We’d been there before—reporting on some rich guy without political experience running for governor of California, pretending to know something about the intricacies of state government based on what highly paid advisers were telling him and being subjected to withering journalistic scrutiny. This happened in 1998 when airline tycoon Al Checchi garnered the nickname “Checkbook Checchi” for lavishing tens of millions of dollars on running for governor and losing to a colorless career pol named Gray Davis in the Democratic primary.
But this time, the rich guy was also one of the world’s most famous actors, who had conquered bodybuilding and motion pictures and now wanted to take his muscular physique and thick Austrian accent to Sacramento. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s dramatic entry into the recall election directed at Davis—he announced it on Jay Leno’s late-night television show after hinting that he had decided not to run—was not only the political event of the decade, but one that altered everything we had assumed about what it took to run and win in the nation’s most populous state. Most of all—at least for those of us in the political scribbling trade—it altered the meaning of “political media,” expanding it to include everything from Internet bloggers to “Entertainment Tonight” and Oprah Winfrey’s daytime talk show. Schwarzenegger expanded the term so much, in fact, that it almost excluded those of us who actually cover and write about politics for California newspapers.
Transforming Political Reporting
This is not resentment speaking. I don’t claim any divine right to exclusive access to politicians or to act as judge and jury of their qualifications, although some of my brethren act as if they have such a heavenly charter. I’ve always found the pre-election part of politics—campaigns, conventions, debates, etc.—to be mostly boring and irrelevant anyway and the media coverage to be equally vapid, focused more on process and inside baseball than substance. Rather, I found it rather fascinating that Schwarzenegger and his advisers—political pros, all—could capitalize on his celebrity to make ordinary journalism so marginally relevant to the outcome, to go around us scribblers, and to convey his message of saving California so effectively.
Just as John F. Kennedy and then Ronald Reagan redefined political communications by using television so adroitly, the recall campaign against Davis and Schwarzenegger’s campaign to succeed him might have created another paradigm shift, if one may use an overused term. “A presidential campaign was happening inside the borders of California,” Schwarzenegger adviser Don Sipple said in a post-election conclave at the University of California, Berkeley. “It was about symbolic message and messenger.”
Any doubts about Schwarzenegger’s new definition of political media should have been dispelled not only by his use of the Leno show to make his announcement but by his first major news conference, staged at a hotel near Los Angeles International Airport on August 20th, two weeks after his Leno appearance. Schwarzenegger convened a meeting of his economic advisory panel and then emerged with former Secretary of State George Schultz and billionaire Warren Buffett to answer questions. More than 30 television crews and dozens of print reporters from around the world showed up—easily a record for any political event in California—and Schwarzenegger handled it all with aplomb.
Tellingly and perhaps fittingly, the final question of the 40-minute session came from a carefully coifed “reporter” for “Entertainment Tonight” who wanted to know, breathlessly, what exalted role Schwarzenegger pal Rob Lowe would play in his campaign. “He’s a very good friend of mine,” Schwarzenegger replied coolly.
It was a taste of the media feeding frenzy that would continue for two months, until Schwarzenegger was introduced by Leno in a hotel ballroom on election night to claim victory. Later academic studies were to demonstrate that Schwarzenegger, by the sheer power of his celebrity, claimed so much attention that neither Davis nor any of Schwarzenegger’s hapless opponents—there were 135 names on the ballot—could gain more than token attention. Just one Schwarzenegger public appearance a day was enough to dominate television coverage. When the first major debate of the campaign was staged and Schwarzenegger refused to attend, most of the coverage was devoted to that, rather than what the participants had to say. And when he did attend one debate, it garnered the largest television audience of any California-only political event in history. His adequate, if not inspiring, performance in that debate sent his numbers up dramatically and those of incumbent Davis into the tank. “He sucked all the oxygen out of the air,” admiringly observed the manager of a rival campaign during the Berkeley postmortem.
My favorite personal anecdote about the frenzy is this: One day I got a call from a field producer for a television crew from Jakarta, Indonesia, that had been dispatched to California to cover the recall—or more accurately, the Schwarzenegger phenomenon simply because the actor is so famous in that country. And they weren’t alone. I had calls, or interview requests, from publications and broadcast outlets in a number of nations, including Austria, of course, Switzerland, Australia and Canada. I practically took up residence at PacSat, a Sacramento television studio that specializes in interviews for TV network and cable talk shows. PacSat was running about a dozen journalists and politicians through its system each day and making a lot of money in the process.
The last gasp of the old political media in this campaign was a lengthy article in the Los Angeles Times, published five days before the October 7th election, that alleged a pattern of sexual harassment by Schwarzenegger directed at women in and around his movie productions.
In the Times’s article, Schwarzenegger’s campaign spokesman suggested the charges were politically motivated and untrue. But on the day the story appeared, the candidate acknowledged that he had behaved badly toward women in the past and apologized for it. Private polls showed that Schwarzenegger’s standing took a serious hit for a day or two, but quickly rebounded as Republicans and pro-Schwarzenegger radio talk show hosts denounced the Times. Schwarzenegger won the election going away, with nearly 50 percent of the vote despite the huge field of candidates, and Davis was recalled by a wide margin.
In retrospect, the Times did Schwarzenegger a favor, however inadvertently. Had the charges surfaced earlier, especially before the one debate in which he participated, they might have done more damage. And if they had been published after the election, they could have seriously damaged his governorship.
The question now, of course, is whether the media frenzy will continue after Schwarzenegger takes office. It will, for awhile. Los Angeles and San Francisco TV stations might even reopen the bureaus they shuttered in the 1980’s after concluding that politics is less interesting than freeway chases. But as the Schwarzenegger governorship begins, those of us in the real political media will also have our shot, because the nuts and bolts of governance are far more complicated and treacherous than selling a simplistic campaign message.
The reporters who covered the recall campaign for most of the larger California papers (the Bee being a notable exception) tended to be pure political reporters who specialize in campaigns—and often know little about, and usually ignore, the intricacies of government as they obsess on polls, television ads, and other forms of political minutiae. But once Schwarzenegger takes office, he will face the Capitol’s resident press corps, some of whose members have been tracking legislation and administrative policy for decades, and he will have a much more difficult time blowing smoke on the budget and other issues.
Gray Davis could tell him about that. After all, it was the Capitol press corps’ intense and critical news coverage of his actions as governor that sent Davis’s approval ratings on a tailspin from 60-plus percent to just over 20 percent and set the stage for the Schwarzenegger phenomenon. He’s coming into our domain now, and we won’t tolerate campaign-style sloganeering as a substitute for substantive action on the budget and other critical issues.
Dan Walters has been The Sacramento Bee’s political columnist since 1984. In 1981, while at The Sacramento Union’s Capitol bureau, he began writing the only daily newspaper column devoted to California’s political, economic and social events. His column now appears in 50 California newspapers.