The Magazine

Conan the Resuscitator

Will Schwarzenegger revive the fortunes of the Kennedys and the GOP?

Sep 15, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 01 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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HAVING SAVED THE WORLD many times over in one hit movie after another, Arnold Schwarzenegger now has the chance to breathe life into two real-world but comatose bodies: the Republican party of California and the Kennedy machine. Both once were fountains of power and energy. Both now are flat on their backs.

Time was when the Republican party of California was a powerhouse that elected two presidents in one eight-year span (1972-1980), held the governorship for 16 years in succession, had no trouble winning seats in the Senate, and set the Great Communicator on his way to the White House. That was then. Now, California is one of the most intractably Democratic states, with the statehouse, all major state offices, both houses of the legislature, the congressional delegation, and both U.S. Senate seats in the hands of the Democrats.

California Republicans like to think they are carrying on in the tradition of Reagan, but what they really recall is the conservative movement in its suicide phase, circa 1964, with the ferocious tong wars between wings of the party, Barry Goldwater's defense of extremism, and his insistence that he didn't need dissidents. Turned out he did. Ronald Reagan would give his party the Reagan Democrats, moderates and liberals he convinced to cross over. Goldwater gave them the Johnson Republicans, centrists he had driven out of his party, on his way to a historic loss. Reagan's inspiration was to realize that you win elections by making "outsiders" feel welcome. Recently, California Republicans have been choosing their candidates on the theory that someone who can get Democrats' votes is suspicious. Needless to say, in a state in which Democrats outnumber Republicans 45 percent to 35 percent, this logic doesn't win a lot of elections.

But if nothing has gone right for California Republicans since 1994, they are still better off than the Kennedy dynasty, for which nothing has gone well since 1969, the year premature patriarch Edward M. Kennedy drove his car off a bridge on the Cape Cod peninsula, killing Mary Jo Kopechne and his own future in national politics. In retrospect, Chappaquiddick can be seen as the incident that broke the Kennedy story in half, marking off the heroic age before it from the decadent one that came after. Ted Kennedy has not moved beyond the Senate, to which he was elected at 30, and no member of the third generation has yet made it to the Senate or into a governor's mansion. Many members of this generation are living blameless lives in worthwhile pursuits, but the Kennedys who made news in recent decades have often seemed up to no good: in headlines and trouble for bullying wives, seducing friends' children, trashing yachts, shoving security guards at the airport, having drug problems, standing trial for rape. Stories about them now read like the Judith Krantz genre.

But even if Ted Kennedy had made it over Dike Bridge, even if his nephews had said no to drugs and to danger, the Kennedy project would still have been in for lean times. While being a bad example in the deportment department, Ted Kennedy led his heirs off on a leftward vector that carried them out of the national mainstream, making them unelectable on the national level, and in all but a handful of states. As a result, John Kennedy's pledge to "bear any burden and pay any price" is closer in spirit to the modern Republican party, and his signature call to give more to your country than you try to take from it has been recast by his heirs to mean there is nothing too much you can ask from your country, which owes you more than you know. There will not soon again be another Kennedy president. Ted's own run in 1980, when he managed to lose to the inept Jimmy Carter, was as stunning an act of negative talent as Bill Simon's loss of the California governorship to a deeply unpopular Gray Davis in 2002.