Summer Blockbuster, Fall Flop?
Can Schwarzenegger win his recall battle?


Peter Ueberroth’s withdrawal yesterday from the California recall race should, on the face of it, be a boost to a certain Austrian erstwhile celluloid star. It can be — but only if the star begins acting a bit more like the characters he played in his big-screen heyday.

One month ago, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s nascent gubernatorial campaign had all the right trappings of a Hollywood summer blockbuster: A glitzy rollout, multiple media appearances by the superstar leading man translates into great box-office numbers in its first weekend.

Four weeks later, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s nascent gubernatorial campaign has all the wrong trappings of a Hollywood summer blockbuster: Intense interest during the first fortnight suddenly developed swiftly diminishing returns as word-of-mouth — perhaps revealing a distinct lack of substance — fails to keep viewers coming to see the production.

Perhaps this shouldn’t have been a surprise because this has been the pattern of Schwarzenegger’s real celluloid projects over the last four years. Indeed, Arnold’s three films before the July release of Terminator 3, The Sixth Day, and Collateral Damage — made a cumulative $140 million. That’s approximately $45 million per picture. Considering Schwarzenegger commands over $20 million per film, it’s safe to say that none of the three made money — at least not in terms of the North American box office.

Indeed, that aforementioned $140 million those three films made in the U.S. isn’t too far off of T3′s $144 million domestic take, in itself quite a drop from the more than $200 million its predecessor Terminator 2: Judgment Day made a dozen years ago. Given inflation and the added theatres mega-blockbusters premiere in these days, T3 is not the overwhelming hit it had been predicted to be.

All this is to say that California and national Republicans should perhaps have been a bit more reticent in just assuming that Schwarzenegger would have been the silver-bullet sure-fire winner in his plunge into statewide politics. Yes, he’s got the name recognition, but he also seems like Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis — action heroes from a decade ago that don’t seem to fit into contemporary times.

Conservatives are certainly wary about whether they should support the erstwhile Terminator. But, one wonders whether congressional and other national Republicans should invest as much energy and commitment as they have. To turn Michael Dukakis’s 1988 slogan on its head, it’s not about ideology, it’s about competence. Does Schwarzenegger have either?

Rush Limbaugh early on compared Schwarzenegger to New York’s pseudo-Republican mayor Michael Bloomberg — a man who has raised taxes and shown limited appeal. While Limbaugh has backed off on that criticism somewhat, the comparison is quite apt. Bloomberg currently has a 24-percent approval rating, as much because of his political tin ear as for his lack of principles. It’s not surprising — Bloomberg, a billionaire, is someone who usually expects his every word and command to be followed. That’s great when you are running a huge business. As Bloomberg has found out, it doesn’t quite work as well when you are trying to run a government while negotiating with other elected officials and union leaders. There is such a thing as political acumen. Just because you can form a business and act in a movie — and make remarkable sums of money from those endeavors — doesn’t mean that you have that ability.

Perhaps because he wasn’t famously successful in movies, Ronald Reagan worked harder to develop that political gift. Indeed what separates the Terminator from the Gipper is that there was significant distance between Reagan’s acting career and his move into politics. Reagan’s leadership of the Screen Actors Guild was an ideal transitional role permitting him to observe and comment on a variety of state issues.

One wonders whether Reagan would have ducked the candidate’s debate as Schwarzenegger did last week. Reagan was a B-movie actor who acted like a leading man when he took the political stage. Schwarzenegger, in contrast, is a leading action hero acting like a B-movie actor when it comes to politics.

Here’s an idea: In the brief four weeks left, why doesn’t Schwarzenegger do something bold? If Arnold doesn’t like the idea of debating the other main recall contenders, how about if he completely ignores them? Why not challenge Gray Davis to a mano-a-mano debate? Considering Davis’s cheap shot this past weekend about Schwarzenegger’s accent, it would be an appropriate step. It would enable the former body-builder to step completely apart from the recall field and directly toward the governor.

Using his own media strength, he would dare a state or national media outlet to ignore it. His case would be simple: “California faces a crisis. Davis has ignored the problem, yet he believes he should stay in office. Let’s have a debate about the recall itself, the issues and their solutions. Davis thinks he deserves another chance. I believe I’m the best hope to restore the Golden State to its previous luster.”

Hey, it’s the recall; let the candidates make up the rules as they go along! Hoping, praying, and waiting as rivals such as Ueberroth, Bill Simon, and (the still-resistant) Tom McClintock drop out is a passive stance. Schwarzenegger’s image is that of a man of action. Daring Davis to a one-on-one debate would be a bold move. It would demonstrate that Schwarzenegger the politician is as bold and daring as they characters he plays in the movies. Besides the tactic would remind Reagan fans of the classic, “Excuse me, Mr. Speaker, I paid for this microphone.”

In short, it’s a maneuver that would be worthy of a true leading action hero. It might well reignite positive word-of-mouth for Schwarzenegger and perhaps save this summer August blockbuster from becoming the fall flop of October.

Robert A. George is an editorial writer for the New York Post.


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