WHICH DESERVES MORE ATTENTION: Arnold Schwarzenegger talking issues, or a 26-year-old issue of a "gentleman's" magazine in which the former Mr. Universe boasts how he-men and hedonism go hand in hand? Watch for the public and press to struggle with this--and other controversies from Arnold's past--as recall rounds Labor Day and sprints to the October 7 finish line.

On Wednesday, while Arnold was making the rounds on California talk radio and laying out his views on various social topics like abortion and gun control, websites began running the text from his August 1977 interview with Oui magazine, a now-defunct Playboy publication. Keep in mind this was five years before "Conan the Barbarian" and a full seven years before the original "Terminator" flick, when Schwarzenegger was in transition from muscleman to leading man.

At that point in his career, Schwarzenegger was at his most outrageous--as you'll notice in his 1975 documentary, "Pumping Iron"--acting and saying whatever it took to be noticed. And, the performer that he is, Arnold never failed to pump up the volume.

Among the highlights from Oui:

*Asked if he used "dope," Arnold replied: "Yes, grass and hash--no hard drugs. But the point is that I do what I feel like doing. I'm not on a health kick."

*As for gays: "Men shouldn't feel like fags just because they want to have nice-looking bodies . . . Gay people are fighting the same kind of stereotyping that bodybuilders are: People have certain misconceptions about them just as they do about us. Well, I have absolutely no hang-ups about the fag business . . ."

*His pre-California days in Germany: "I was living in Munich at the time, hanging out with night people--entertainers, hookers, and bar owners--and I had a girlfriend who was a stripper. I was an innocent boy from a farm town, but I grew up fast in Munich."

*And his new life in the Golden State: "Bodybuilders party a lot, and once, in Gold's--the gym in Venice, California, where all the top guys train--there was a black girl who came out naked. Everybody jumped on her and took her upstairs, where we all got together."

There's more--much more--and most of it's unsuitable for family reading. Unless your family business is adult films. By the way, if you want to purchase of a copy of the entire magazine, one's available on eBay. (In addition to the interview with Arnold, the seller promises: "Other articles include UFO aliens in Tennessee, the plot to kill Gerald Ford, Dyanne Thorne--Ilsa She-Wolf of the SS--and the ladies' pictorials aren't too bad, either.")

How will this sit with voters? With some, not well. Republicans have to campaign in two Californias: the more populated and progressive coast, stretching from San Diego to San Francisco, and the conservative inland, which includes the Inland Empire, the Central and Sacramento Valleys, and the "Big Empty" up north. Arnold's moderate stances serve him well along the coast. However, he needs that inland vote to fend off his chief competition, Democrat Cruz Bustamante. At present, too many of them are willing to vote for Tom McClintock, the more conservative Republican. More interviews like this won't help his cause with a non-coastal crowd that thinks hot tubs are for therapy, not play.

Of course, that's if the press plays this game. The Oui interview made the rounds on the Internet on Wednesday (interestingly, the conservative Free Republic site ran a link to the story, but not the text). By Thursday, it was on the cable news shows. Meanwhile, California reporters refused to take the bait. In Thursday's papers, the focus was on Arnold detailing that he's pro-choice (in favor of parental notification but against partial-birth procedures), supports the Brady Bill, opposes offshore oil-drilling, favors "limited" school vouchers, is against drug legalization but for medicinal marijuana, and disagrees with giving drivers' licenses to illegal aliens. There was no mention of Oui.

Why did the California media take the high road when, just days ago, they didn't hesitate to report on Arnold's father's Nazi past? My guess:

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.

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