax. which proceeded to introduce the Premiere article by saying "this piece lays out a real 'touching' story--if you get what I mean."

He made Gray Davis' day

Once inside the Premiere article, readers learned of vaguely sourced claims that Mr. Schwarzenegger had had four pig valves stitched into his heart in 1997 after it was learned he had cardiac disease. The article went on to accuse the actor of "swinish" behavior toward women and to hint he was a serial adulterer. When the actor's lawyer demanded that the Davis camp stop publicizing the article, Mr. South replied: "We don't roll over for anybody, no matter how big their bankroll or biceps are."

Premiere is standing by its story, but will certainly have to be printing a lot of letters from people upset with the article. The chairman of cardiovascular surgery at the University of Southern California has denied the pig-valve story. James Cameron, director of the "Terminator" films, has called stories that Mr. Schwarzenegger fondled Mr. Cameron's girlfriend in his presence "pure fiction."

Jamie Lee Curtis, his co-star in the movie "True Lies," says that while she is a liberal Democrat, she views the Premiere article as "clearly a politically motivated hatchet job." While in New York on a book tour she told me that she has jokingly introduced Mr. Schwarzenegger to audiences as "the next governor from the state of California." She thinks "he would be a natural in politics, although I'm afraid he'd have to curb his ribald and wicked sense of humor." Mr. Schwarzenegger would also have had to curb the movie obligations he already has through the end of 2004. That always made it unlikely he would run next year.

Although Mr. Schwarzenegger is best known for his roles as a grim avenger who brandishes heavy weaponry. He also has a business degree and a keen knowledge of politics. He is good friends with Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman, and a few years ago he introduced a reissue of Mr. Friedman's classic public television series "Free to Choose."

"In Austria I noticed that people would worry about when they would get their pension," he told me in 1994. "In America, they would worry if they were going to meet their potential. Friedman's books explained to me how a dynamic capitalist system allows people to fulfill their dreams." For now at least, those dreams won't include a Gov. Schwarzenegger storming Sacramento like a modern-day Patton.

California Republicans are now stuck without an obvious candidate for governor. Secretary of State Bill Jones, the GOP's only statewide officeholder, isn't viewed as someone who can compete with the $26 million campaign war chest Gov. Davis has already accumulated. Mr. Jones has a total of $118,000 in his campaign bank account. William Simon Jr., son of the late Treasury secretary, is willing to finance his own campaign, but he skipped last month's GOP convention to complete a ski holiday.

Perhaps the most intriguing possibility is yet another actor: Robert Conrad, well-known to TV rerun fanatics as the star of the 1960s adventure series "The Wild, Wild West." Mr. Conrad, 65, has his own tough-guy image from his movie portrayal of Watergate burglar G. Gordon Liddy and from seven years as a Teamster in his youth. He left the Democratic Party some 20 years ago out of admiration for Ronald Reagan and because he became frustrated with government red tape after he started his own business.

Mr. Conrad is thought to be a reluctant candidate, but California Republicans may be willing to clear the field for him. After all, given the state's power crisis, he has a built-in gag to open speeches with from his days when he challenged viewers in TV commercials to knock a battery off his shoulder. "It would be perfectly appropriate to run a supercharged guy like Bob Conrad against a governor named Gray who is turning off lights all over California," says Republican activist Steve Frank.

For now, I'll bet on the governor in the gray flannel suit. He may lack star power, but every day he raises an average of $37,000 for his re-election campaign. With that kind of money, he can buy enough TV commercials to swamp his competitors.

Of course, that assumes the power is on enough for Californians to see the ads. If not, the conventional wisdom on California politics could be easily short-circuited.

Comment on JWR contributor John H. Fund's column by clicking here.


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©2001, John H. Fund