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Sorry Governor, You’re a Politician by Definition

When a governor claims he’s not a politician, it’s time to get him a civics book or a good shrink.

The conditions of denial and delusion come to mind.

There’s also a whiff of demagoguery.

For months, our former Hollywood action-hero has been behaving like a man afraid to fully immerse himself into his newly chosen profession.

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He seems to have been spending more time outside the Capitol engaged in campaign glitz promoting his ballot initiatives than inside doing the nitty-gritty work of lobbying legislators and governing.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s motto has seemed to be: Call me anything, just don’t call me a Sacramento politician.

Or any kind of politician.

And the governor confirmed this attitude Monday on MSNBC’s “Hardball With Chris Matthews,” shot before a large audience of students and faculty at Stanford University.

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Matthews asked him, “What is it like being a politician?” You’d have thought he had asked about being a serial killer.

“Someone asked me just recently,” Schwarzenegger replied, “ ‘What is the biggest challenge for you, governor?’ And I said, ‘Never to become a politician.’ So, don’t ask me what it is like to be a politician. Because I am not a politician and never will be a politician.”

Matthews asked everybody in the room who thought Schwarzenegger was a politician to raise their hand. Practically everyone did. “You lost,” he told the governor amid laughter.

Most governors would have listed as their biggest challenge balancing the budget, or improving education, or controlling healthcare costs, or creating jobs. Schwarzenegger also lists these as priorities, so ordinarily we wouldn’t take his answer literally. Except that he went on about it.

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“What I mean,” the governor added, “is that I’ve been sent to Sacramento by the people ... to fix a broken system, but not to be a politician, because I think the recall election was very clearly about the politicians ... have not been able to take care of the job.”

Actually, I thought the recall election was about firing one discredited politician, Gov. Gray Davis.

Schwarzenegger continued: “They’ve run down the state. They’ve created the hugest debt in the history of California. They have run businesses out of the state. And they’ve really run the state irresponsibly by being spenders, spenders, spenders and really not living within their means.”

Nobody in Sacramento has been more guilty of not living within their means than Schwarzenegger. Lacking the courage to raise taxes or cut spending deeply, he has borrowed billions to pay daily bills and saddled the next generation with unconscionable debt.

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The governor told the “Hardball” crowd he got elected because he was “from the outside.”

“I want to stay with that. I want to be the outsider, just an ordinary citizen, or a guy that was from the action movies or from bodybuilding, whatever. But as a citizen, not a politician.... This is why I don’t like to be labeled as a politician. The politicians are hanging around in Sacramento....

“They can’t get the job done.... I want to be from the outside. I want to be one of the folks.”

Says Bruce Cain, director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley: “Once you’ve been in office a year, the outsider act really wears thin.... We need a governor in there who’s building bridges and coalitions and compromises.”

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Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College, says Schwarzenegger probably considers himself an outsider because “he has a life outside politics.” But, the professor adds, “He’s a politician by definition.... When you’re in government and you maneuver to get your way, you’re a politician. And in that sense, one has to be a politician to be an effective governor.”

Not even a governor has the power to change the dictionary definition of politician. In such situations, I turn to columnist William Safire’s “New Political Dictionary.” It defines a politician as “one who engages in a career either in government or in a political party on a full-time, usually professional basis.”

Schwarzenegger, in fact, is now more of a politician than he is an actor.

But he continues to capitalize on a cultural mistrust of politicians that dates to colonial America.

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Safire notes that Harry Truman was one politician “who bore the badge proudly.” He quotes the wartime president: “A politician is a man who understands government, and it takes a politician to run a government. A statesman is a politician who’s been dead 10 or 15 years.”

Two politicians, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, helped liberate Schwarzenegger’s native Austria from Nazi Germany. Schwarzenegger’s first American political hero, Richard Nixon, was the embodiment of a politician. Schwarzenegger’s Sacramento mentor, Pete Wilson, was a career politician and, overall, a successful governor. Even Ronald Reagan called himself a politician, albeit a “citizen politician.” Schwarzenegger’s Kennedy in-laws are politicians.

When Schwarzenegger tees off on politicians, is he excluding Republicans? He never says so.

The governor paints all legislators with the same brush of despicability -- then often adds this glossy mismatch, as he did Monday: “You know, I want to bring both parties together ... and fix the broken system.”

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To do that, he’ll need to become a good politician. That’s his biggest challenge. What he should not want to be is just another politics-bashing demagogue.

George Skelton writes Monday and Thursday. Reach him at george.skelton@latimes.com.


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