The Wrong Apology From Schwarzenegger

EZRA KLEIN is a writing fellow at the American Prospect. His blog is at

AM I THE ONLY one who misses the good ol’ days, when California politics were wacky rather than merely depressing? The scrum of porn stars, child actors, Silicon Valley executives, action heroes and ambitious pols who vied to replace Gov. Gray Davis may have been a bit embarrassing, but it was also gloriously democratic, chaotic and hopeful.

Compare that to the latest iteration of our quadrennial reality show “Who Wants to Run the Largest State in the Union?” It looked, from the previews, like a fascinating contest. Unable to match Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s flash, Democrats would overwhelm him with substance in the form of state Treasurer Phil Angelides. Nerd vs. Jock — it would be high school all over again.

Angelides is a wonk’s wonk, a gangly, earnest lefty who pioneered the investment of state pension funds in inner-city development and socially responsible companies. In a Democratic Party attempting to acclimate to an age of concentrated wealth and mega-corporations, he seemed likely to be one of the pols creating a new paradigm for responsible populism.

By midseason, however, it was clear something had gone terribly wrong. Unable to attract attention for anything positive or inspiring, Angelides has fallen back on a steady stream of ineffectual but ugly attacks on Schwarzenegger. His website features a photo of Schwarzenegger lounging around with Vice President Dick Cheney. And now there’s the frenzy over whether his campaign hacked into the governor’s computers to access an audio file of Schwarzenegger musing that a combination of black and Latino blood accounts for Cathedral City Republican Assemblywoman Bonnie Garcia’s “hot” personality.

Exactly how far has the election sunk? On Sept. 8, The Times published an article detailing the leaked audiotape. On it, Susan Kennedy, Schwarzenegger’s chief of staff, lavishly praises Garcia, which leads to the governor’s comments. Garcia, approached by a Times reporter, appears amused by the entire thing and explains how her hot-bloodedness is an inside joke between her and the governor.

Nevertheless, the next day, Schwarzenegger held a news conference to express his regrets over his words, while Garcia again protested that “there is no need to apologize.” And then came revelations that the Angelides camp was the source of the tape.

It’s a mistake, however, to fully focus your ire at either the troglodyte who thinks blood begets temper or the smear artist who exposed the clip.

The fact is, the real culprit here is the rest of us — the voters. The Times would never have put the article on the front page had it not expected secret audio files and vaguely racist opinions to attract eyeballs in a way that tax plans never could. Nor would Angelides’ team have leaked it, nor would the governor have apologized. Odds are none of them thought it was an important story, but they all thought we disagreed.

They were right.

Yes, this one’s our fault. Politicians and the media are fundamentally dumb beasts. One seeks votes, the other readers, but neither operates an inch above where they perceive the largest mass of their audience to be. And, for now, they’ve pegged us as salivating over backroom banter connecting hemoglobin to hysteria.

There are eight weeks left in this election. And although the conclusion may feel foregone, and the entertainment value largely sapped, there’s still time to salvage the season. It’ll mean ignoring the fluff and fire-breathing and demanding something better from our candidates. It’ll mean asking why Schwarzenegger wants to veto Santa Monica Democratic state Sen. Sheila Kuehl’s bill guaranteeing healthcare to all Californians. It’ll mean considering why Schwarzenegger finally boosted the minimum wage in an election year, after vetoing it twice before. It’ll mean demanding that Angelides can his campaign team and start acting like a sensible public servant rather than a seedy private investigator.

It’ll mean, in the immortal words of “The Real World,” asking what happens when our politicians stop playing dumb and start getting real.