When the Oscar nominations are announced early next year, Arnold Schwarzenegger deserves to receive a special consideration, for Best Performance by a Politician Masquerading as an Actor.
In California, one of the nation’s most style-conscious states, it goes without saying that the recall election that just ended would boast elements of style that no other state could appreciate. The Golden State has always danced to its own drummer, and this election was no exception. With 135 candidates for the office, from former child actor to porn star, the election at times took on the air of (that phrase used often) “a circus.”
But in some respects, despite a very crowded field, the outcome might have been seen — or at least sensed — from a long way off. In any contest of two generally equal, temperamentally similar choices, it often comes down to style, that ephemeral, je ne sais quoi factor by which some men wear fine suits and other men let fine suits wear them.
And as a contest of contrasting political and physical styles, Schwarzenegger beat Gov. Gray Davis hands-down, revealing the ways in which his past has prepared him for what will be, barring any legal actions against the election results, his future.
Consider the evidence:
On at least one occasion during the campaign, Schwarzenegger walked to a news conference in grand style — not rushing onto a stage with little or no space between himself and the press, but instead taking a walk down a gentle slope next to a scenic backdrop, almost strolling down the hill, arriving to make his statement at a time of his choosing.
It had the same element of Reaganesque stagecraft, provoked the same quiet urgency you still see at some presidential news conferences, when the president walks down that long, red-carpeted hallway to the East Room of the White House.
Davis invested a lot in making campaign appearances hard by the American flag, reinforcing his status as governmental authority, but not investing his walkups with much in the way of inspiring personal flair.
Schwarzenegger campaigned in sport jackets and casual, open-necked short-sleeve shirts. Davis campaigned in business suits, sober ties and white shirts invariably worn with the sleeves rolled down, whatever the temperature.
Schwarzenegger cast his vote Tuesday at a polling place at a private home, a mansion, in Pacific Palisades.
Davis voted at a realtor’s office in West L.A. Think of the signal that sent to his constituents: The governor of California casts a vote to keep his job in Sacramento, at a business where people go to find new places to live.
Pressing the flesh
There were other distinctions in the two campaigns. Where Davis seemed to retreat to the safe harbor of the incumbency’s perks and trappings, Schwarzenegger enjoyed mixing it up, pressing the flesh. Perhaps the rough-and-tumble of American politics is a logical progression from his first two professions, bodybuilding and the movies.
You sensed that in the TV images of Schwarzenegger, who clearly relished the sheer physicality of American politics, wading into a crowd, disregarding the thicket of microphone booms, and shaking voters’ hands with an abandon the figuratively buttoned-down Davis never seemed to approach.
Some might say that Schwarzenegger had an unfair advantage going in. In a state celebrated both for its tolerance of personal reinvention and its role in producing the most popular art form in the world, Schwarzenegger already held the mythological high ground. As an acclaimed weightlifter in real life and a barbarian, a terminator, a commando, a kindergarten cop and the last action hero in the movies, Schwarzenegger enjoyed a pop-cultural incumbency Davis never had.
Reaching people where they live
Other differences emerged during the campaign: Schwarzenegger’s voice, movie-loud and in-charge (even when it was brandished rudely against once-challenger Arianna Huffington), was in stark contrast to Davis’ voice, something like an officious variation on the voice of Dana Carvey’s Church Lady character.
Then there was the way Schwarzenegger announced his candidacy. Rather than adopting the usual flag-studded press conference from which to declare his intentions, he appeared on NBC’s “Tonight Show With Jay Leno” on Aug. 6, and announced the start of his campaign, reaching people where they lived — on the tube in their living rooms, on that reliable late-night fixture of modern life. (MSNBC is a Microsoft-NBC joint venture.)
On the Public Affairs Books Web site, Reagan biographer Lou Cannon recalled an encounter with Ronald Reagan after Reagan won the California gubernatorial election in 1966. “When we asked Reagan what kind of governor he would be, he quipped, ‘I don’t know. I’ve never played a governor.’”
Schwarzenegger’s never played one before, either. But there’s a first time for everything.