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Arnold Schwarzenegger: Triumph of the People’s Will?

I will not fail you, I will not disappoint you, and I will not let you down
-- Arnold Schwarzenegger, Governor-elect of California, October 7, 2003

Gray Davis, you never had a lightning bug's chance against the superstar action hero who gave The Tonight Show its second highest Nielsen rating of 2003. Ever since Arnold Schwarzenegger stunned Jay Leno and the country with his announcement to run for California Governor, the media coverage became Arnold TV. Other candidates become media road kill in the scorching spotlight on the bodybuilder-turned-actor-turned businessman whose personal wealth so overwhelmed the competition that he was able to present himself as the white-hat political outsider who could not be bought. This was the perfect foil to the black hat political insider in Sacramento whose knack for private fundraising over public interest had so unnerved the more than 2 million voters who signed petitions to fire him. Arnold positioned himself to ride the white horse of salvation all the way to the State House. He won. Now what?

What made Arnold the insta-media darling that decided this election? Psychological warfare. His political bombshell on The Tonight Show was not unlike the cerebral style Arnold displayed in the 1977 documentary, "Pumping Iron," which made him a household name and launched his movie career. The bodybuilder showed his prowess for brains as much as brawn in psyching out competitors like Lou "The Hulk" Ferrigno in his successful bid for a sixth straight Mr. Olympia title. One reviewer called Arnold's approach to his competition as "ruthless and mesmerizing." Whoa to those who were fooled then by the bulging muscles and robotic acting style. We are referring now to Terminator politics in Sacramento.


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Some media pundits seemed almost dumbstruck by the possibility that Arnold Schwarzenegger could be taken seriously as a candidate. CNN's Bill Schneider pointed to an LA Times poll B.L ('Before Leno') that said a lot of voters in California would never vote for Arnold Schwarzenegger. Schneider's early assessment on Arnold was that while some take him seriously as a movie actor, voters don't take him seriously as a politician. He doesn't have the experience or the qualifications. He's a celebrity first and foremost, a popular movie hero second, who had to bring in new voters to overcome the credibility gap. Schneider, like other political naysayers, was dead wrong. The mere fact that Arnold was a celebrity whose movies cater to the 18-35-year-old white male voter made Arnold the candidate to beat in the recall race. He motivated that constituency as well as those screaming, adoring fans (including many women) seen hounding him for autographs wherever he appeared. Not having political experience may have worried a CNN political commentator but it was a plus for disenfranchised voters who were willing to chance it on a celebrity multimillionaire who promised to 'pump up' those career politicians in Sacramento. This was Must-See TV, Arnold style. And cable networks from CNN to FOX to MSNBC found their catnip in Arnold sightings and Arnoldisms, so California voters were lulled in by that guy from the movies whose name we can't spell but who's now governor.

The best mass persuasion move for Arnold to make was to withhold details about his plans for actually governing the state. (Conversely, this is exactly what Gray Davis needed to be doing instead of harping about how much this recall process was costing the state. Water over the dam, Governor.) Like the get-to-the-punchline movie characters Arnold plays in his action pictures, he was much better off sticking to general themes over position papers. He showed up in Sacramento, broom in hand, promising to sweep out special interests and politics-as-usual. We just lapped that up. Even all those allegations about groping and pawing women, well, he promised that he would deal with them after the election. Why not put off today what you can tackle tomorrow?! His man-without-a-plan approach worked quite brilliantly, replaced by the Outsider over Insider, Public Interest over Special Interest platitudes. This may deeply disappoint my university colleagues who would have liked to see political substance and policy trump celebrity and lifestyle, but who are we kidding here? Ours is a mari-nation that soaks itself in 24-hour TV sound bites that titillate, entertain, and provoke talk radio chatter without taxing our brain. We have found the Champion among Champions in Arnold. He will deliver us from evil and puke politics. Please don't disappoint us now, Mr. Olympia, by talking and acting like a regular politician. We'd like to extend our frenzied reactions and lunge for another Arnie T-shirt.

Nancy Snow

Nancy Snow is a Senior Visiting Research Professor and Abe Fellow at Keio University in Tokyo working on a book about Japan’s image in the world since 3/11. Her forthcoming book is Truth is the Best Propaganda: Edward R. Murrow's Speeches in the Kennedy Years (Miniver Press). She can be reached at

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