Top Gun vs.Total Recall
By Frank Rich
New York Times
Sunday 14 September 2003
Only in America could a guy who struts in an action-hero's Hollywood costume and barks macho lines from a script pass for a plausible political leader. But if George W. Bush can get away with it, why should Arnold Schwarzenegger be pilloried for the same antics?
At least Mr. Schwarzenegger is a show-biz pro. He never would have signed on for a remake of "Top Gun" without first ensuring that it would have the same happy ending as the original. He never would have allowed himself to look as scared as the abandoned kid in "Home Alone" while begging the nation for cash and patience last Sunday night. He would have dismissed B-movie dialogue like "dead or alive" and "bring 'em on" with a curt "hasta la vista, baby!"
And while both men have signed on to the same Hollywood fantasy for fixing an economy spiraling into billions of dollars of debt - cut taxes, spend more - the foreign-born Mr. Schwarzenegger comes by his fiscal pipe dreams the old-fashioned American way. He earned his multi-millions himself rather than through sweetheart deals available exclusively to the well-pedigreed.
This is why the hypocrisy attending the Arnold phenomenon from all sides - Republicans, Democrats, the media - is an entertainment in itself. Decades after John Kennedy embraced the Rat Pack and Ronald Reagan conflated the heroism of World War II movies with his actual (noncombat, stateside) war experience, voters are inured to the reality that show-business tricks are in the arsenal of every would-be national politician. Only Washington remains shocked, shocked that there could be a "circus" in which our political culture becomes indistinguishable from "Extra" (on which Rob Lowe came out for Arnold).
The fun in watching Mr. Schwarzenegger is that, unlike Mr. Bush and most of his other political peers, he doesn't pretend to be above Hollywood stunts; he flaunts his showmanship and policy ignorance as flagrantly as those gaudy rings he wears. Rather than wait a few weeks to trade quips with a late-night TV comic, as Mr. Bush and Al Gore did in the 2000 campaign, he just cut to the chase and announced his candidacy to Jay Leno. The political press then pooh-poohed his decision to give his first interview to Pat O'Brien of "Access Hollywood" instead of, say, Tim Russert. But Mr. O'Brien, who began his career working for David Brinkley at NBC News in Washington, points out that most of his supposedly more serious colleagues were condescending to Mr. Schwarzenegger as a show-biz joke anyway, with their dim wordplays on the titles of his movies. "Everybody ought to take a deep breath and realize the guy is a candidate now, not the Terminator," Mr. O'Brien says. "There aren't enough of those metaphors to last until the election."
When Ronald Reagan was asked to predict what kind of governor of California he'd make, he famously answered: "I don't know. I've never played a governor." As his biographer, Lou Cannon, has written, Reagan ran for that office not knowing how bills were passed or budgets were prepared. In this sense, Mr. Schwarzenegger has admitted to being somewhat Reaganesque. His ideology, though, is way to the left of his party, despite all the lip service he pays to being a fiscal conservative. (Howard Dean is a fiscal conservative, too.) Mr. Schwarzenegger is pro-choice, pro-gay rights, pro-gun control, pro-green. He has said that the Clinton impeachment made him "ashamed" to call himself a Republican.
It is hilarious to watch conservatives - the same conservatives who often decry phony Hollywood liberals and their followers - betray their own inviolate principles to bask in Arnold's hulking movie-star aura so that they might possibly gain a nominal Republican victory in the bargain. Even the 1977 Oui magazine interview in which Mr. Schwarzenegger bragged about participating in orgies - not to mention his repeated admissions of drug use - can't frighten them away.
Arnold may have ducked questions about affirmative action, but that hasn't stopped Fox's star-struck Sean Hannity from gushing that he's "as forthright as any politician I've ever interviewed in my life." As for the Oui confessional, Bill O'Reilly said: "So what? He's a new guy." Rush Limbaugh at first questioned Mr. Schwarzenegger's conservative bona fides, but of late has been hedging, praising Arnold for "the charisma, the star power, the stage presence . . . the likability, the personality" and saying that he never meant to imply that he "is not worthy." No less a religious conservative than Pat Robertson came out for La-La-Land's pro-gay, pro-choice Republican as well: "I'm a body-builder. . . . So I think the weight lifters of the world need to unite."
Ann Coulter has a term for conservatives who wimp out like this -"girly boys." But she's gone all girly herself over Arnold, telling Larry King that "I'm impressed enough that he's in Hollywood, he's married to a Kennedy and he still calls himself a Republican - that's good enough for me." Perhaps. Her friend, Bill Maher, has taken a somewhat darker view of these unlikely political conversions. "If his father wasn't a Nazi," he has said of Arnold, "he wouldn't have any credibility with conservatives at all."
In the glitz arena, Mr. Schwarzenegger's opponents have a deficit as large as the dollar shortfall in the state's budget. Desperate bit players will do desperate things to grab a spotlight. Cruz Bustamante, the Democratic lieutenant governor, has had to liken himself to Danny DeVito, Arnold's co-star in "Twins." Arianna Huffington has lured extras to a rally by promising them the chance to be on television - as if her nonstarting campaign might be confused with "American Idol." Tom McClintock, the conservative Republican state senator, has compared himself to the eponymous hero of "Seabiscuit." (This sad analogy has also been trotted out in the fledgling 2004 presidential race, by Dennis Kucinich.) Poor Governor Davis: the closest he's come to Hollywood glamour is an interview Cybill Shepherd gave to The San Francisco Chronicle testifying that he was "a good kisser." Or at least he was 36 years ago, which she pinpointed as the occasion of their last lip lock.
Serious politicians try to pretend that they won't go in for contrived sets and props, but of course they do. Even Dr. Dean, the least show-biz of presidential candidates (so far), felt compelled to appear at a New York City rally in front of a backdrop commissioned from a graffiti artist, as if to plant the subliminal visual cue he had an urban hip-hop following. (In fact, he has scant discernible black support, hip-hop or otherwise.) John Kerry - after posing in a wet suit in Vogue and on a Harley Davidson in Time - made the "official" announcement of his candidacy in front of a retired aircraft carrier in South Carolina, about as much a sweet spot on the map for him as Woody Allen's Manhattan would have been for Strom Thurmond.
Washington commentators see through these theatrics when the special effects are ham-fisted enough (as in Mr. Kerry's case) or when they literally have Hollywood written all over them (as in Mr. Schwarzenegger's). But since 9/11, too many journalists have been all too willing to look the other way when the Bush administration engages in Hollywood showmanship to cover up its failings. Some have gone so far as to help foment the fictions. Showtime, the cable network, boasts that no fewer than three journalists, including the Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, were involved in assuring the accuracy and balance of the docudrama "DC 9/11: Time of Crisis," first shown last Sunday while the actual George W. Bush was addressing the nation. But this film, made with full Bush administration cooperation (including that of the president himself), is propaganda so untroubled by reality that it's best viewed as a fitting memorial to Leni Riefenstahl. The script vouched for by Mr. Krauthammer and a couple of other Beltway boys presents Dick Cheney as a mere supplicant to the all-knowing Mr. Bush and somehow lets the administration (though not its predecessor) off the hook for letting Osama bin Laden and his Saudi enablers slip away.
New polls reveal that Americans increasingly realize that they have been had. Reruns are not kind to this White House's scripted costume drama of May 1; the seams show. More and more viewers recognize that the banner reading "Mission Accomplished" in the "Top Gun" spectacle was idle set decoration, especially given that the number of American casualties in that mission has more than doubled since then. They know, too, that the president's uniform was from stock, and perhaps by now have heard how his speech was deliberately delayed almost three hours after his tailhook landing so that it would fall into that magical twilight hour that cinematographers find most romantic. Some may even realize that the president's breezy dialogue upon deplaning - "I miss flying, I can tell you that" - was too ironic by half, given that he had actually missed some of his required flights during his stay-at-home stint for the Texas Air National Guard while others fought the Vietnam War.
There was only one bit of unadorned realism in the White House's slick "Top Gun." The servicemen and women on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln were not dress extras; they were actual troops whose deployment at sea had been extended from 6 months to nearly 10, the longest by a carrier in 30 years, to help fill the maw of an understaffed war. According to the Navy's press office, members of the Lincoln's crew photographed with the president on that day may have already been redeployed on another carrier. It is the real-life terminators on the prowl in Iraq, not the sentimental White House screenwriters responsible for "Mission Accomplished," who are poised to write the ending for that crew and all their fellow troops now.
Jump to TO Features for Tuesday 16 September 2003