You don’t have to be one of those Californians who believes the road to recall ran through a looking glass to feel as if the current campaign just gets curiouser and curiouser.
Take, for example, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s disturbing 26-year-old interview with a now defunct skin magazine and the problems it poses not only for his gubernatorial campaign, but also for the mainstream media organizations covering it.
The five-page exchange occurred in 1977 and appeared in a mercifully forgotten magazine called Oui, which Playboy had rolled out as a kind of raunchier younger brother to its flagship publication. Schwarzenegger, who was 29 at the time, was promoting “Pumping Iron,” the documentary film that launched his movie career. In an extended taped conversation with freelance writer Peter Manso, he employed a virtually endless stream of lewd and vulgar expressions to describe his attitudes toward women and sex, his intimate physiology -- in graphic detail -- and a number of specific sexual experiences.
One of the latter took place at Gold’s Gym in Venice. According to Schwarzenegger, “a black girl” entered the room “naked” and “everybody jumped on her and took her upstairs where we all got together.” In another instance, Schwarzenegger recounted an anonymous sexual encounter backstage at a bodybuilding competition that left him feeling “like King Kong.”
“Having chicks around is the kind of thing that breaks up the intense training,” Schwarzenegger told Manso. “It gives you relief and then afterward you go back to the serious stuff.”
Elsewhere in the interview he said he used marijuana and hashish and that he had no “hang-ups” about homosexuals, whom he nonetheless described with a vulgar epithet.
In fact, taken as a whole, the interview is so thoroughly lewd, vulgar and offensive that no matter how interesting or relevant to their decision voters may believe it to be, they are not likely to read extended -- or even forthrightly representative -- quotations in this or any other mainstream newspaper.
It’s hard to imagine any other American political candidacy surviving such comments, no matter when they were made. But Schwarzenegger’s is unlike any other candidacy -- not least because of the way it is being covered. In this instance, the relevant hang-ups are not Arnold’s but the media’s:
First off, there’s the well-founded reluctance to affront readers with vulgar language and lewd sentiments, even when they are spoken by a public person. And make no mistake, Schwarzenegger, the budding celebrity on the make, was as much a public figure when he gave the interview as he is now that he is running for governor.
Second, the frenzy surrounding President Bill Clinton’s infidelities left many reporters and editors deeply ambivalent about appearing to rummage around in public figures’ private sex lives. Call it impeachment hangover. Of course, it was Schwarzenegger who willingly gave up his privacy in the hope of gaining greater celebrity. Clinton, by contrast, was willing to lie to maintain his sexual privacy. But that distinction may not be enough to overcome the inhibitions of journalists who remain unsettled by the excesses of the Clinton years.
As one prominent Republican political consultant, who asked not to be identified, put it: “You have mainly male editors deciding this was a single guy screwing around 25 years ago, but that’s not the issue. This is a guy boasting -- very explicitly -- and indicating particular attitudes about women. His sexual acts were private until he chose to publicize them -- and with obvious relish and bravado. If I were an editor, I would have no trouble publishing this interview as news. I would have trouble publishing a bunch of old girlfriends talking about Arnold or doing stories on his active sex life from years ago. But from a journalistic standpoint, it is silly to equate his published views with his private sex life.”
Finally, there’s what might be called the complex of diminished expectations stemming from Schwarzenegger’s long career as a bodybuilder and star of action movies. In political terms, it is what the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan once called “mainstreaming deviancy.”
Republican political consultant Allan Hoffenblum told the Hollywood Reporter on Thursday, “This is when he was young, when he had a pretty wild life, and it is something that everyone has been expecting. It is shocking among family-value types, but that is the group that is least likely to vote for Arnold Schwarzenegger regardless. It is not shocking to those of us who have known about Schwarzenegger.”
Campaigning in the Central Valley on Thursday, the candidate initially said, “I have no memory of any of the articles I did 20 or 30 years ago.” During a stop in Fresno, he responded to questions three times, saying he had “no idea what they’re talking about.”
Later, he told Mark Williams of Sacramento radio station KFBK, “I never lived my life to be a politician. I never lived my life to be the governor of California. Obviously, I’ve made statements that are ludicrous and crazy and outrageous and all those things, because that’s the way I always was.... Otherwise, I wouldn’t have done the things that I did in my career with the bodybuilding and the show business and all those things.”
One of the unexamined assumptions here is that the language, attitudes and acts revealed in the Oui interview are likely to be of concern only to religious and social conservatives, who already are deeply suspicious of Schwarzenegger’s purity on several counts.
That was Hoffenblum’s appraisal, and it was shared by at least one Democratic counterpart, Kam Kuwata, who said Thursday, “There have been whispers about this for such a long time.... My suspicion is that it would not sit well with the religious conservatives.”
It’s also likely that the republication of Schwarzenegger’s long-forgotten interview may not sit particularly well with a far more significant bloc of voters -- women. As the most recent Times Poll found, Schwarzenegger suffers from what used to be called a gender gap. The Times’ survey found that 50% of the women likely to vote on Oct. 7 currently have an unfavorable impression of Schwarzenegger, while 41% have a favorable view. By contrast, 38% of the men likely to vote see Schwarzenegger in an unfavorable light, while 51% hold a favorable impression.
Women comprise 50% of the California electorate and, more important, 52% of the state’s likely voters.
As a point of reference, it is worth recalling that even during Clinton’s senatorial trial, The Times Poll found that 52% of women voters maintained a favorable impression of the impeached president.
The first President George Bush struggled against a gender gap so intractable that pollsters took to explaining it with an acerbic quip: His problem, they said, was that he reminded every woman in America of her first husband.
Now, Schwarzenegger’s handlers may have to worry that their candidate is going to remind a lot of California women of the boor on the barstool who sent them running for the door.