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Turning on late-night talk TV these days has become an explosive experiment in fright. Flicking the channels, I'm terrified I'll catch Ashton Kutcher announcing his candidacy for president on "Jimmy Kimmel Live," or maybe the Olsen twins using the "Teen Choice Awards" as a platform to declare that they want to be joint Secretaries of Defense. Naturally, this terror state was prompted by Arnold Schwarzenegger's "Tonight Show" announcement that he's running for California governora thrilling moment for pop-culture vultures who get off on any kind of high-profile career move, but one that sent some serious political observers into apoplectic fits of cynicism.
Even as an actor, the guy has no experience! What's more, he seems to be exploitatively stepping into a volatile, Wild West situation where any crackpot with a handful of votes can take the booby prize. And besides, he still has a really thick accent. (Yes, some desperate commentators were actually bringing that up last week, though they should probably focus more on the content than the deliveryand remember, our president says "nucular.")
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Maybe scariest of all, Arnold doesn't seem nearly as undistinguished as some of the other choicesa veritable who's-who of "Who cares?" In fact, he's running against so many "Hollywood Squares" types (alongside the occasional earnest candidate, like Lieutenant Governor Cruz M. Bustamante) that it seems like the main prerequisite for getting your name on this ballot is having been the subject of an "E! True Hollywood Story." With omnipresent author Arianna Huffington (if not her gay ex-husband), First Amendment-sleaze-hero Larry Flynt, wacky "comedian" Gallagher, a porn star with even bigger boobs than Arnold's, and whatever-happened-to Gary Coleman all clogging the bill, the running man is starting to seem more credible by the minute. ("Consider that a divorce" trumps "Whatchoo talkin' 'bout, Willis?" in trash-culture resonance any time.)
Even perennial victim Ann Coulter had to admit on the Fox News Channel that since she was ready to cede Gray Davis's California back to Mexico anyway, maybe Arnie isn't so rotten an option, despite the fact that he's such a moderate Republican he could almost pass for a conservative Democrat. But whoa nelly, let's not get carried away by all the glitz and pecs that easily. How can a man who can't even put out a movie I'd watch on a circling plane hope to rule our fourth most important state? (I'm partial to Vermont and Hawaii these days.) I guess because it happens to be the state with the most swimming pools, dark glasses, and tit implants. Besides, when they're confronted with fiscal disaster and managerial chaos, peoplethe same ones who are wildly cheering at Kobe Bryant's public appearancesare so blinded by fame, wealth, and charisma that they're willing to write off potential shortcomings and coo, "Show us the way, Mr. Celebrity."
And the glamour factor exerts a pull for Arnold too. The hint of political glory must feel especially seductive to the man whose gubernatorial chances have caused way more of a stir than his recent film choices. "It was awkward when he did the press junket for Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines in June," Boston Herald film critic Stephen Schaefer tells me, "because he had to sit there and tell reporters, 'I'm here for Terminator, Terminator, Terminator!' Nobody wanted to discuss the movie. After a couple of hours, he really got pissed off because of the total emphasis on his political prospects." In spite of the lackluster press interest, T3 ended up doing semi-respectably here, raking in upward of $144 million so far, but it's rocked much more effectively overseas, where no one's ready to say "Hasta la biceps" just yet. The movie could have been hotter in America, says Schaefer, "but it shows that in the right project, Arnold still has an audience. He's not Van Damme or Stallone."
Alas, the "right project" tends to mean sequels in which he sticks to his "I'll be back" guns and reprises achingly familiar roles, though Arnold's willing to take an adventuresome leap to remakes, too. Pre-politics, he told the press he was committed to doing a retread of the sci-fi cult flick Westworld, which was expected to start filming next January. (He'd play the Richard Benjamin role, not the Yul Brynner robotbeen there.) But I bet Westworld never gets mechanized. It's as a candidate, not an actor, that Arnoldlike Bonzo-star-turned-Bozo-pol Reagan before himraises both excitement levels and eyebrows these days. Running for office actually isn't that much of a stretch for the real-life action hero, who always personified unadulterated upward mobility, conquering show biz with an unpronounceable name, barely detectable talent (until he hit upon the right blend of bravado and self-deprecation), and almost radioactive ambition. Like a better behaved Terminator, he methodically self-improved his way to the American dream and neatly accomplished his early goals of becoming an actor and marrying a Kennedy (Maria Shriver, who initially resisted being dragged into the political arena that's defined so much of her family, though she's apparently thought about it under pressure and now sees things hubby's way.)
Just like brainy '50s bombshell Jayne Mansfield (whose husband he played in a brainless TV movie), Arnold has always loved being underestimated based on his physique because it allowed him to surprise people with his sinewy mind. Some paint pre-stardom Arnold as a charming naïf, but one source who knows the guy from the early days tells me, "Everything he says is designed to construct an image or further a purpose. You can never be certain as to the veracity of anything he says." (Sounds perfect for politics.)