California's Recall Circus

California Recall: Californai Flag with the scales of justice, canidates Gray Davis, Cruz Bustamante, and Arnold Scwarzenegger
AP / CBS
The final days of the recall election campaign have provided more wild and crazy politics in the land of fruits and nuts. Hitler, car wrecks, crude sexual acts and a final glimpse of the most bizarre of the 135 candidates on the ballot to succeed Governor Gray Davis are dominating campaign coverage. It's a circus all right, but more the political equivalent of the white tiger mauling the magician than the silly clowns and acrobats.

The fun stops when you realize how much this election matters. It matters to the citizens of California who feel over-taxed and under-serviced. It matters to the U.S. that the recall is happening in its largest state, once a land of great dreams and a harbinger of the future. And it matters internationally since California has the fifth largest economy in the world.

The whole world is watching—and much of what they see is American politics at its worst.

From the time he announced his decision to run on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno, it was clear that Arnold Schwarzenegger was not going to run a conventional campaign. Instead of presenting himself as man dedicated to public service with a substantive knowledge of California's problems and ideas on how to solve them, he decided to run the continuation of the Terminator 3 publicity tour. And the media ate it up.

Marty Kaplan who runs the Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California, which has analyzed local TV coverage in local elections for the past few years, says that the blackout, which has characterized California TV coverage of politics, was completely reversed this time. TV covered this campaign day in and day out. And the thrust was, "Wow the Terminator is really doing it."

They gave airtime to Davis, Bustamante, McClintock and the others, but Arnold had the momentum from the start and never broke stride.
Media around the country and around the world followed suit. According to the Tyndall Report, the national broadcast networks ran an unprecedented 169 minutes of stories on evening news broadcasts about the recall from Aug.1 to Oct. 3, including 69 minutes which were specifically about Schwarzenegger.

In 2002, the networks devoted a total of 40 minutes to all 36 gubernatorial races combined. In the same period this year (Aug. 1 to Oct. 3) the upcoming presidential campaign received a total of 34 minutes of coverage. In France, headlines about "Arnie" vied with those on the heat wave in August.

As the presidential candidates chugged through dozens of debates and forums and interviews that went unnoticed by most, Arnie and Maria went on Oprah. And Arnold participated in only one debate -— one where the questions were given a week in advance. He breezed though that exercise by cracking jokes and sparring with Ariana Huffington rather than laying out an agenda for California.

Last week he came up with a ten-step program to solve all ills and the media covered it dutifully, jumping back on the Arnold bus. Until Thursday. when
allegations by six women , printed in the Los Angeles Times revealed a brutish, crude man behind the brutish, crude exterior. The next day, the New York Times published a 25-year-old document, which showed an authoritarian personality behind the crass exterior.

The headlines pointed to Hitler, which was a bit of a cheap shot, but the subsequent paragraphs deserve to be examined:

"Yes, in Germany they used power and authority but it was used in the wrong way. I feel if you want to create a strong nation and a strong country you cannot let everybody be an individual, because everybody has his own opinions and you can't just stick together as a strong nation. Then you have to tell people what to do and you can't just let them float away. In Germany there was a lot of unity. The German soldiers were the best, and with the police force and everything."

Is that still his view of governance? Who knows? Arnold apologized if he offended anyone. His wife and campaign aides called it trash politics. The bands played, "We're not gonna take it any more" and the bus caravan rolled on.

Some friends of Gray Davis say he brought this on himself. This aloof, colorless man has practiced, in the word of California Democratic Attorney General Bill Lockyer, "puke politics" in his campaigns for years.

Davis raised unprecedented amounts of money to run virtually an entirely negative campaign in 2002 and refused to spend any of that money on positive ads to create goodwill for himself. When things went sour in 2003, he had no reservoir of support to draw on. And when the stories of sexual harassment surfaced, many voters blamed Davis who used these tactics in the past

So despite the allegations, the "Terminator" goes on vowing to "kick some serious butt" in Sacramento while the crowd of "remarkable women for Arnold" cheer. Davis is counting on anti-Arnold momentum to bring Democrats to the polls that weren't motivated to come out for him. And the freak show of publicity-seeking "candidates" has another 24 hours to get some free media.

And all this would be really funny if it didn't matter so much.

By Dotty Lynch