The Magazine

Arnold Agonistes

The end of the Schwarzenegger dream.

Dec 26, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 15 • By K.E. GRUBBS JR.
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Sacramento

SO STANLEY TOOKIE WILLIAMS has gone to his eternal fate, his final moments in San Quentin spent strapped to what inescapably looked like some late-model Barcalounger--an end more fitting for Homer Simpson than for the founder of the Crips. Tookie gave up his last breath effortlessly, a cocktail of state-provided lethal chemicals coursing sweetly through his system.

Arnold Schwarzenegger did this. Now, unlike the "Spare Tookie" crowd who find the death penalty more reprehensible than the cold-blooded slaying of convenience store clerks, I find the California governor's refusal to grant clemency to be perfectly in order, unquestionably just. Writing uplifting children's books and getting yourself nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize--it's easy if your lawyers and the international anti-death penalty movement orchestrate the campaign--cut no evidentiary ice with me.

Nor did the pro-Tookie narrative dissuade the governor from seeing the execution through. Those who held their pre-midnight vigil in the San Francisco Bay chill will remind you, invidiously, that the Golden State's chief executive sprang into public view as a celluloid barbarian. But were witnesses to Tookie's crimes not eyewitnesses? Was Tookie only boasting when he said he murdered those hapless people? Could he, conceivably, have been guiltless of the specific murders, four of them, for which he was convicted?

The governor noted that true redemption follows confession, which never came, and that Tookie Williams refused to help law enforcement break up his old gang. Me? I remember the pleasant neighborhoods around the Hollywood Park racetrack, where once I rode my bicycle unmolested to deliver newspapers. The Beach Boys used to party around there, for heaven's sake. That turf is now a battleground, alternately held by the Bloods and their enemies-to-death, Tookie Williams's Crips. There and throughout the Los Angeles basin the human toll of that quarter-century-old war reaches into the thousands. Tookie bore some responsibility for all that blood-soaked devastation.

A just execution, then. Still, it left me with the unmistakable feeling, shared by many of my co-Californians, and by some of my conservative brethren, too, of being plain old politically manipulated. The reason, of course, has everything to do with the precipitous drop in the governor's fortunes.

FLASHBACKS: Uninterested in either professional bodybuilding or the action-hero movie genre, I first had an inkling of Schwarzenegger's political inclinations from a mutual friend (in Arnold's case, a workout buddy), Dana Rohrabacher, now an Orange County congressman who was among the first to importune Arnold to enter the political arena. Then, in the early 1990s, the world-famous actor headlined a Reason Foundation dinner. His speech was pure Milton Friedman, whose PBS series, Free to Choose, he had also famously introduced.

Was there another Ronald Reagan, even more libertarian, about to spring from Hollywood into the political pantheon? It appeared so. To be sure, because of his Austrian birth, Schwarzenegger was barred from the presidency. But senator maybe? Governor? The ballroom of the Los Angeles Biltmore glowed with fervent wishes, all to be put on hold as Arnold resumed moviemaking.

In the spring of 2002, riding to the airport from downtown New Orleans with Lew Uhler, I listened to the longtime conservative activist discuss the nascent plan to recall the miserably performing governor, Gray Davis, a forlorn Democrat who'd mishandled the state's electricity grid and, with the Democratic legislature, opened a gaping deficit in the state budget. If such a recall could just get onto the ballot, we agreed, California voters would precipitate another earthquake felt around the world, in magnitude close to the Proposition 13 property tax limitation of 1978.

It would take another year and a half of groundwork from various activists and talk show hosts, but seismic pressure was building. And on October 7, 2003, Schwarzenegger swept past scores of motley candidates--including rightist-turned-leftist Arianna Huffington and former child star Gary Coleman--and into the governorship. Instantly ingratiating himself with voters, he kept his promise to repeal a Davis-era hike of the automobile tax. He talked about blowing up bureaucratic boxes, assembling a team of former officials and economists to review state government performance and target wasteful programs.

When, a year and a half ago, I arrived in the state capital to try to revive the old Sacramento Union as a monthly magazine and daily website, Governor Schwarzenegger looked invincible. After he traveled to New York to deliver an inspiringly inclusive speech to the GOP national convention, websites sprouted to repeal the constitutional ban on the foreign-born becoming president, much of the enthusiasm coming from outside the state. His poll numbers in the stratosphere, he seemed well on his way to restoring California as a political trendsetter.

Some observers, however, such as radio talker Mark Williams of Sacramento's ClearChannel powerhouse, KFBK-AM, had begun to notice things. For one, Arnold hadn't campaigned actively for President Bush's reelection. His vaunted plan to streamline state government was going nowhere, though at least the governor could cite a worker compensation reform that pleased the beleaguered business community. Arnold had become, said Williams in a low-blow reference to first lady Maria Shriver's family, "Schwarzenkennedy."

Eric Hogue, an evangelical Christian who does morning talk on the Salem network's Sacramento station, KTKZ-AM, emerged as one of the governor's leading apologists. Hogue and Williams feuded on the Union's blog. Schwarzenegger, thought Hogue, was doing all he could to navigate as a Republican governor through a town jointly operated by the Democratic party and the labor unions. That was my own view, when I wasn't feeling cynical. Wait--maybe that's when I was feeling cynical.

The governor made some noteworthy moves, one of them to pluck Milton Friedman apostle Tom Campbell, a onetime congressman, from the Berkeley business school and name him state finance chief. Campbell had a good run. But Schwarzenegger, who says all the politically correct things about global warming, also called for mandating and subsidizing solar power in new housing--an idea not exactly lifted from Free to Choose. And he backed last year's morally troubling embryonic stem cell research initiative, the passage of which has created a perpetual boondoggle that Californians can't afford in the form of a $3 billion taxpayer handout to private stem cell researchers. Maybe Williams had a point about the gravitational pull of Arnold's in-laws.

Early this year the governor proposed a special election. The Democratic legislature, wanting to terminate any good plans "the governator" offered, hadn't budged. He'd vowed, given such resistance, to take a basket of reforms directly to the people. He settled on four propositions, launching them cinematically as he drove his Hummer around the Sacramento suburbs. Did he imagine an action-hero assault on some leftover Davis administration citadel? Apparently.

His four propositions would have (1) stretched out the period before teachers could earn tenure; (2) required members' approval before unions could apportion dues to political causes; (3) empowered the governor to discipline state spending, overriding the legislature; and (4) taken redistricting authority away from the legislature, assigning it instead to a panel of retired judges.

This, I thought, would be big. And it was big--big because Arnold's initiatives fizzled. Ignominiously. All four went down on November 8 to crushing defeat, occasioning countless post-mortems. Dan Walters, the center-right columnist for the Sacramento Bee, commenced a series of ten columns on the governor's mistakes, as he saw them. The most salient: Schwarzenegger supposed that a charm offensive, exploiting his celebrity, would bring the legislature into line. And he cut a Faustian deal with the teachers' union, in which the pedagogues would delay a scheduled pay hike so that he could bring the state budget more closely into balance. Improved revenue streams actually enabled him to increase school spending. But because the dollars didn't pour directly into the teachers' pockets, they were able to accuse him of reneging.

So for months leading to the special--and needlessly costly, as voters came to feel--election, California television watchers were barraged with an Orwellian campaign in which teachers, firefighters, and other public workers accused the governor of being in cahoots with "special interests"--never mind that public workers constituted the biggest special interest of all, astonishingly able to afford monstrous television buys up and down the state.

Arnold never responded, not really. His supporters told themselves to wait, this was rope-a-dope, and they'd soon see him shellacking the public workers. But he'd lost his iron fortitude, at least the fortitude he'd scripted two years before to finish off Gray Davis. Indeed, just days before the election, he cast himself in a TV spot seeming to apologize for his very persona. Just give him the tools, he pleaded, and he'd finish the reformist job. That sealed his defeat.

Arnold Steinberg, probably California's smartest political strategist, predicted the disaster, arguing the mistake was in the bundling of all those propositions in a special election (see, in these pages, Steinberg's "Losing Propositions," Nov. 21). Any of them individually, provided it was included on a regularly scheduled ballot, might well have passed. Together, they allowed the opposition to pool their considerable resources.

No doubt true, but it was hard to fault the governor for taking his case to the voters as he'd promised. In the ruins, many of his supporters urged Schwarzenegger to find his inner Conan. Or at least his inner libertarian, California being a "socially liberal" state, especially in the coastal counties. A small government economic approach could also bring back the rural counties, which on the electoral map turn the Golden State a counterintuitive red. Political analysts on all sides waited for a sign.

IN LATE NOVEMBER, Schwarzenegger shocked Republican supporters by picking Susan Kennedy (no relation to Maria Shriver) to run his office. That means hiring and firing, policy, legislative negotiations, pretty much the whole gubernatorial shooting match. Kennedy, it so happens, served as cabinet secretary for Governor Gray Davis. Her appointment thus symbolically voids the recall itself. On top of that, she "married" her lesbian lover a few years ago in a Hawaiian ceremony attended by several Democratic legislators. That's way beyond the "social liberalism" most Californians feel comfortable with. She cut her political cuspids three decades ago in Tom Hayden's radical Campaign for Economic Democracy, ending up on the state's Public Utilities Commission, where, some claim, she experienced an antiregulatory epiphany. She did a stint as executive director of the state Democratic party.

The GOP reaction? Swift and vehement. Assemblyman Ray Haynes compared the appointment to a quarterback tossing the pigskin to the other team. Mark Johnson, a wealthy and influential Orange County Republican who oversees the board of trustees of the Hoover Institution, decried the freak decision by his fellow moderate: "I could be angry, I could be frustrated, but most of all I am just deeply saddened by the governor's choice. This appointment does more to alienate the governor's solid base of Republican support than anything I could have imagined in my worst nightmare." The California Republican Assembly, the party's conservative base, is circulating a petition to demand that the governor rescind the Kennedy appointment. Dan Schnur, former governor Pete Wilson's communications chief, suggested in his Los Angeles Times column that it's time for Arnold to run for reelection next year as an independent, if he runs at all.

Last week the governor gave Republican legislators an hour--an hour--of his time for them to vent. Vent they did, some diplomatically, some not so. The governor asked them to judge him by his record, touching on his plan to call next year for a multimillion-dollar bond for transportation improvement. According to various accounts, some were appeased. All will hear from the party base, which may be in more of a mood to take up Schnur's suggestion. If that happens, who will run for governor as a Republican next year? State Senator Tom McClintock, a solid conservative respected by the state's voters, has committed himself to running for lieutenant governor, but if Schwarzenegger goes independent, there could be time for the popular senator to move his crosshairs upward. Nobody from the private sector or academia, at this stage, looks interested.

Needless to say, a three-way race would disadvantage Republicans, many of whom, feeling misused and trapped by Schwarzenegger, could simply sit out the next election. What's more, they won't have comic actor, movie producer, and liberal activist Rob Reiner as a negative rallying point. Reiner, their biggest fear, has taken himself out of the race, perhaps figuring that Arnold has introduced enough comedy into state politics. The Democrats' best bet, if they can put aside the hack state treasurer Phil Angelides, is Steve Westly, the pro-business state controller. A founding executive at eBay and a polished speaker, Westly could persuade Republicans they can live with him.

LEW UHLER sits in his suburban Sacramento office and plots, which he's been doing since he worked for Governor Ronald Reagan in the sixties and seventies. Next year, he tells me, efforts will be made to place at least six more initiatives on the ballot, with help from Governor Schwarzenegger or without. That could repeat Steinberg's bundling problem, but Uhler, who worked on last fall's initiatives, rues the failure of the governor's team to mount a serious offensive. It's hard to resist the calculation that the next initiatives' handlers actually might be better off divorced from Arnold.

Still vague, those initiatives will probably include a way to augment the U.S. Border Patrol (Arnold has vacillated on the immigration issue); impose stiffer management on the state's constitutional amendment process; mandate voter identification (Californians do not have to produce an ID at polling places); bring back the "paycheck protection" proposal that keeps union members' dues away from unapproved political causes; introduce a school-choice tax-credit; and protect property owners (after the Supreme Court's ghastly Kelo decision) from eminent domain abuses. The last idea, with enthusiasts on both right and left, would be a splendid vehicle for McClintock.

Another potential player: Bruce McPherson, moderate Republican, former newspaper publisher and legislator, and the governor's appointed secretary of state. A splendid vehicle for him, should he discover higher ambitions, would be the voter identification initiative. "Voter files in most counties," warns Uhler, "are in bad shape." Indeed, voter fraud could be the sleeper issue of 2006.

I'M WITH DANA ROHRABACHER, near his district office in Huntington Beach, and we stop by a liquor store and deli owned by some Palestinian-American constituents. They want to know what's happening with their governor. Rohrabacher joshes with them, and then explains: "You know how it is. The governor will do 12 things, and 10 of them will be right." They seem placated. As we tote the falafels and gyros back to his house (where he's informally hosting, among others, a Special Forces trainer just back from Kurdistan, a nuclear scientist refugee from Romania, and Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, the virtuoso rock guitarist who's now a Defense Department adviser), I'm tempted to ask Dana to name Arnold's 10 good things. I don't bother.

Which brings us back to death row, where the governor faces clemency decisions more wrenching, but less celebrated, than Tookie Williams's. The next: a wheelchair-bound 75-year-old who needs heart surgery, a murderer who ordered three more slayings from his cell. An easy call, perhaps, for California conservatives, as I abandoned my own capital-punishment ambivalence in Tookie's case.

The governor's decision to execute the top Crip may have been clearly reasoned and uncluttered by political considerations. Perhaps even courageous: He departed, after all, from his European upbringing, with its anti-execution gestalt. Indeed, in Austria, where an athletic stadium was named for the hometown boy who made it big in America, there's a serious movement to rename it the Stanley Tookie Williams Stadion. He defied Hollywood, and probably even his wife.

But the thing is, we knew, after the Susan Kennedy fiasco, that he'd veer back right. That was scripted, triangulated. First, filling the state Supreme Court seat vacated by conservative heroine Janice Rogers Brown, picked by President Bush for the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, Schwarzenegger reached into the San Francisco appellate court and snagged a 57-year-old former prosecutor. Carol Corrigan is described as a moderate Republican. But the Republican right is not easily mollified by such sops, not that there's anything wrong with Judge Corrigan.

We learn now, post-Tookie, that the governor has stiffened standards for clemency. He thus joins a nationwide trend in which governors seldom overturn death penalties. The trend, certainly corresponding with, if not causing, the decline in murder rates, may please conservatives so much that it becomes a no-brainer for governors to manipulate them. That would not have been the way of Ronald Reagan, the last California governor, as it happens, to commute a death sentence. Whatever did happen to compassionate conservatism?

Logically, the new standards seem to preclude it. Even convincing evidence of death row remorse and redemption will not stay an execution. So why bother with the fiction that the governor holds such power? And why think the governor has done a good thing for conservatives, one among ten perhaps?

Increasingly, our well-muscled governor puts me in mind of Milton's Samson, who wondered:

But what is strength without a double share

Of wisdom? Vast, unwieldy, burdensome,

Proudly secure, yet liable to fall

By weakest subtleties; not made to rule . . .

Samson sought an "unfrequented place" for contemplation, a quiet venue where, having rejected predestination, he accepted that accountability accompanies free will. After the election disaster, Schwarzenegger commendably owned up to his mistaken strategy, even allowing that he should have listened to his wife.

Perhaps the governor finds such a place at the downtown Hyatt, where he's domiciled when in Sacramento, or in his personal gym. I could recommend one of my favorites, just minutes away in the Sierra foothills: Coloma. There, in 1848, on the south fork of the American River, James Marshall spotted among the rocks some nuggets of gold. He was building a timber mill for his boss, a German-Swiss immigrant named John Sutter.

American history turned on that fateful discovery; for the next few years Coloma and its environs were the center of the universe. If the Declaration of Independence warranted Americans their liberty, and Lewis and Clark paved the way, the accident at Coloma enriched Americans with a new narrative of adventure, mission, and possibility. The narrative inspired even the creation of Hollywood, which in turn inspired a young Austrian bodybuilder.

Coloma, not exactly "unfrequented" but close enough, now overlooks a state park. If the governor takes his Hummer there, he will spot an occasional tourist and the inevitable, requisite touring group of fourth-graders. Amid the stately oaks and manzanitas, standing perhaps on the wooden replica of Sutter's Mill, he can listen to clarifying waters. He can ponder how to renew the California Dream, maybe even restore it programmatically with a new emphasis on those old California values of individual freedom and responsibility.

At the very least, it's a great place for a photo-op.

K.E. Grubbs Jr. is a writer and editor in Sacramento.