The Magazine

Arnold Agonistes

The end of the Schwarzenegger dream.

Dec 26, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 15 • By K.E. GRUBBS JR.
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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.