Friday, September 05, 2003

Fantasizing about Arnold, the action hero
Op-Ed By Nell Minow
Chicago Tribune

September 5, 2003

When Warner Bros. chief Jack Warner first heard that Ronald Reagan was thinking of running for governor of California, his reaction was: "No--Jimmy Stewart for governor. Ronald Reagan for best friend."

If we were talking about casting a movie that people would buy tickets to see, Warner would have been right. But when it came to the real-life role of governor and then president, the voters cast Reagan. He was able to show them that while he had a performer's communication skills, he had a politician's ability to address the issues. He became far more successful in politics than he ever was as an actor.

Most show biz personalities who run for office have to overcome their image as lightweight entertainers, most recently the late Sonny Bono, "Love Boat's" Fred Grandy, and current California gubernatorial candidate Gary "Diff'rent Strokes" Coleman.

Arnold Schwarzenegger's bid for the California governorship is in another category. His background as an action hero is not something he has to overcome; it is a large part of what is appealing about him. It has to be--there isn't much else that the public has had a chance to learn about what kind of governor he might be. He may just be the ideal candidate for this race.

- In a field of more than 100 candidates, Schwarzenegger's greatest strength is near perfect name recognition and almost zero understanding of his stands on key issues. Everyone knows he is a Republican, but everyone also knows he married into the gold standard of Democratic royalty, the Kennedy family. For the moment, at least until his high-powered band of advisers starts issuing position papers, Schwarzenegger is more Rorschach inkblot than candidate. So each voter can project onto him whatever is most appealing, reminiscent of Chauncey Gardner, the blank slate on "Being There" who becomes a presidential candidate, and, of course, Forrest Gump.

- Schwarzenegger is also the optimal combination of both outsider and insider. Americans have always loved candidates who were outside the political process and therefore had some claim to purity. But we also want people of achievement who will be taken seriously--not taken. Think of "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."

- When politicians talk about what they do, they use snooze-inducing words invoking process and compromise, like "mark-up," "committee," "policy," "measured" and "appropriate." They stand behind podiums and they blink in the sunlight. Schwarzenegger looks like a bronzed god. Schwarzenegger doesn't talk much in his movies--he had less than two dozen lines in the first "Terminator" movie, and not one involved process or compromise. Schwarzenegger has created an indelible impression as a powerful force, which has a lot of appeal when America and its leaders seem less and less powerful, economically, diplomatically and militarily. Politicians have meetings. Schwarzenegger acts. I don't mean that he uses technique and method to create a subtle and persuasive character; I mean that at least onscreen he does not discuss; he just does things, and he does them swiftly and decisively. In the "Terminator" movies, he is literally a machine, killing without any hesitation, whether he is the good guy or the bad guy. In "Total Recall," the wife who betrayed him begs for her life, "But we're married!" He shoots her, replying, "Consider this a divorce." It does feel that if we had just sent Arnold in there, Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden would have been sharing a plate of baked beans at Gitmo long ago. Or blown to bits--think of, well, just about any Schwarzenegger action movie.

- Politicians are always asking for money. Schwarzenegger already has money. We may not admit it, but secretly many people feel he could do a lot for California's budget deficit by writing a check, sort of like Jimmy Stewart in the Depression-era "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town," using his $20 million inheritance to help the farmers.

That is the ultimate fantasy, of course, the dream of some great force for good that uses extraordinary powers to provide magical fixes to the mundane or complicated problems that overwhelm ordinary people. That fantasy has fueled hundreds of blockbuster action movies, the fairy godmother waving her wand to transform Cinderella, and, of course, the most recent rendition, the truly extraordinary powers of five guys with magnificent taste to turn drab to fab in "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy."

So, for a moment, until it's time to get serious about finding a candidate who can turn this mess of a recall election into a way to address the complicated and serious problems facing the state, let's enjoy the fantasy of having Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor of California. So what if the closest he's ever been to politics is some appearances promoting fitness and a cameo in the presidential impersonation movie "Dave?" Just imagine him bringing not just the forceful solutions to problems he showed in the "Terminator" movies, but the empathy for women he showed as the pregnant man in "Junior," the tenderness toward kids he showed as the policeman working undercover in a school in "Kindergarten Cop," and the sense of humor about his own image he showed as a fictional version of himself in "The Last Action Hero." And Tom Hanks as best friend.

Corporate-governance expert Nell Minow also reviews movies at and is a syndicated columnist