The California gubernatorial recall was launched by a group called the People’s Advocate, an anti-tax organisation operated by Paul Gann and Ted Costa, the alleged brains behind the 1978 Jarvis Amendment, a.k.a. Proposition 13 (the granddaddy of California referendums, bonanza for property owners – see over page), and the outgoing state Republican chairman, Shawn Steel. In accordance with Article 2, Section 14 of the California Constitution, Gann and Co were obliged to collect signatures equal in number to 12 per cent of the last vote for the governor’s office, an effort that initially floundered. But in May 2003, Congressman Darrell Issa of San Diego started his own recall effort, with a view to becoming governor himself, bankrolling the petition drive with $1.3 million of his own money, or at least what he claimed was his own money. What had begun as a quixotic canard then became a surrealist juggernaut, culminating in the ousting of Governor Gray Davis and the risible election of Arnold Schwarzenegger, action figure, as the custodian of the world’s fifth largest economy.
Like Schwarzenegger, Congressman Issa has a piquant history. In the early 1980s, his car-alarm company, which did work for a much larger firm, Joey Adkins’s A.C. Custom Electronics, lent Adkins $60,000, then called in the loan. Issa went to court, and wrested possession of Adkins’s firm. Three weeks after Issa quadrupled the insurance on parts and equipment in the building, the electronics facility burned to the ground.
In 1973, Issa pleaded guilty to possession of an unregistered firearm, which he tended to brandish at his employees, purportedly in jest. He was arrested twice for grand theft auto. In his unsuccessful 1998 run for the Senate, he claimed that he had been a member of Nixon’s security detail during the 1971 World Series. Nixon did not attend the 1971 World Series. After a 2001 trip to the Middle East, Issa, an Arab-American, announced that Hezbollah is not a terrorist organisation.
After securing 1.6 million signatures on the recall petition, thus forcing the special election, Issa tearfully withdrew his candidacy on 7 August 2003, when it became obvious that he lacked the winning charisma of billboard bimbo Angelyne, vertically-challenged child star Gary Coleman, self-proclaimed smut peddler Larry Flynt, and 151 other amusing candidates ($3500 was enough to get your name on the ballot). These included the ultra-right, anti-abortion state senator Tom McClintock, the inestimable Arianna Huffington and the former Baseball League Commissioner Peter Ueberroth. By no coincidence, Arnold Schwarzenegger announced his candidacy – on the Jay Leno Tonight show – on the day Issa withdrew.
It was clear from the outset that if a ‘No on Recall’ vote supporting Davis failed to pass by even a slight margin, only a fraction of the votes cast for Davis would be enough to elect one of the alternative candidates. Had Davis himself been allowed to run on the alternative ballot, he might have been elected twice in 11 months, if ‘universal loathing’ for him hadn’t become the incessant mantra of virtually every media commentator. In the event, the No vote rolled in at 3,559,400; Schwarzenegger gleaned 3,743,393, winning somewhere in the numeric ballpark in which George W. Bush lost the Presidential election of 2000.
Some independents, including Huffington, dropped out of the race to lend support to the No on Recall movement; Ueberroth faded into the woodwork; numerous Republicans, though not McClintock, left the field to campaign for Schwarzenegger. People running just for the fun of it stayed in.
Cruz Bustamante, Davis’s lieutenant governor (and now Schwarzenegger’s), became the Democratic front-runner, but there was something askew about slogans like ‘No on Recall, Yes on Bustamante’, suggesting as they did that Bustamante was second-fiddle, even to the allegedly most detested governor in recent California history. Bustamante has slightly more charisma and self-deprecating humour than the aptly-named Gray Davis (who resembles an especially dour embalmer), yet he failed to ensorcell most of the Latino community he comes from.
I lived in Los Angeles through much of the recall drama and found the supposedly ubiquitous hatred of Davis bewildering: for one thing, nobody I encountered ever expressed such overheated feelings towards the incumbent, and the very notion of Schwarzenegger as governor (or governator, as the tabloids were fond of calling him) provoked incredulous hilarity from movie stars and supermarket check-out clerks alike. On the other hand, recognition factor gave considerable momentum to Schwarzenegger’s implacable will to power. He had, after all, progressed from steroid-amplified grotesque to box-office legend, thanks to an infallible eye to the main chance. Despite his overthroaty, mangled diction and general clunkiness, he has won the heart of every American male suffering from testosterone psychosis – a sizeable portion of the electorate. It certainly helped that Schwarzenegger movies started playing non-stop on television, often in competing time spots, and that professional sycophants such as Larry King and Oprah Winfrey featured Schwarzenegger on their chat shows, which, being ‘non-political’, were exempt from equal-time strictures.
Leaving aside the rather puerile ‘debates’ staged among the leading contenders (Schwarzenegger skipped the first one; the second, in which he threatened in veiled fashion to push Huffington’s head into a toilet, was scripted), the hourly fluctuation of poll figures and the avalanche of pundit blather that filled the newspapers and radio shows (and, at the eleventh hour, television), there were four salient factors that fed into the passage of the recall and Schwarzenegger’s landslide election.
First, allegations of his recreational sexual assaults on no fewer than 15 women, along with ‘revelations’ that he had said positive things about Hitler back in his weight-training days, surfaced at exactly the wrong moment for his opponents, five days before the election: though the Los Angeles Times coverage was the result of a three-month investigation, much of the electorate dismissed the disclosures as a desperate partisan effort to derail Schwarzenegger’s candidacy. Pundits who knew nothing about it brayed that the Times ‘sat on the story for weeks’. Worse, Davis decided to exploit the charges, reminding Californians that he has always run rather unseemly negative campaigns. Additionally, movie stars generally get a free pass on this sort of thing – Schwarzenegger dismissed his habitual tit-and-ass grabbing as pranks that happen on ‘rowdy movie sets’ – whereas professional politicians don’t. Besides, as Susan Faludi pointed out, the core of Schwarzenegger’s white, male, locker-room constituency likes the idea of assaulting and humiliating women, so long as there’s no emotion involved – a further reason Clinton got pilloried for his indiscretions (he seemed to care about the women he romanced).
Second, a tripling of automobile registration fees was signed into law by Davis in August and took effect on 1 October. If you live in California, you have to drive a car, and this drastic hike, though passed by the legislature, was perceived as another example of Davis’s perfidy. (In a reasonable universe, it could also have been seen as an effort to balance the budget: individual states, unlike the Federal government, are not allowed to run deficits; and other revenue schemes have been blocked by the ‘direct democracy’ of ballot referendums.)
Third, right-wing chat shows on TV and the radio endlessly cited a California budget deficit of $58 billion (every now and then, this was amended to $35 billion), when a simple check with the California budget office revealed the deficit to have shrunk, during Davis’s second term, to a mere $12 billion. When talk-show hosts were corrected on this point, they reverted to the $58 billion figure a few soundbites later.
Fourth, the voters of Orange County, the most retrograde and fascist-minded enclave in the state, turned out in droves for Schwarzenegger, after the polls had nailed the more virulent McClintock as a ‘loser’.
Schwarzenegger won handily by tossing off lines from his movies, vowing to ‘terminate’ this and ‘terminate’ that, and bidding hasta la vista to Davis, the deficit, the miserable decline of the state’s education system and, hardly least, the energy crisis. Precisely how he planned to terminate all these evils never came into focus, but pundits concluded that Schwarzenegger ‘held his own’ by resolutely saying nothing.
It was quite forgotten by both the candidates and the press that the energy crisis was caused by deregulation and the leasing of the state’s electricity to Enron and other now convicted Texas fraudmeisters, a disaster locked into place by Davis’s Republican predecessor, Pete Wilson, whose advisers are now clustering around Schwarzenegger like flies in a privy. Davis hardly helped, renewing the corrupt contracts and allowing Texas corporations to sell California’s energy back to California at an obscene mark-up. Last year, however, when the full effects of this wholesale looting became evident, Lieutenant Governor Bustamante, with Davis’s blessing, filed a suit against Enron and the other power companies, under the Unfair Business Practices Act, to recover the $9 billion the companies had squeezed from the state. With Schwarzenegger in the Governor’s Mansion, this unsettled lawsuit may become moot.
Schwarzenegger, as it happens, held a secret meeting on 17 May 2001 with Kenneth Lay of Enron and the convicted stock-swindler Mike Milken. What deals were struck remains a mystery. Governor-elect Schwarzenegger’s current plan is to continue the ruinous deregulation process, though he also wants 50 per cent of new homes to be equipped with solar heating panels. This kind of qualifier used to be called throwing peanuts to the monkeys, though some benefit may come out of it when the number of new homes outstrips the number of old homes – say, in 2030.
Twenty states allow driving licences to be issued to undocumented aliens. A clear minority of Californian voters regard this as something akin to creeping Communism, or at least the Welfare State. The number of uninsured, unlicensed drivers who cause accidents in California is epidemic, pushing insurance rates for the ordinary motorist as high as $300 per month. Schwarzenegger wants to rescind the recent law allowing illegals to get licences, and, further, promises drastically to curtail illegal immigration. This will have a devastating effect on the availability of domestic help, leaf-blowers, tree trimmers, supermarket clerks, shopping mall security guards and transient agricultural labourers: all those people doing the jobs that native Californians consider beneath them. Guest workers welcomed in good times face deportation hearings when the economy turns sour.
Rescinding the tripled auto registration fees, as Schwarzenegger promises to do, will cost California something in the area of $8 billion – approaching the level of the current budget deficit. Yes, no one wants to pay the new fees. Yes, everyone wants a clean environment, and at the same time wants to drive Sherman tank-sized SUVs that gobble fuel at 9 to 13 miles per gallon. Californians want top education for their kids; they just don’t want tax increases to pay for it.
Wanting it all and paying for none of it could pass as the state motto of California. The infamous Proposition 13, passed in 1978, froze property taxes and, more peanuts to the monkeys, ‘rolled back’ rents from their most recent increases. Enterprising landlords simply hiked rents before Proposition 13 passed, then ‘rolled them back’ to what they’d been in the first place. Since the Jarvis Amendment, the appetite for ‘direct government’ in the form of endless referendums has crippled the ability of the state government to operate in a fiscally responsible fashion, since the voters, year after year, ‘directly’ decide what they will and won’t pay for. To recall a governor elected less than a year ago is the ultimate pandering to this demand for instant fixes to systemic problems. Given the rampant cult of celebrity that grants full personhood only to the well-known, the rich and those whose names have clout at the box office, it was logical that an amiable Cro-Magnon from Austria who plays an indestructible, mush-mouthed cyborg in Hollywood blockbusters would morph into a ‘strong leader’ in the magical thinking of star-struck know-nothings, who crawled out of a Nathanael West novel to the few polling places it was possible to find. (The usual number of California polling locations, 25,000, was reduced for the recall to 15,213.)
In the face of the fait accompli, the propaganda on both sides of the party divide spun out of control. Democrats insisted that the socially libertarian Schwarzenegger would be of no use to Bush and his puritanical cohort, while Republicans predicted an exploitable fissure in California’s solid Democratic majority in the next Presidential contest. Less partisan commentators made the apt observation that nobody won in this carnivalesque travesty, except for Enron and the INS.
Once the circus had packed its tents, some interesting facts that might have been more usefully aired before the election began to surface: James Diffley, an economist at Global Insight, told the New York Times on 12 October: ‘California has obvious problems, but the economic performance has been surprisingly good.’ In the same article, Mike Van Daele, chief executive of Van Daele Communities, a building firm, remarked: ‘We’ve never seen it like this in 25 years. Housing prices are appreciating as much as $10,000 to $15,000 a week.’ And, by some Arnoldophilic sleight-of-hand, the correct, $12 billion figure for the California budget deficit was suddenly cited in virtually every news story, even in media outlets that had drilled the $58 billion fib into the brain of every voter. ‘Despite the political upheaval, growing budget deficit, the electrical power crisis and the bursting of Silicon Valley’s bubble – all of which have created the image of a state deep in recession – California’s economy, by many measures, has done better than the rest of the nation’s in the last few years,’ the New York Times report concluded.
One can only surmise that the ‘hatred’ of Gray Davis (who was, after all, California’s governor ‘in the last few years’), the inflated deficit figures and the economic fear-mongering that so much of the nation’s press whipped up to add ‘substantive issues’ to a special election that was really about celebrity worship and circus acts were simply the latest tweaks in a media oligarchy’s implacable manipulation of consciousness, indifferent to its deleterious effect on the remnants of the American democratic system. It’s a significant advance in the melding of politics and entertainment: a photogenic straw man gets inserted into office and a cabal of shadowy advisers dictate policy and carry out the dirty work. This formula was polished during Ronald Reagan’s first Presidential term, and until recently it had much of America hypnotised by the glove-puppet posturings of George W. Bush. Whether it will work with Arnold Schwarzenegger depends largely on how much egregious puppetry a conniving narcissist is willing to abide. There have been plentiful signs that Schwarzenegger has a few maverick ideas of his own, and it’s too soon to assume they’re all bad ones.