Escape from democracy

Thursday, October 16th, 2003

You want a movie reference germane to Schwarzenegger’s new role? For my money, it’d be Woody Allen’s “The Purple Rose of Cairo.”

In the anti-Arnold’s prescient 1985 flick, set in another grim, escapism-prone time — the Great Depression — a sad and ditzy housewife, played by Mia Farrow, forgets her troubles at the local movie theater with such desperation and frequency, she manages to lure her heartthrob-hero right off the silver screen and into real life. Lots of fun and misunderstandings ensue.

And now, what a riot, 3.7 million California voters have done the same thing. Except they’ve set loose not Jeff Daniels in a goofy safari hat but Kindergarten-Cop-a-feel himself, the Hummer-driving iron man who bragged about burying a woman’s face in a movie-set toilet (“I wanted to have something floating in there”) and met secretly with Ken Lay during the state’s budget-wrecking energy crisis that made the recall possible.

But there were no skeletons in the Schwarzenegger closet that a personal fortune and the blessings of Jay and Oprah — and billion-dollar box-office pull power — couldn’t grind to powder.

Oh, the big, lovable hunk. How heart-tugging to hear him apologize to any woman he “offended” by grabbing her breasts. And now he’s ours. We have no choice but to watch what happens next.

“I can promise you that when I go to Sacramento I will pump up Sacramento.”

In the pause before that happens, we need to reset the national appall-o-meter and ponder the phenomenon of runaway celebrity worship, which maybe as of Oct. 7 has forever altered politics as usual.

The screen idol has crossed the line, not, like Ronald Reagan and a smattering of others, by recasting himself as a politician and actually standing for something or other, but full blown as an action figure, with a platform so skimpy he didn’t even try to hide behind it. Nor did he need to. Movie-themed one-liners and some modest damage control were enough.

Perhaps Arnold’s voter-fans showed no more sense than the character in Woody Allen’s movie, who coped with a cruel world by believing with all her heart in a pretend one, but they had serious encouragement in their folly from the so-called serious press.

The actor’s savvy campaign strategy may have been to bypass the traditional disseminators of political news and get his “message” out via the gushing entertainment media — announcing his candidacy in the living-room pseudo-intimacy of Jay Leno’s show, for instance — but guess what? The blah-blah-blah crowd was just as starstruck and giddy about The Terminator’s candidacy as everyone else.

For instance, according to a study conducted by Policy Analysis for California Education (an independent policy research center based at Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley), of 1,500 news stories on the recall election in three major California papers plus The New York Times, nearly three-quarters of them focused on the candidate with the biggest pecs.

In The New York Times, the most serious paper of them all, no less than 87 percent of its 164 stories during the campaign were about Schwarzenegger, according to the PACE study. Perhaps even more insulting, his wife, Maria Shriver, commanded as much attention from the Gray Lady as Green Party candidate Peter Camejo.

A California reader wrote to me, speaking with disgust and frustration about the San Francisco Chronicle: “They had color, front-page, above-the-fold (stories) of Arnold every day plus one or two pages inside of his campaign, yet contend that they had nothing to do with his being elected. Other candidates were real lucky to get a paragraph inside.”

Celebrity worship is everywhere. It’s “the magazine equivalent of crack,” says Simon Dumenco, a columnist for Folio, a trade publication about the magazine industry. The gossip biz is “proliferating for the same reason prescriptions of antidepressants and other psychotropic drugs are proliferating. They dull our emotional pain.”

The problem is, when escapism turns to addiction, reality goes to hell and the sources of emotional pain — “I will pump up Sacramento” — become entrenched. If the body politic is addicted, you gotta blame the dealers.