The Blog

Clintonism Saves Schwarzenegger

You won't believe what Arnold told Oui magazine in 1977. What's more unbelievable? In today's political environment, it may not matter.

12:20 AM, Aug 29, 2003 • By BILL WHALEN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

First, where Arnold is concerned, journalists are reluctant to traffic in old material--as long as the candidate isn't leading with his chin. "I go to the issue of relevance," says Mark Z. Barabak, who's covering recall for the Los Angeles Times. "How much of a bearing does this have on his capability to be governor? That's not necessarily a what-he-does-after-he-leaves-the-office-is-his-business way of thinking. If, for example, he were running as a moralist or on a platform of sexual abstinence or something like that, then you start getting into the truthfulness, hypocrisy question, which is another way of saying character, I suppose. I think his truthfulness, honesty and, obviously, character have a good deal to do with how he would comport himself and handle the office of governor. Ergo, it's relevant and important to explore under those particular circumstances."

Second, when asked Wednesday about the Oui interview, Schwarzenegger took the issue head-on. He didn't lie; he didn't parse language. "I haven't lived my life to be a politician," Arnold told a radio interviewer. That's similar to what candidate George W. Bush did in 2000 when asked about his past indiscretions. Bush's line: "When I was young and irresponsible, I was young and irresponsible." Reporters will accept that. It's spin and double-standards that antagonize them.

Third, while being non-Clintonesque about his past, Arnold benefits in a political environmental redefined by the former president. In 1997, a bombshell like the Oui interview or, as in the 2000 election, the last-minute revelation of a drunk-driving offense probably would be a fatal hit to a newcomer like Arnold. In California's 1992 Senate race, for example, Republican Bruce Hershenson couldn't recover from a Democratic dirty trick that he frequented adult bookstores.

Clinton's impeachment takes that standard to a new level, by raising the bar for lewdness to Olympian heights. As tawdry as Schwarzenegger's words from 1977 are, compare them to the Starr Report. Arnold will have to do far more inventive things with his Cohibas than smoking them if he's to surpass the shock factor of the late nights and Easter Sundays in the Clinton Oval Office.

Once again, Bill Clinton proves to be the gift that keeps giving. He told Gray Davis that he can survive recall by holding townhall meetings and blaming Republican conspirators. Now, his scandalous past gives Arnold political cover. It turns out there is a bridge to the 21st century--and it leads to the recall.

Bill Whalen is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, where he follows California and national politics.