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Hercules in Sacramento

CAN YOU stomach Round Two?

Not a second Schwarzenegger administration -- not yet, anyway -- but another slew of movie references about four more years of Arnold.

This, I am sorry to say, is one more, although perhaps about a film you haven’t heard of before. Thirty-five years ago, Schwarzenegger made his first movie, “Hercules in New York.” It bore almost no resemblance to the tale of the mythic Hercules, the semi-divine strongman of ancient Greece who performed a dozen superhuman labors -- metaphors, no doubt, for daunting earthly tasks, such as getting Sparta and Athens to make nice and forcing the mathematician Archimedes to stop saying “It’s Greek to me.”

It’s now California 2005 -- call the remake “Hercules in Sacramento.” How do Gov. Hercules’ tasks stack up against the labors of yore?

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* Ancient Greece: Hercules had only one day to clean out the Augean stables, where thousands of head of cattle had been corralled for 30 years. He did it by diverting a river through the stables. Modern California: Schwarzenegger says he needs four more years, not one day, to clean out the Legislature, piled high with decades of bipartisan dung. Every legislature is a mess, some more than others, in part because democracy is a messy business. But Schwarzenegger’s river diversion -- a ballot measure to redraw political districts in less-partisan fashion -- is worth a look, in part because it’s an equal-opportunity offender, opposed by incumbent Republicans and Democrats.

* Ancient Greece: Hercules killed the Hydra, a snake-like creature with nine heads. Every time he chopped off one head, two grew back in its place. Hercules realized he had to scorch each stump with fire to keep it dead. Modern California: Schwarzenegger’s Hydra is the California Republican Assembly, which gives the thumbs up or down to primary candidates it rates against its wing-nut standards. The pro-choice, pro-gay-rights, I-did-inhale Schwarzenegger could not have wooed and won the CRA. It was the one-time fluke of the nonpartisan, direct-to-voters recall that put him in office, not the GOP establishment. Once he had won, he was hot enough to sear the CRA’s many heads and give a more moderate California GOP a fighting chance. He didn’t, and now that he has ticked off many kindly disposed moderates and Democrats, he needs the Hydra.

* Ancient Greece: To retrieve some golden apples, Hercules swapped places with Atlas, the guy holding the world on his shoulders. Only Atlas knew where the apples were, and when Atlas came back with the fruit, he said he liked his freedom and the world was Hercules’ baby now. Hercules begged Atlas to just hold the world for one minute longer so he could assume a better ergonomic position. Atlas did, and that fibber Hercules made his getaway. Modern California: We voted for Schwarzenegger because he was a confident non-politician, a man who said he could fix things before lunch. Now it feels like we’re having an election every week on yet another ballot issue. How come we voters are shouldering all the work? And how come we’re asked to micromanage, with measures such as Proposition 74 on teacher tenure? Tenure is intertwined with pay, which is linked to merit and performance. Dealing with it through a yes-or-no ballot measure is like asking people to negotiate a nuclear arms treaty by doing the wave.

* Ancient Greece: Hercules had to get his hands on the golden girdle of the queen of the Amazons (no jokes, please; have you ever tried to get a grope through a girdle?). Amazingly, she gave it to him. Modern California: Plumping for his pet ballot measures requires lots of gold, and Schwarzenegger’s cross-country fundraising spree has turned off some home-state voters. In the “Hercules” film, Schwarzenegger bragged, “Hercules has no need of money.” In 2003, Schwarzenegger told voters he was so rich he didn’t need money. Did he believe we thought he meant only that he wouldn’t line his own pockets? Voters are peeved because breezily raking in heaps of political dough is exactly what he berated his predecessor for doing.

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* Ancient Greece: Hercules had to kill man-eating birds. He flushed them out with a special rattle and shot them with poisoned arrows. Modern California: The governor thinks he’s facing a flock of greedy monster unionized birds. But a lot of voters regard them sympathetically as ordinary nurses, teachers and firefighters. Labeling them “special interests” has been his biggest gaffe.

There are other labors and other parallels, but one more should suffice: In ancient Greece, Hercules had to vanquish a savage bull. He wrestled it to the ground and slung it over his shoulders. In modern California, Schwarzenegger is unmatched when it comes to slinging the bull.

PATT MORRISON’s e-mail address is patt.morrisonlatimes.com.


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