Neighborly Analysis

There are worse things in politics and life than having the Terminator as your governor.

Here's my obligatory column about the California recall election. Better late than never.

For longtime Arizonans, thoughtful, fair political commentary about California presents special challenges, mostly because of our natural attitude toward the state to the left: sullen resentment spiked with fear and envy. California is immense, rich, powerful and glamorous, while Arizona is someplace murder suspects disappear to in TV dramas. More important, California is all that stands in the way of Arizona having a beach--and the long-awaited Big One keeps not delivering on the promise of a greatly expanded Sea of Cortez. Finally, "California people" persist in trickling in over the border and building big, ugly houses in the Foothills. (Don't these people understand that they aren't welcome? It's not that we're prejudiced; it's just that they don't belong here.)

On the other hand, our winter rains come from California, and we appreciate that. Our kids love Sea World. And most Arizonans know that we have no room to make fun of anyone else's gubernatorial politics, ever. (The worst thing I've heard so far about Arnold Schwarzenegger is that he and Maria recently had dinner with Mr. and Mrs. Fife Symington.)

However fraught our view of our big golden neighbor, though, we in Arizona have an advantage over the Eastern media when it comes to understanding what goes on next door: We don't view the entire state with condescension.

So Arnold got the job. (The day after the election, our cutting-edge morning paper identified him as "a Republican actor-turned-politician." The Star lifts us from our slough of ignorance once again.) You know what? That doesn't seem to me like a sign of the coming apocalypse. But then, I'm a stranger to the Beltway heart of the chattering classes, the George Wills and Maureen Dowds who've been rolling their eyes for weeks and asking, Leno-like, "What have those wacky Californians gotten up to now? How could even a bunch of beach-bunnies prefer an obviously stupid and violent actor to the real pols, the übermenschen who've spent years doing government-type things like managing budgets and deregulating utilities? Why, voters in California seem to think that electoral politics in this country are a joke!"

Hello? They are.

What powered this recall thing was disgust, which an entity as large as an electorate can only express with big, crude gestures. Like the country as a whole, California is awakening from the happy dream of a virtuous, regular-guy president to the reality that politicians lie--even the ones rich and lucky enough to be ordained president. Millions of people, lots of them in California, really believed Bush, and for them, this is a painful, disappointed time. (For the rest of us, it's just painful.) Very powerful emotions--grief, rage, patriotism--have been manipulated for very base ends.

Californians are also unhappy about having been told that they could pay hardly any taxes and still enjoy all the parts of government they liked--like infrastructure and functioning schools. Proposition 13 (remember that, o my children?) hasn't worked out all that well: Possibly the greatest educational system in the world just 20 years ago is now an eerie ruin, and that's just one face of the disaster. More recently, Californians were promised that if they trusted in the hard right's vision of a deregulated paradise, the private sector would sparkle in on fairy wings and reduce electric rates. What they got instead was rolling blackouts, massive corporate extortion and an $8 billion deficit.

So, basically, the voters of California are not in that great a mood. Why shouldn't they feel that if they've got to listen to another lying bastard, it might as well be a lying bastard they kind of like? Why not Arnie?

(Because he's been known to grab starlet ass? I'm struggling to get on with my life in the wake of that revelation.)

In fact, I have no opinion as to whether making him governor was a good idea or not. One of the many reasons I'm happy not to be a Californian these days is that I didn't have to consider that question for a minute. But, like most of the conscious world, I've always loved Schwarzenegger, and I can see why people voted for him. The guy's smart; he's got an extremely cool wife; and he's funny. (All the "Eek! Terminator!" bloviators need to watch T2 again in the company of someone who actually gets it.) Anybody that good at sending up his own shtick has, at the very least, a terrific sense humor.

With this new gig, he'll need it.

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