On my first day as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s press secretary, I realized this would be a campaign unlike any other. One reporter wanted a picture with Arnold. The cameramen wanted pictures and autographs. Newspaper staffers high-fived each other during editorial-board meetings. We could not get away from the hoopla that usually surrounds the Terminator because some of the journalists were behaving like fans.
During the course of Schwarzenegger’s successful after-school program initiative in California last year, I saw journalists acting more like they were covering a rock star than a sponsor of a statewide proposition.
The star’s entourage was accustomed to controlling the press. One Schwarzenegger entertainment staffer actually suggested — no, demanded — that I deliver to her every question that Arnold would be asked prior to an interview. I tried to explain that the political world does not work that way. When it became obvious that this person would not let new information get in the way of old habits, I made it clear that I would be performing consulting malpractice if I ever asked a political reporter for advance questions. The very fact that the campaign had asked for the questions would have become the story.
So things could get very interesting if Schwarzenegger seizes the opening provided by a burgeoning effort to recall Democrat Gray Davis and jumps into the race for governor. Rather than dealing with fawning Hollywood reporters or news-oriented scribes covering a family-friendly initiative, Arnold would face a new kind of sustained press scrutiny — on everything from his political positions to his finances to his personal life. How he handles it could determine whether the moderate Republican rides into the governor’s office on a Hummer or finds his political engine stalled.
California voters are on the brink of deciding whether to green-light a ballot measure to recall Davis, the most unpopular governor in Golden State history, who was reelected last November during a pathetically low-turnout election. While such a recall is the definition of bad public policy, requiring simply that the officeholder be considered “unsatisfactory,” the effort is moving along at warp speed.
If the measure receives the required 900,000 signatures, voters would make a simultaneous one-two punch on whether to oust Davis and, on the same ballot, pick his successor. That means Schwarzenegger could propel himself onto the recall bandwagon without having to win a divisive Republican primary. He can appeal to fiscally responsible, socially moderate California voters from all parties. It is, in short, the perfect storm for launching his long-anticipated political career.
Although Schwarzenegger is known best as an actor, he is just as much a businessman and CEO of the Arnold empire. He has managed large budgets and understands the importance of focusing on the bottom line. The recall’s winner will be handed the dubious prize of a $38-billion budget gap. Schwarzenegger might be just the person to take a crack at terminating California’s record deficit.
But first he must do battle in a very different arena. During the campaign to increase after-school programs, I saw how entertainment reporters were often fawning toward Arnold. They are accustomed to ingratiating themselves with stars so they will get first crack at future interviews and photo spreads.
Political reporters were deferential toward Schwarzenegger last time, but in a gubernatorial campaign they will dig much deeper. This time the actor would be putting himself, not a mother-and-apple-pie cause, on the line.
If Arnold is allowed to be himself, he’ll do just fine. If his handlers try too hard to protect him, he will be left with a frustrated press corps that will intensify its efforts and become more aggressive as the campaign grinds on.
Schwarzenegger is extremely media savvy. He has more experience dealing with reporters than any first-time candidate in history, not to mention one of the most recognizable voices in the world. He knows how to get his points across, doesn’t get flummoxed, and can stay on message without abandoning his sense of humor. This talent has served him well in promoting everything from Total Recall to his latest, Terminator 3. This is not your typical policy-wonk candidate.
No matter how much a reporter tries to avoid it, Arnold is a larger-than-life figure. Journalists from around the world are itching to cover a Terminator race. Such a contest would be a real test for both the reporters and the candidate, who for the first time will have to take some punches that aren’t staged by a director.
— Sheri Annis is a media consultant in Washington D.C.