Bill Whalen: Politi-Cal

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Arnold, Lauer and Legacy

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Lauer and Schwarzenegger at the Women's Conference

The big news coming out of Maria Shriver’s Women’s Conference yesterday in Long Beach is how the two gubernatorial candidates reacted to Matt Lauer’s challenge to stop their war of negative ads.

Jerry Brown was hesitant at first, handling the curveball question clumsily, slipping into weasel-worded nuance mode (as he did when asked about the “whore” comment in the last debate) before jumping on the audience bandwagon and going with the flow.

Whitman wasn’t any better. She couldn’t seem to decide if it was a good idea or a stunt/trap. So she didn’t go along with Jerry, didn’t suck up to Matt and was roundly booed by some of the 14,000 (mostly women)in attendance.

And sitting in the middle of the two candidates and relishing the sheer awkwardness of it all: Arnold Schwarzenegger, who seemed to think Lauer had a great idea.

(Sarcastic aside: I guess I didn’t get the memo four years ago, when Arnold announced a halt to his carpet-bombing of Phil Angelides . . .)

Personally, I thought Schwarzenegger was the story yesterday — far more interesting than anything Whitman and Brown had to say. And that’s because Arnold gave us a sneak preview of how he intends to market/peddle/spin/shape/justify/explain/extol/defend his legacy.

Give Arnold an A for originality. American presidents court historians with the hope of being remembered fondly. You might remember Bill Clinton doing lengthy, clandestine interviews with the noted civil-rights historian Taylor Branch. John F. Kennedy went so far as to hire Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. as Camelot’s in-court chronicler. It was a wise move: after Kennedy’s death, Schlesinger wrote the worshipful A Thousand Days.

And California’s governor? He used a “Today Show” host and a live audience to road-test his message.

I’ll give Lauer this: Arnold was spinning, Matt wasn’t buying it. Schwarzenegger gave himself an “A” for job performance, citing all kinds of progress on the environment, education and infrastructure. He suggested that California’s capital is a model for progress, whereas the nation’s capital is a sinkhole.

Lauer kept pushing back, trying to get the governor to admit that things hadn’t gone as swimmingly as he claimed, and that he didn’t conquer the political process. Arnold went as far as to say he was “irrelevant” in the fall election — a pretty ironic thing to say considering he’s been the straw that stirs California’s drink ever since he jumped into the recall election seven-plus years ago.

The push and pull continued. Lauer tried to get Schwarzenegger on the record as to whether a man or a woman brings better skills sets to the governor’s office, and to endorse Brown or Whitman. Arnold wouldn’t have any part of that, then rambled on about what matters most for a California governor is being in touch with the average person (again, a pretty ironic thing to say given Arnold’s lifestyle).

Remember him?

Personally, I find this disappointing, as Schwarzenegger’s initial appeal was his honesty — and his good-natured optimism and his anti-political appeal.

Arnold’s ability to laugh at the absurdity of his own success was a welcome relief to those pompous sorts whose campaigns, they’d have you believe, are driven by the Fates, not pollsters and focus groups and special-interest money.

Seven years ago, Schwarzenegger campaigned as a reformer on the Capitol steps, waiving a broom. If the Lauer interview is any indication, he plans to sweep the setbacks and shortcomings under the rug. 

I hope Honest Arnold returns for what time he has left in office. There’s no shame in admitting that the promise of the recall wasn’t realized. Sacramento isn’t fixed, and it’s hardly a model of virtue or progress.

That doesn’t mean Schwarzenegger can’t take success for matters in which he takes pride. That’s every governor’s right. But he should offer the public a non-airbrushed version of history.

Here’s a legacy talking point for the governor, on the house. As he prepares to leave office, California’s State Legislature has a 10% approval rating.

And it’s not Arnold’s fault . . . it’s to his credit.

Before Schwarzenegger took office, Sacramento was irrelevant to most Californians. Schwarzenegger changed that in a hurry. His wins and his losses were banner news. And when the reforms stalled, voters grew angry — at times with Arnold, but also with the bitterness and narrow-mindedness that dominates California politics.

So Arnold’s legacy: Sacramento is on notice — even Democrats, in this election, are running against the legislative institution they dominate. If things don’t change soon, and thanks to Schwarzenegger shining the spotlight on government, it will be possible to achieve epic political change, such as a part-time Legislature or a constitutional convention.

Why shy away from that?


Written by Bill Whalen

October 27, 2010 at 7:32 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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