How an Actor Did It

Matthew Dallek, a former speechwriter for Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), is the author of "The Right Moment: Ronald Reagan's First Victory and the Decisive Turning Point in American Politics."

The Sacramento Bee editorialized that “there is something scary about the idea of actors in politics.” Numerous pundits similarly dismissed the idea of an actor running for high office in the Golden State. They scoffed at his lack of experience and his tendency to stumble on the stump. The politicians said that he was “shallow” and out of touch with the lives of ordinary citizens. Democrats, especially, liked to make fun of his films, and a handful sent a raft of memos to their boss, the incumbent governor, promising to “hang [the actor] on the specifics.” The governor, for his part, said the thought of the actor in the statehouse “moves me to great lengths” -- and called him a simpleton who excelled at “parroting the words of scriptwriters.”

Ronald Reagan was the target of these arrows in 1966. But with the “lightweight” charge coming at Arnold Schwarzenegger from several directions, the 37-year-old sneers sound awfully current. Reporters, pundits and politicians are calling Schwarzenegger “just an actor.” If he wants to counter these attacks and close the gap with Democrat Cruz Bustamante, he would do well to steal a page from Reagan’s playbook -- by demonstrating that he can stay calm, answer a question and generate the brainpower needed to govern the nation’s most populous state. He doesn’t need to be a diehard policy wonk, but, as Reagan did, he needs to demonstrate at least a passing familiarity with statewide issues.

True, Reagan had far more political experience in 1966 than Schwarzenegger has. Even so, when Reagan threw his hat in the ring, “he was green,” as one of his top advisors later acknowledged. The affable actor didn’t know about the intricacies of the state budget, and voters didn’t know his positions on the environment, abortion and other key issues. Reagan had a short fuse on the stump and a penchant for bromides that fired up the faithful but made some of his consultants cringe. Worse, he was prone to headline-grabbing gaffes. He muffed the location of the Eel River (one of the state’s most important), stormed out of a meeting in front of a large black audience, and left the impression that under a Reagan administration the Redwood forests would go unprotected when he said: “A tree is a tree. How many more do you need to look at?”

Reagan adopted three strategies to counter the attack on him as a lightweight. First, he hired strategists from both wings of the GOP to show that he was credible. Reagan hired the two most talented Republican operatives at the time, Stu Spencer and Bill Roberts; moderates both, they helped him bone up on issues and shed his image as an extremist. In 1966, Reagan had to convince moderate Republicans (and reporters) that he was not close to the John Birch Society, one of the state’s most radical organizations. With the help of his consultants, Reagan issued a shrewd one-page statement that said anyone who supported him was accepting his philosophy -- and not vice versa. At every opportunity, Spencer and Roberts delivered that message to the GOP’s moderates, many of whom recalled the divisive debacle of Barry Goldwater’s 1964 White House run and feared that Reagan would repeat the sins of the past. The statement was a winner.


Then there were the fund-raisers. While Spencer and Roberts sent a message to the middle, conservative power brokers made overtures to the GOP’s right wing, shoring up Reagan’s base and bringing the candidate one step closer to the elusive goal of unity in the GOP. To promote that unity, Reagan cast as wide a net as possible. Instead of relying on stalwarts in the Young Americans for Freedom and California Republican Assembly, Reagan hired a trio of consultants in their 30s who gave the campaign a shot in the arm; part of a rising generation of fresh-faced conservatives, aides such as Lyn Nofziger could appeal to both wings of the GOP because they had avoided a prominent role in the 1964 fiasco.

Few doubt that Schwarzenegger’s team is formidable. Warren E. Buffett is a famous financial guru, George P. Shultz served as President Reagan’s secretary of State, and Pete Wilson served two terms in the office Schwarzenegger is fighting to win. But to win over the GOP base, Schwarzenegger needs to showcase mainstream conservative supporters like Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) and David Dreier (R-San Dimas) to assure the right that its voice will not be silenced -- to reach out to the wing that is not his natural constituency. He also needs to be careful that people like Buffett don’t overshadow him. When Buffett told the Wall Street Journal that Proposition 13 was an obstacle to fiscal sanity, Schwarzenegger had to issue a statement defending the initiative, which served to deepen the suspicion that he is a creature of his handlers.

Schwarzenegger should also follow a second part of Reagan’s strategy: take questions. In 1966, Reagan told his advisors that he wanted to hold Q & A sessions with reporters and Republican audiences to confront his critics head-on. Advisors fretted, but Reagan proved adroit at the give and take. He impressed moderates who thought that the man didn’t have a brain, and reporters like Jack S. McDowell of the San Francisco Examiner came away from events convinced, at least, that Reagan “was not dumb.” Reagan proved that he could handle the attacks on his character. At Occidental College, students jeered him with placards that said, “Who Wants Boraxo [a former Reagan sponsor] in Sacramento?” Reagan looked them in the eye and said, “That may be only soap to you, but it was bread and butter to me.” So far, Schwarzenegger hasn’t done enough of this.

The Q & As let Reagan assure his supporters that he could win and show skeptics that he was not going to self-destruct. The excitement of a first campaign -- and of the candidate’s strutting his stuff on stage instead of on the big screen -- proved infectious. The audiences loved it. One Republican official told Reagan in 1966, “I am absolutely amazed at the performance so far, considering the big spotlight on you.”


Schwarzenegger needs to convince the electorate that he too is ready for prime time.

One final point for Schwarzenegger to imitate: Reagan was willing to work. He studied. He learned about the state. He mastered enough specifics to dampen speculation that he would fumble in Sacramento. He promised to ride to the rescue of a state on the brink. Instead of dwelling on the “socialist tide” allegedly lapping at America’s shores, he began to focus on taxes, crime, street riots and the student unrest he memorably called “the mess at Berkeley.”

He used events to formulate a compelling vision for law and order that helped to offset the image of an actor reciting his lines. He cited reports on Berkeley issued by the state Senate and studied black books stuffed with memos and note cards packed with information about statewide issues.

The factoids helped him to appear knowledgeable and reasonable, “not as a fanatic who wanted to tear down all government,” as one aide put it.

In 1966, many of the state’s most senior Democrats, and an equal number of reporters, failed to grasp that Reagan was a credible candidate. They made the mistake of thinking that Reagan could never shed his image as an actor. In fact, Reagan beat Gov. Pat Brown in 1966 by almost 1 million votes. Today’s Schwarzenegger critics need to remember the past and rethink their strategies. If Democrats want to avoid repeating one of the great mistakes of 1966, they need to rely on a stronger line of attack than dismissing Mr. Universe as a lightweight.