Thursday, September 14, 2006

What We Learn About 'Character Issues' from Pass Being Given Schwarzenegger

You're the governor of the nation's most populous state, candidate for re-election after winning the post in a special recall vote three years earlier. Less than two months before this election day, a former live-in lover publishes a lenghty memoir recounting your drug use and enjoyment of pornography, which she observed, and infidelities, which she didn't observe until after the relationship had broken up. In response, you:
a. Issue a heated denial ("I did not watch Deep Throat with that woman, Miss Outland.")
b. Hire a political dirty trickster to undermine the credibility of the memoirist
c. Start a war with Nevada
d. Grant an interview to the former lover and write the foreword to her book
If you answered d., you're either Arnold Schwarzenegger or you've read the story recounted here. (Which, by the way, my blogging friend, John Schroeder linked to on his blog today). By all appearances, it looks like Schwarzenegger's response is the politic least in Caleefornia.

In fact, far from being upset with Schwarzenegger, California voters seem prepared to give him a gigundous re-election victory. So, is Schwarzenegger outfitted with Ronald Reagan-like Teflon? Maybe not. And I'll give you three possible explanations of why it isn't Teflon that accounts the governor's apparent imperviousness to attack over things alleged in the book by his former lover.

Maybe, for one thing, voters already thought their governor had engaged in the behaviors recounted in the memoir and have decided that they don't care. I'm reading Laurence Leamer's 2005 bio of Arnold right now. It's definitely not sanitized and was researched and written with the cooperation of Schwarzenegger and friends.

It's filled with revelations of the governor's departure from good behavior, some of which came out during his 2003 campaign. So, there's really nothing new that Schwarzenegger's one-time lover, Barbara Outland, can tell us.

Maybe, given that what happens in California is often a harbinger of coming trends in the rest of the country, the indifference with which revelations of Schwarzenegger's wild past and his handling of them tell us a lot about how US politics will be practiced in the future. Or, maybe this is how politics is already being practiced across America. Societal attitudes about the relationship between pols' personal lives and how they conduct themselves as public officials, are changing, to be sure.

In 1964, Nelson Rockefeller got no traction for his bid for the Republican presidential nomination, in part because of his divorce and rapid ensuing marriage to another woman. But by 1980, the divorced Reagan ran for President as a family values candidate. Bob Dole's emotionally brutal decision to divorce his first wife had no effect on his drive to the GOP nomination in 1996.

I'm reminded of the lines from the old Randy Newman song in which a father-to-be sings about his prospective son to his wife:
We'll have a kid
Or maybe we'll rent one
He's got to be straight
We don't want a bent one
He'll drink his baby brew
From a big brass cup
Someday he may be President
If things loosen up
Things have loosened up. And at the risk of shocking everybody, this is one preacher who thinks that that's not an altogether bad thing. None of us is perfect. And no one who runs for public office can claim moral perfection.

Having said that, I don't buy the argument advanced by some that what politicians do in their personal lives should have zero bearing on whether we vote for them or not.

It's difficult to erect walls between the facets of any of our lives. Pols' personal lives are relevant to consideration of their fitness for public office when a look at that life shows, not that they've made mistakes or committed sins--which all of us have done, but because patterns, good and bad, are seen.

The important thing to know is if there are patterns in pols' personal lives that bespeak either commendable character or enduring moral blind spots. Do they learn from their mistakes? Do they try to do the right thing? Do they hang in their with their commitments? A look at a candidates' personal lives will answer such important questions.

If a public figure is a serial adulterer, one who bugs out on marriages for no good reason, an inveterate liar, a long standing hedonist, a tax-cheat, an unreformed alcoholic, or whatever, these patterns of behavior will inevitably show up in how they do their work, giving voters legitimate reasons to doubt their reliability. And in the end, I think character is about reliability. My guess is that most voters, although likely to express themselves less long-windedly than I am here, would agree.

Maybe too, the voters of California are disinterested in the behaviors Outland recounts in her book about Schwarzenegger because they're all from the distant past. They would likely be upset if Schwarzenegger smoked pot or watched porn yesterday. But the events Outland talks about took place about thirty years ago.

Voters seem to believe that fairness demands the recognition of a kind of statute of limitations when it comes to looking at past indiscretions. President Bush realized this before many other pols, explaining why, during the 2000 campaign, he refused to answer questions about his life prior to age 40. He wouldn't defend actions he took that came before a defined point at which he started to get his life together. Voters respected that firewall. California voters, though often deemed by Red Staters as being flaky and unconscionably liberal, are really applying the same firewall to Schwarzenegger's life that Red State voters applied to George W. Bush six years ago. I think that's fair.

This last one, in fact, is the likeliest explanation for the pass being given Schwarzenegger.

A final thought: What's not happening to Schwarzenegger's political fortunes will give Rudy Giuliani hope that he can pass muster among conservative GOP primary voters whose concerns are more personal than political. There are questions about Giuliani's personal life and his caustic ways. The pass being given Schwarzenegger will be seen as a positive omen by the former New York mayor preparing to run for President.

Of course, it may be argued that Arnold's indiscretions are not as recent as those of Rudy and that Rudy's decision to leave his wife may indicate greater personal brutality than that exhibited by the mature Arnold. It will be difficult for Rudy to erect a Bush-style firewall for personal actions he's taken since entering public life and which are of recent vintage. But it's possible that there exists such a stockpile of well-deserved September 11, 2001-generated goodwill for Giuliani that he'll get that pass from voters who otherwise put a lot of stock in personal character in their pols.

Californians appear to have decided that their governor has grown up, much the same decision made by US voters about George W. Bush in 2000.

The jury is out as to how voters will respond to Rudy Giuliani in 2008.

[Thanks to Rick Moore at Holy Coast for linking to this piece.]

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