Oranges or Bananas?

How fitting that the final days of the recall campaign would be dominated by a discussion of groping. Does it matter that Arnold Schwarzenegger, front-runner in the race to become governor of California, demonstrated a pattern of sticking his hands, uninvited, into the shirts of young women?

Is it fair that these incidents were reported so late in the campaign? Would the public have been better served by letting the matter slide -- won’t boys, after all, always be boys, especially when they are untouchable celebrity hunks? And just how much groping, exactly, is too much groping? What’s worse, flicking a nipple or clasping a buttock?

That these sorts of questions now carom about the campaign is only in keeping with the tenor of the process from the get-go. Given all that had gone before, what else could the candidates be expected to be discussing at trail’s end? Water policy? Fiscal reform?

No, this has not been one for the annals of model civics.


I don’t doubt that some of the true believers who initiated the recall process truly believed that it would lead to a great moment in California politics, a populist uprising against a governor who, they would argue, failed miserably and thereby forfeited his right to lead.

Whatever the original intentions, however, the recall early on was abducted by carnival barkers. Who needs a sober debate over what should constitute grounds for the removal by recall of a duly elected governor?

Instead, we were treated to a beauty contest among replacement candidates, an amusing diversion from economic downturn and the summer doldrums.

It was all a hoot and a lark -- and also a swell opportunity to blame Gov. Gray Davis willy-nilly for everything that’s gone wrong since the San Francisco quake of ’06.


Some of the more cockeyed optimists have pointed out that the recall at least got apathetic Californians talking politics. But what exactly were they talking about? Arnold’s comments on Jay Leno about bikini waxing? Gary Coleman’s trouble naming the current vice president of the United States? The proposal to balance the budget by taxing boob jobs? And now, Arnold’s wayward mitts?

As the recall played out, California managed to take back from Florida its standing as the national leader in lunacy. It gave Minnesotans reason to gloat: With California seemingly about to embrace Schwarzenegger, the Austrian octopus, the land of many lakes’ adventure in governance with the wrassler Jesse Ventura no longer looks so outlandish.

At this point, the outcome almost seems irrelevant. The process itself has hurt California in what could prove to be long-lasting, and quite unfunny, ways.

“With respect to state finances and the state’s economy,” said state Treasurer Phil Angelides, a Democrat campaigning against the recall, “the damage is being done each and every day by this.”


For example, he said, it was not coincidence that the state’s credit rating took its largest dive ever on the day after the recall was certified to go forward.

And although recall advocates yap happily about “sending a message” to Sacramento, in Angelides’ view “it really is about sending a message about a sickness in our political culture. It cannot help but rub off into national and world perceptions about our economy and our state as a place to do business.”

Steven Fink, president of Lexicon Communications, a Southern California crisis-management firm, called the other day with an interesting report about the recall’s real-world impact. His firm typically handles inquiries from U.S. companies seeking to expand into less-than-stable countries. Does it make sense to open a bank branch in Bali, say, or a car dealership in Caracas? How do the risks caused by political instability balance out against the potential rewards?

With the recall, however, his firm now has begun to receive inquiries from overseas clients, mainly in Europe, who are having second thoughts about moving their businesses into California.


What, they wonder, is up with this recall? Will it succeed? If so, will it be followed, as some Democrats have threatened, by another recall?

“They want to know,” Fink said, “if it is really that easy here to topple a government. And that’s what this is, the toppling of a government. And I’m not sure what to tell them. From a crisis-management point of view, California has now developed exactly -- exactly -- the reputation of a lot of Third World countries.”

Great. A state that boosters once promoted as the land of sunshine and oranges will now be perceived as the next banana republic. Don’t look now, California, but we are bleeding from both boots -- and guess who’s holding the smoking gun.

Peter H. King’s twice-weekly column will run through the recall election.