Bright Lights Film Journal

The Trouble with the Governator: Being Arnold

The ascension of Arnold — salvation, apocalypse, or trigger for a resurgent left?

He ran and ran, all the way to the Governorship of California. Like a scene from Forrest Gump the ex-patriot Austrian shook off his callipers, built up his muscles, and lived the American dream. Former Governor Gray Davis has become a footnote and the memory of a pernicious recall campaign, unleashed by a Republican millionaire, has evaporated. This was Arnold Schwarzenegger’s moment and, arguably, America’s most high-profile election for a generation. During the election the media focus was on the shouts of “I’ll vote for you Terminator,”1 and it was possible to forget that Arnie was the official Republican candidate. Indeed, former Republican Californian Governor Pete Wilson was the mastermind behind Schwarzenegger’s campaign, a campaign whose success is not as straightforward as it might appear. There were 135 candidates — knowing nothing about most of them, surely most people would pick a name they recognised. There was no left candidate with equal name recognition — Mike Farrell (of M*A*S*H, SAG, and antiwar fame) stayed away, and Martin Sheen, often touted, said “its nice to be asked but no thanks.” Then there’s the novelty factor of a global star who claims he will “kick butt” with stuffy old Californian politicians — a novelty that won Arnie slightly less votes than were actually polled to kick out Davis. That’s an ironic figure that is often forgotten in the furious analysis of the Terminator’s celebrity, as is the fact that Arnie shared the Republican vote with Tom McClintock. Put the whole picture together and you are left with a number of unanswered questions — crucially, we still don’t really know who “Arnie” is.

The general consensus appears to be that regardless of what we can glean of his political approach Arnie won because, well, he’s Arnie. The LA Village Voice and The Nation ran pieces that implied the electorate was both starstruck and apolitical. You could easily believe that the Terminator just morphed into the Governator, a shift of emphasis but not celebrity status. So fooled have so many been that when George Bush turned up to a victory rally, one press camera actually stayed on Arnie after the MC announced “Welcome the President of the United States” — until the station’s journalist pointed out they were looking at the wrong guy and that, unless the Constitution is changed, Arnie can never hold the highest office.2 Under the surface of such froth are intense long-running concerns, which have recently ignited Hollywood activism.

Don’t mention the war

That activism was most notable during Iraq-war-mark-two earlier this year. Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, Mike Farrell, Robert Greenwald, Jessica Lange, Martin Sheen, Barbara Streisand, Richard Gere, Sean Penn, Janeane Garofalo, and numerous others queued up to condemn the conflict. The left-wing activism didn’t stop at rhetoric. Penn flew out to Baghdad to “see the place we’re about to bomb for myself.”3 Sheen urged protestors to “stand up and be counted”4 in a virtual march of 1million people on Washington, snarling up White House communications for more than 24 hours. Sarandon and Robbins called on New York protestors to “resist” in any way possible.5 Subsequently they manipulated the media to publicly embarrass the Baseball Hall of Fame, after the organisation decided to withdraw Bull Durham from a special event and ban its antiwar cast from attending. The stream of activist conflict waged by celebrities began months before the real war, in keeping with trends elsewhere. Hundreds of thousands of people marched not only in Rome, London, and other European locations but also in New York, San Francisco, Washington, and Los Angeles itself. So pervasive was this movement that the 2003 edition of Hollywood’s global glitz gala, the Oscars, will probably be remembered most for its stars’ outbursts for peace.

Column inches across the globe suggest Hollywood’s left activists can commend themselves on their public profile during the war. Arnie’s publicists, who predicted around Oscar time that “franchise Schwarzenegger” guaranteed extensive coverage of the race for Governor, adopted Martin Sheen’s notion that “celebrity can bring publicity for your other concerns.”6 They were right — could Gray Davis claim that his election was headline news for public and commercial broadcasters in places such as the UK, France, Australia, Norway, and even Brazil? Star power has this year played an equal role in transmitting an anti-Bush message and a pro-Republican rhetoric from the West Coast to the world.

It’s hardly been the custom for stars to take time out of post-Oscar frivolity to express social concerns, yet this is exactly what the unlikely figure of Brad Pitt did. To be certain his opposition to war was not diluted by the media, Pitt instructed his publicist to contact journalist George Rush and clarify his position. Where exactly was Arnie during all this antiwar mongering? According to commentary on LAWeekly.com, Arnie’s bowels experienced a shockingly sudden movement at one Oscar party, forcing him into the toilet and away from journalists probing his opinion on the conflict in Iraq.7 Herein lies the poverty of knowledge that surrounds Schwarzenegger. Or rather, this example betrays the contradictory nature of Arnie’s position. Here is a man who is everything the American right needs him to be but who does not face the press during one of the most controversial and contested moments for Republicanism in recent years. Here is a man with a public persona locked into the crises of American society. Here is a man attempting to both bolster his natural ideological home, by being a beacon for Republicanism in California, and at the same time woo a public caught up in the current political ferment.

Rebranding Republicanism

For some in the Republican Party, Arnie’s a rags-to-riches icon, an adopted American (isn’t everyone?) on whose shoulders the future of right politics now rests. Witness the mobbing he received on various walkabouts, pre- and post election, as evidence of the basis of their belief. From the point of view of the Bush administration, Arnie makes a perfect candidate for a well-trodden political path. Both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan held the highest office in California before their succession to Washington. (Arnie won’t go “all the way” however — not being born on American soil scuppers that plan.) Both also, and for different reasons, succeeded or fell upon their ability to play the media game. There is an obvious parallel between the qualities of Arnie’s onscreen persona and the mythology of Bush Jr’s Presidency. Schwarzenegger’s brand is identified by physical dominance over adversaries (Commando, Conan The Barbarian, The Running Man), backed up by technological superiority (Total Recall, Terminator 1, 2, and 3), wielded in a relentless charge to victory (Predator, Terminator again). Meanwhile, Bush is responsible for immense mobilisations in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Nuclear Missile Defence programme, and phrases like “rest assured we will not be deterred from bringing our enemies to their knees.”8

The “just cause” of a Schwarzenegger screen character is assumed. The only time he has ever played the enemy was in the first of the multibillion-dollar Terminator franchise. In dialogue Arnie rarely develops underlying themes. Compare the clichés of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines to the narrow rhetoric employed by the Bush team over Iraq. Questions of oil industry, economic stability, or regional conflict were pushed to one side. Arnie’s patriotic credentials were affirmed in True Lies, taking on Arab assailants as an American secret agent, accent notwithstanding. Likewise Bush and his administration stake a claim on patriotism of the highest order, burying the stories of Donald Rumsfeld’s past bartering with and bolstering of Saddam Hussein. To complete the Americanisation of the Schwarzenegger brand, Arnie exhibits wholesome family values (Twins, Kindergarten Cop, The Last Action Hero). By way of comparison, picture Bush walking his dogs on the lawn or surveying his ranch in denims and leather, with extended family beside him.

All this could have been said of the last actor of Republican ilk to govern California. Even if Schwarzenegger’s abundant right-wing credentials onscreen outweigh those of any predecessor, Ronald Reagan’s patriotism, machismo, and countless clichés were of equal volume. After watching one of Arnie’s blockbuster rivals, Reagan commented: “Boy, I saw ‘Rambo’ last night and I’ll know what to do next time.”9 How many of Arnie’s Cineplex outings evoked a similar response? However, Reagan never remained silent on the question of war. He was outspoken in support of Vietnam: “I urge you to speak out against those who would place the United States in a position of military and moral inferiority.”10 Vietnam to Reagan tallied with his career-long moral crusade, and his words are markedly different from Arnie’s failure to comment: “The real crisis we face today is a spiritual one; at root, it is a test of moral will.”11 As California’s governor in the 1960s, Reagan presided over a largely segregated educational system, his attitudes to multiculturalism and race leading him into direct conflict with the ethnic populations of L.A.’s poorer suburbs. The riots that took place during his term in part fueled the rise of the Black Panther Party and allowed one of its leaders, Eldridge Cleaver, to lambaste Reagan to voluminous applause in universities across the state.12 Reagan’s fervent Christian morality led to links being made — correctly or incorrectly — between him and a number of fundamentalist organisations indulgent in unpopular activities. Reagan never came out in support of gay marriage or adoption, never suggested that the children of illegal immigrants deserve equal educational rights, never lamented the damage caused by heavy industry to the environment, and never organised electoral house-to-house conferences in L.A.’s poorest communities.

Arnie and his team employed each one of these before the real campaigning even began. Reagan refused to bend to such moderate concessions. Reflecting on the tasks of his presidency he said, “America had gone astray, had been misled by the hitherto-prevailing liberal culture,”13 and he saw it as his job to realign the nation. The fact that the Schwarzenegger brand is so demonstrably Reaganite while his early campaign utterances were “moderate” underlines the changed political climate and current crises of morale that Republicanism today grapples with. As Republican commentator Rush Limbaugh put it, the American right is “so insecure in their own confidence of their belief system that they need it validated by celebrities or Hollywood types.”14 Or, to be more precise, they need it to be redefined.

Economic influence

It is a broader context stretching over a decade that explains why Arnie’s apparent softer line is little more than populism. Two concurrent developments have been significant. The first took place in the White House. After Reagan’s Gordon Gecko-style administration there followed Bush Sr’s “new world order.” In 1989, America was the world’s richest country but also had the widest income gap between the richest and poorest 5% of population.15 National debt accelerated to $350 billion16 and the first Iraq war left the US with 57% of global arms debts.17 In California’s cities, the urban poor were bitter. In Los Angeles, expanded media corporations embarked on an unprecedented exchange of funds that only exacerbated the problem. Republican refusal to accept the notion of a multicultural America or support affirmative action helped breed the L.A. riots of 1992. This event did as much as anything to open the door for Bill Clinton.

But Clinton’s economic policies were not so different from the Republicans’ — tax cuts for business and Federal spending cuts of $180 million. The introduction of universal health care was abandoned and the welfare system was “reformed.” The mid-’90s boom was based on finance capital and credit and business ventures. The speculative nature of the boom led to the collapse of dot.com and technology industries, hitting California hard. At the same time, Clinton talked about equality and generated a liberal public image. He appeared to have a civil rights connection. Alice Walker called him the “first black president,” and the New York Times and the Philadelphia Tribune said minority pressure groups saved Clinton from impeachment. When he went to war in Kosovo, it was justified with liberal rhetoric. Fidelity and family values may have been his Achilles heel, but to some supporters Clinton’s sexual impropriety was even some kind of antidote to the stringent morality of the right. Indeed, the issue spurred such Hollywood “bastions of fidelity” as Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson to action in campaigning against impeachment. It was watching his pal suffer the impeachment situation that put Beatty off being the Democratic counter to Arnie and himself standing in California.

When George W. Bush came to power, the ideas of the moralist Republican right were unpopular, especially in L.A. and Hollywood. The ’90s had been littered with low-budget films, at first independent and later studio made, exploring American morality. The first of these, sex, lies, and videotape, became something of a box-office landmark for socially minded filmmakers. As Bush attempted to bed down, the technology industries began to veer to a crash and unemployment rocketed. Then Bush’s California chickens came home to roost — namely, Kenneth Lay, the single biggest contributor to George W’s election fund. Lay had convinced Bush senior to deregulate the energy industry through personally funded lobbying in the early ’90s. Lay’s company, Enron, subsequently became the largest energy concern in the world. Enron’s biggest investment and body of staff was in California. What happened next at a corporate and government level is well documented. At a grass-roots level, Enron has left a jobs massacre and deprivation spiral in its wake. What the Republicans badly needed was someone ordinary Californians would not immediately identify with the Bush clan. Enter Arnie, whose willingness to provide moderate sound bites and bona-fide star status made a perfect mix.

Los Angeles is the third-largest city-economy in the world, after Tokyo and New York, and it exemplifies a changing American demographic. Between 1970 and 1998, its Latino population grew to outnumber the Anglo one by more than a million. That growth continues and is replicated in New York, Chicago, and Boston. It’s those Latino workers who have been thrown into turmoil by recent events. So, despite having voted for Proposition 187 (which prevents immigrants from access to all sorts of basic necessities and was backed by Pat Buchanan), Arnie now supports education for illegal arrivals in California. Despite being quoted as feeling physically sick at the thought of homosexual sex,18 Arnie suddenly wants legislation supporting gayrelationships. What his early campaign shots represent is a desperate attempt by the Republican right to appear at least lukewarm to those who are beginning, as a result of economic factors and Bush’s war abroad, to view Bush with the same contempt as they did Reagan.

What happens next?

Where do these underlying tensions lead? Can Arnie’s tenure as governor withstand them? Could he even save the President from the electoral defeat that many commentators on the left now predict?

To some, Schwarzenegger is a dangerous chauvinist — articles have been written in the London Evening Standard exposing infidelity and groping of co-stars. (He has been quoted as saying he’d love to support women’s causes, especially the cause of those who are “blonde and pretty.”)19 To a new and recently more active Hollywood left, the man who made it by Pumping Iron is pumping up fearful memories of a governor turned President who never ran away from supporting a war. A sense of deja vu is certainly justified — Ronald Reagan’s first ventures in politics were also out of keeping with Republican rhetoric. In the 1940s, Reagan was an activist in the Screen Actors Guild, made anti-racist broadcasts, and was involved with the left-wing “Mobilization for Democracy.” Before he testified to the House Un-American Activities Committee studio chiefs labeled him a “militant.” Yet Reagan’s transition from popular Hollywood star, and moderate public speaker, to Republican moralist was comfortable. Perhaps it is this distant memory that stirred Allan Mayer (of Strick and Co publicists) to inform the Washington Post, “we’ll see some celebrity political activity in the next few weeks” against Arnie.

President Bush is increasingly unpopular, as Iraq drags on and as protests greet him across the world — especially in the home nation of his greatest ally, Tony Blair. If Michael Moore‘s book sales success is anything to go by (Dude Where’s My Country continues to top the bestseller lists), there is a smouldering anti-Bush sentiment at home too, and beyond the Hollywood left. How long before the mask slips and Arnie begins to push home measures like Proposition 187 — the anti-immigrant bill that he backed so vehemently in 1994? Some already fear an attack on the growing Latino population — notably, Salma Hayek, who wants to homogenise the Latino vote behind a future and as-yet-unknown liberal candidate.20 How long before those who voted recognise that Arnie’s economic policies do not reverse the State’s energy and jobs crises, that they are in fact similar to Gray Davis’ polices, which were themselves a copy of Pete Wilson’s? How long before the population of the world’s fifth richest economy see their newly elected leader nail his colours to the mast — what happens when Arnie is forced out hiding on the question of Iraq?

Viewed within the full context of his time, the real Arnold Schwarzenegger is a populist Republican using his celebrity as a boon for his beleaguered political creed. Arnie’s ascension to the highest office, in America’s most important state, did not happen simply because he’s Arnie. His is a superficial appeal to an increasingly angry and discontented electorate that, in time, may just inspire the kind of alternative left challenge the Republican’s fear the most. Who is to say that such a challenge may not find an equally recognisable bona fide star, inspired by opposition to Arnie’s hidden politics, at its head? We haven’t seen what trouble the Governator can cause or face yet but, if the lessons of recent history are anything to go by, the left “will be back.”

  1. Army Archerd, “Now Arnold’s really pumped about politics,” Variety Friday 8th August (2003), 1. []
  2. NBC News footage, shown on BBC News 24, October 10th, 2003. []
  3. Sean Penn, quoted in Alistair Lyon, “Sean Penn says war in Iraq is avoidable,” Yahoo News, December 16th (2002). []
  4. “Sheen leads ‘virtual’ Iraq protest,” www.bbc.co.uk, February 20th (2003). []
  5. Transcript of speech by Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon to Central Park rally against war on October 6th 2002, “Against Fundamentalism,” published in The Nation October 18th (2002), 1. []
  6. Martin Sheen, quoted in Horizon Magazine (Enterprise Foundation), November 1999. []
  7. Nikki Finke, “Deadline Hollywood”, LA Weekly, August 15th (2003). []
  8. George W. Bush, speech to American Air Force squadrons, broadcast on ITN News Channel, February 2003. []
  9. Transcript of U.S. Government-produced film in Gerald LaRoque, “The Media and Images of War,” Center for Defence Information, February 1994. []
  10. Ronald Reagan, speech to the National Association of Evangelicals, March 8, 1983, quoted in “The Bonzo Years: 1983,” www.bonzo.com []
  11. Ibid. []
  12. Accounts in Eldridge Cleaver, Post Prison Writings and Speeches (New York: Random House, 1971). []
  13. Stephen Prince, A New Pot of Gold: Hollywood Under the Electronic Rainbow, 1980-89 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 218. []
  14. Rush Limbaugh, quoted in The Washington Times, August 23rd (2003). []
  15. The Wall Street Journal, quoted in Kevin Phillips, The Politics of Rich and Poor (New York: Random House, 1990), 53. []
  16. Business Week, November 25th (1992). []
  17. Phillips, 133. []
  18. London Evening Standard news reports quoted in Jackson Thoreau, “Woman says she was harassed by family man Schwarzenegger for two days to have sex,” sf.indymedia.org, August 12th (2003). []
  19. Schwarzenegger Q&A session quoted by Jonathan Ross on “Friday Night with Jonathan Ross,” BBC ONE, September 12th (2003). []
  20. World Entertainment News Network, August 30th (2003). []