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NBC News
updated 9/25/2003 2:53:27 AM ET 2003-09-25T06:53:27

If the world had a capital for the weird and wacky, it would have to be in California. No contest. I’m not just talking about the race for the governor’s job, though that is circus enough. But lest you think this is just another case of British prejudice, let me first share this “only in California” moment with you.

Chris Hampson -- Letter from London
RECENTLY, my brother-in-law Ronnie was driving home from work when he was stopped by the cops. They alleged he was speeding. Since he’d just started up from a red light, he told them they were mistaken.

They persisted for a while, but so did he.

Then they told him they had noticed he was not wearing a safety belt and they were going to ticket him for that instead.

It was at this point that Ronnie asked them if they’d noticed anything else — like he didn’t have any arms!

Ronnie was a victim of the Thalidomide drug in the Sixties that led to babies being born without limbs. Despite that, he has led a life that would leave most of us so-called “able-bodied” folk some way behind.

He swims like a champion (he was one), water skis with his teeth and cooks with his feet. He helps raise his two kids — changing diapers when they were babies — and holds down a challenging career that depends on the nimbleness of his toes as much as his brain. Oh, and he’s a fine driver.

He passed his test within hours of reaching the legal age. He went on to become an “Advanced Driver.”

His vehicle is specially adapted with the steering wheel and controls on the floor.

But one of the few things Ronnie hasn’t been able to master is to fasten a seat belt with his feet. (You try it). More importantly, he can’t unfasten one and get the hell out of his car in an emergency. So he is sensibly exempt from the requirement to buckle up.

He pointed this out to the LAPD. They booked him nonetheless.

Since then the penny dropped somewhere in the police department and he’s been overwhelmed with apologies.

ADVICE FOR ARNOLD

Now maybe there’s a moral in this story for the voters of California. If you pick the wrong guy — and there’s quite a choice of wrong ones — you may end up having to say sorry later. But by then — as with Ronnie and the LAPD — the damage will have been done.

Which brings me neatly to that electoral contest. It was Groucho Marx who famously said that he didn’t care to belong to any club that would accept him as a member.

It was a neat joke — and sound advice. And it’s a lesson that Arnold Schwarznegger would perhaps do well to take on board.

The prospect that he has more than a passing chance of being elected governor of California should make him want to tear up his election papers, Marx-like, and head off to the safety of a home for retired Terminators.

In Europe, the reaction to the news of his campaign has been a weary ‘Heigh-ho, that’s California for you.” But that’s a bit like saying Hannibal Lector also eats vegetables. Ignore it at your peril.

It’s not that people in Europe believe movie stars can’t get elected and do a passable job. There are many folk out there who still think Ronald Reagan made a better president than actor.

And it’s acknowledged by comedians through the ages that being able to read someone else’s script from the heart is always a bonus for any politician.

But when celebrity takes over — when Hollywood becomes reality — that’s the time we here reach for the anti-depressants.

TABLOID FODDER

The British tabloids — those self-appointed guardians of public morality who fill their pages with tawdry tales and “glamor”shots, presumably as a warning to us all — have seized with unrestrained glee on the would-be-Governor’s recently-revived Confessions of a Sex-Crazed Body Builder.

This, you may recall, was an indiscreet little interview Arnie apparently gave to an obscure magazine in the seventies in which he bragged about his sexual appetite and the exploits he got up to backstage.

The papers spared us none of the lurid details or the reportedly sexist locker-room bragging. It seemed as if years of obsessive training had resulted in a hugely inflated ego struggling inside a massively inflated body. Perhaps if his brain had been equally well developed he’d have known to keep his thoughts to himself.

The papers reported that Arnie’s publicists tried to make out that these sexual shenanigans were just youthful indiscretions that happened a long time ago. Arnie was approaching 30 at the time.

Be that as it may, all I can tell you from the photos taken then and now is that Mr Schwarznegger looks the same muscular guy he always was.

So did all that other stuff just go away?

The voters of California will have their chance to decide. That’s democracy for you.

Chris Hampson is NBC’s bureau chief in London.

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