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.

Last year was another terrible one for the Kennedys, showing again that even unblemished young faces can't survive the burden of creaking ideas. RFK's son Max announced in Massachusetts for Congress, but stumbled so badly in his very first outings that he quickly pulled out to save further embarrassment. Kennedy-in-law Andrew Cuomo of New York shot himself in the foot with a feral attack on George Pataki, and then ran a campaign so abysmal that the Clintons had to put it out of its misery before he had a chance to lose in the primary. Mark Shriver (Maria's brother), an attractive young man with an unspotted record, could not make his case to primary voters in Maryland, who knocked off his bid for Congress. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, whose public career began with essays that showed promise of the kind of tough mind and curious spirit that made her father so interesting, ended with a disastrous run for the governor's mansion in Maryland as a conventional party-line liberal, in thrall to fringe causes and interest groups. By 2003, the sole remnants of the Kennedy dynasty were Ted Kennedy in the Senate (in his forty-first year) and in the House, his younger son, Patrick, from whom no one expects a bright future.

What can be done to revive these twin turkeys? The great charm of Schwarzenegger is that he plays against type. The Kennedys are much too conspicuously a tribe of inheritors, generations removed from their sources of energy. Arnold returns them to their entrepreneurial, and even their immigrant, roots. He is rich, but not from trust funds. A millionaire even before he went into the movies, his record of dipping into and cashing out on a number of ventures recalls the career of Joseph P. Kennedy, and in some ways repeats it, without the shady connections. In fact, much about him recalls Joseph P. Kennedy--the huge goals envisioned and held over decades, the reinventions, the fascination with money and power--minus appeasement, and with better political instincts. In his book on the Adamses, Richard Brookhiser defines the tag-ends of the dynasty--Brooks and Henry--as being descendants by nature and temperament. Schwarzenegger thinks like a founder. It shows.

The second thing Schwarzenegger can do for the dynasty he married into is to extend its political reach. Where the Bushes prospered by evolving and migrating--from New England to the burgeoning Sunbelt; from haut WASP to born-again Texan and Catholic-Hispanic--the Kennedys have remained tied to the northeast corridor (sharply declining in population and power) and to a political culture that does not translate well in other parts of the country. As Michael Knox Beran and others have noted, they have not been creative in their means of expression, trying to do what their forebears did, though rather deftly. A Californian, a film star, a magnate, and an immigrant is a great disrupter of a clan become rather too stale and too boring. The Kennedys badly need a new locus of power, away from the Northeast and Ted. The third thing that Arnold can do for this family is simply to be the not-Ted.

And everything Arnold can do for the Kennedys would be put in reverse for the Republicans. For the Kennedys, he would have to tug them rightwards, toughen them up, snap them out of their sloppy behavior. For the California Republicans, he would have to open them up to the center, and make them looser, funnier, more lively.

In recent years, the California Republicans' idea of a campaign has been to round up a stiff in a suit, have him read angry lectures on taxes and values, and then seem surprised when he doesn't get votes. If Democrats have to seem tough in big races, conservatives have to seem inclusive and open. Conservatives win when they look good in shirtsleeves, and embrace big coalitions in warm, suntanned arms. Ronald Reagan was a "cultural Democrat," who knew how to talk to the old New Deal voters. George W. Bush was (and is) a compassionate conservative, who talks about love, and now and then sheds a tear. Arnold is in this mold, and then some--a rare opportunity for the party to gain purchase with groups that had written them off.

Arnold arrived in this country with free-market dreams, and then married into the Shrivers of Maryland, one of the least partisan branches of the political Kennedys, and also the most philanthropic. Long before George Bush the elder discussed "points of light," the Shrivers were their very own twinkling galaxy. Arnold's mother-in-law, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, was always the most serious Kennedy sister, the one most akin to her brother the president. As a young woman, she had a job with the Department of Justice that took her deep into prisons and slums. "At Alderson Prison, she had caught on to the inmates and their cons, and knew that to help them was not to excuse them," writes Laurence Leamer in "The Kennedy Women." "In Chicago, she had wrestled down a juvenile delinquent, and her concern was tough, and if need be almost merciless." Talk about muscular liberalism! Match this approach with a free market message, and you might have a theme that could cross party lines. Can it pull left and right from their dire miasmas? Maybe. Of course, "Death Wish" was a hit movie too.

Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.