LOS ANGELES–In the 1960 cliffhanger presidential election, Richard Nixon lost to John F. Kennedy. Two years later, Nixon ran for governor of California against Edmund G. (“Pat”) Brown. The day after losing, Nixon held his infamous “last press conference.” When the bitter Nixon said, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.” he was talking about Dick Bergholz, the hard-driving veteran Los Angeles Times political reporter. (Bergholz died three years ago.)
The idiosyncratic Bergholz was persistently repetitive. That is, unless this reporter could find closure, he would relentlessly pursue (recycle?) the same points. And his editor would let him do it. What if Bergholz had covered this recall? Arnold Schwarzenegger would have been in trouble, sooner rather than later. Life would have been tougher for the novice candidate.
Mr. Bergholz would have raised each Arnold paradox, contradiction, flip-flop, and revisited them daily. For example, in 1978, Democrat Jerry Brown ran for reelection against Republican Attorney General Evelle Younger. Bergholz was obsessed with Younger’s multiple positions on government pensions. No matter what news conference Younger held, whatever the topic, Bergholz seemed to ask about the triple-dipping, and the subject would somehow make its way into an article about a totally different subject.
Print journalist Dick Bergholz had contempt for television reporters. He saw them as unserious. When they set up, he looked the other way. Back then, cameras were bigger and heavier, lighting was larger and more intrusive. Bergholz might wait until TV and radio reporters finished asking questions, so he could ask “serious” questions. He would have been appalled that Entertainment Tonight could define this campaign.
As much as he disliked the broadcast reporters, Bergholz had a symbiotic relationship with them. That’s because articles written by him helped define the campaign and shape their coverage. And what would he have written, daily, about Arnold Schwarzenegger–each paradox, each contradiction, each flip-flop? You’re for Prop 13; but key adviser Warren Buffett would undo it. You’re an outsider; but your team is all-insider. You’re self-funding; but you’re raising money from others. You’re against special interests; but your money is from powerful people with business before state government. You won’t discuss issues that involve settled laws that you won’t repeal; but you will repeal the driver’s licenses for aliens law. You’re against gay marriage; but you’re for gay adoption. You’re not for tax hikes; but you’ll raises taxes on Indian gaming. And so forth. Bergholz would wear down a candidate.
Arnold Schwarzenegger seemingly has had a free ride, with, perhaps, a bumpy ending. Yesterday, the Los Angeles Times charged Arnold is a serial groper. The article arguably represents a declaration of war against a future governor. Former Los Angeles Mayor Dick Riordan has led the attack on what many Republicans see as a well-timed smear of Arnold. But editor John Carroll says the article was printed when it was ready. Former Times reporter Jill Stewart called it “a planned hit.” She has criticized the newspaper for not running articles about Gov. Gray Davis’s verbal and possibly physical abuse of state employees. Yet, the bottom line is this: If the Times wanted only to destroy Arnold, it would have broken this story weeks earlier. That’s when McClintock first gained, and when Arnold was most vulnerable.
My wife thought Arnold handled a difficult situation well: The manner in which he apologized, the words he chose, and his almost self-effacing nuances. She is a reliable proxy for many women voters. To her, he seemed vulnerable, yet strong enough to apologize in front of a crowd. He seemed sincere.
All that said, it’s clear the apology was a sudden, improvised, maneuver. That’s because it followed the campaign’s quick denial. Obviously, you don’t deny something for which you will apologize.
In Thursday’s debate, Tom McClintock remained above the fray: “I’m somewhat skeptical of last-minute charges…[and] character assassination.” He then spoke about signing the no-tax pledge. Cruz Bustamante was pedantic: “misdemeanor sexual battery for touching intimate parts.”
Adam Nagourney and David Kirkpatrick, writing in Friday’s New York Times describe a 1970s Schwarzenegger as an admirer of Hitler. It is true that Arnold’s father was a Nazi officer. But no reasonable person holds the son responsible for the sins of his father. Moreover, Schwarzenegger has demonstrated an interest in confronting prejudice. He has been a major donor to the Simon Wiesenthal Center, but cynics will not be pacified.
“I despise anything that Hitler stands for, anything he has done, hated the Nazism…,” Schwarzenegger said Thursday. But he did not deny making the extended upbeat comments about Hitler or deny playing Nazi marching songs and pretending to be an S.S. officer. Instead, he cautiously said he did not recall any of this. Dick Bergholz would never accept faulty recollection.
“All this stuff” (Arnold’s term) will not matter unless it becomes “hand-to-hand combat” (Arnold’s term), linked to everything Arnold has said and done in this campaign. In other words, the recall election would be decided on the credibility of Arnold Schwarzenegger, not Gray Davis.
–Arnold Steinberg is a California-based political strategist.