Reaping wild oats
One of them confessed in a skin magazine interview to smoking dope and having group sex during his hard-bodied, heavily lubricated past. Another was involved with a radical-progressive (some would use less flattering terms) Chicano student group while in college. A third was straight out of Britain’s Cambridge University when she fell in with a controversial New Age, California-based religion, and a fourth was a straight-arrow Boy Scout who came of age politically via the Reagan Revolution.
Today these people -- Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, Arianna Huffington and state Sen. Tom McClintock -- are candidates for governor of the Golden State, leaders and mentors, pillars of the Establishment, their utterances treated as weighty pronouncements, their profiles plastered in People and Newsweek. But in youth and young adulthood, they were doing what most people that age do, whether Republicans or Democrats, whether living in a West Hollywood apartment house or a hut in Samoa: experimenting, questioning their elders’ wisdom, trying on new personas, test-driving new passions, sowing their wild oats (intellectual, erotic) and embarking on odysseys of self-discovery. In short, they were becoming the full-fledged adults and aspiring leaders now clamoring for our votes.
Call these activities youthful high jinks, salad days, rites of passage, spiritual apprenticeships, sentimental educations or dazed and confused interludes that fell somewhere between “Sesame Street” and Social Security. In practically every human life there’s a period of holding opinions, sporting fashions and hanging out with people you wouldn’t want to be caught dead with 20 years later. Or maybe you would. For some people, the formative years of young adulthood are a once-in-a-lifetime dalliance, a work in progress, a mere warmup for bigger and better things. For others they’re a prototype for everything that follows in life, locking a person’s character, beliefs, career, wardrobe, sexuality and significant other into place as firmly as a 30-year fixed mortgage.
The key question this election season, in this tolerant, forgiving, amnesiac state of second chances, where self-reinvention is an article of faith, may be: Do many people care very much anymore what a candidate said or did 20 or 30 years ago, or with whom, or how many times? And if we do care, do we feel better or worse knowing or not knowing the truth, warts and all?
“Obviously the culture changes, our expectations change,” says British biographer Nigel Hamilton, who has written extensively about the twentysomething predilections of two U.S. presidents in “JFK: Reckless Youth” and the forthcoming “Bill Clinton: An American Journey.” “The public is pretty sophisticated now, and I think we would prefer to know the truth in advance than to have it spill out later.”
Even in this land of perpetual sunshine, infantilized celebrities and surfer ditties, adulthood has to begin somewhere, and politicians must go through this passage no less than the rest of us. But while some California gubernatorial candidates are taking heat for what others have dubbed their youthful indiscretions -- Schwarzenegger’s libidinous revelations in Oui magazine; Bustamante’s college membership in the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan (Chicano Student Movement of Aztlan), a.k.a. MEChA, which McClintock has likened to the Ku Klux Klan -- it’s hard to know how voters will respond at the polls Oct. 7.
In a state where practically anything goes, at a time in history when the character gold-standards of the so-called Greatest Generation are beginning to lose their currency, voters may not be much more interested in whether a candidate long ago used steroids and had sex with strangers (Schwarzenegger) or served as a minister in a group called the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness (Huffington) than if a candidate played water polo for San Jose State University (Peter Ueberroth).
So while national pundits smirk and shake their heads about flaky ol’ California and the screwball comedy going on in Sacramento, those of us who make our homes here at ground zero of Ayn Rand-style individualism, in the birthplace of the modern self-awareness movement and the backyard of the porn industry, may take it for granted that our political candidates haven’t exactly led Ozzie and Harriet lives or held themselves above the tumultuous social currents that have swirled around them.
As Scott Herhold of the San Jose Mercury News put it in a recent column, commenting on the recent Schwarzenegger disclosures: “Anyone who professes to be shocked by the Oui interview is either completely ignorant of California culture in the 1970s or as disingenuous as Claude Rains in ‘Casablanca,’ who professed to be shocked, shocked that gambling was going on at Rick’s Cafe.”
In this regard, California once again appears to be straddling a national political fault line that is part generational, part cultural. More than a decade ago, presidential candidate Bill Clinton prompted cries of “Who’s he kidding?” when he claimed he smoked pot but didn’t inhale. Eight years later, his successor, George W. Bush, was elected to the White House after defusing reports of his boozing and aimlessness during his post-college years with a simple confession: “I was young and irresponsible and I behaved young and irresponsibly.” Schwarzenegger took a similar rhetorical tack when he told a Sacramento radio interviewer: “I never lived my life to be the governor of California.”
Among members of the World War II generation, the benchmarks for judging character and assessing the value of a candidate’s life experiences were relatively straightforward and uniform: honorable service to Uncle Sam, maintaining a successful marriage and a well-scrubbed nuclear family, resisting the temptations of sex and drugs (at least publicly). For today’s baby-boomer power brokers, those benchmarks are less standardized. Which isn’t to say they’re nonexistent.
“We accept that the characters of major political figures are often tempered in war, like George Bush senior, say, but I don’t think we probably attribute enough value to some of the other formative experiences, which are just as important,” Hamilton says.
What’s changed, Hamilton continues, is “we want our political figures to be accessible to us, to be able to identify with them. We often call that charisma, but what we really mean is we want to be comfortable with this person in whom we’re going to invest a whole lot of power over our lives. We want to believe that he’s going to [identify] with what we’ve gone through.”
Thus, for a politician, especially a California politician, admitting to a checkered youth or a freewheeling or otherwise high-spirited past may be an asset if it enables voters to see him or her as more like themselves. That impulse may sound new, a product of modern celebrity mania and 24-7 media overkill. It’s not. “Hey, this goes back to St. Augustine,” says Hamilton, referring to the 4th century Christian theologian whose “Confessions” are the classic Western mea culpa for a misspent youth.
Not that any of California’s gubernatorial candidates are rushing to renounce their youthful adventures. On the contrary. Although Schwarzenegger now says he made up the salacious stories he told Oui to promote the movie “Pumping Iron,” the former bodybuilder has stiff-armed critics of his prior lifestyle. Bustamante has defended MEChA as a group that’s concerned with helping Latinos attain social equality, not with ceding Arizona and Texas to the Mexican government. Huffington acknowledges her continuing relationship with the Church of the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness and its leader, John-Roger. “He’s a good friend, and I’ve gotten a lot of value from the work he has done,” she says. While Huffington’s detractors dismiss her as an intellectual charlatan who has shifted from neoconservatism to ardently liberal views over the last several years, supporters see this transformation as a mark of an open-mindedness, a flexibility, a youthful restlessness that seems, well, very Californian.
Practically every culture sanctions a youthful period of controlled rebellion or experimentation. The Amish call it “rumspringa” -- the “running-around time” -- when teenagers and young adult members of that plain-living Christian sect are allowed to act like their debauched non-Amish counterparts. After a few months or even years of this wild oats-sowing, the individual can decide whether to be baptized and join the Amish church or opt out of the religious community for the American consumer paradise.
For some in the Golden State, this period can stretch from preadolescence to the nursing home. Sometimes it can even stretch all the way to Sacramento. Remember Jerry Brown, Pat Brown’s wide-eyed, intellectually curious son, dating rock stars and musing on philosophy like an earnest college freshman even as he ran the nation’s biggest state?
When it comes to California, some politicians never grow up. They don’t have to.
Times staff writer Gina Piccalo contributed to this story.