Surviving California 

Surviving California

As everybody knows by now, the state of California -- which has pioneered in so many electoral expedients, notably and notoriously that of the referendum -- has been flashing its cutting edge again. By the time this is being read, we will know how that movie -- the plot of which concerns the recall of a freshly elected governor and his putative replacement by a foreign-born movie star -- came out. What may not be resolved is the lasting effect of the process on the rest of us in the other 49 states, where, once in a while, movies -- and elections -- get made too.

The idea for the Great California Recall Circus of 2003 just had to come out of somebody's script conference. Consider: For the role of governor, you need somebody so bland and, er, gray that nobody, not even his normal political partisans, is crazy about keeping him on. Okay, so the name of the character -- Gray Davis -- is a little hokey and overdone. Try to get too sophisticated, and you lose the audience. You might as well be on C-Span instead of Entertainment Tonight. Now, lessee, who else do we need for the mix? Right! How about an ethnic political hack -- say, a lieutenant governor -- so boring as to underscore the ineffectual nature of the governor? Cruz Bustamante? Step right up!

And how about some irreverent contemporary woman -- not a love interest, mind you -- to spice up the cast and Be Relevant. Right over here, Arianna! We need at least one good crowd scene, with, hmmm, let's try a porn king, a porn queen, a billboard queen, a midget, a ... Okay, okay. Let's at least try to keep it serious. Simmer down, folks. Don't forget you're just the chorus!

For the lead, naturally, we are casting Arnold Schwarzenegger. Never mind that his accent -- even after 35 years over here -- sounds about as American as apple strudel cooked in vinegar wine and stewed in edelweiss. Against that field, he wins, right? Can he govern? Can he or Davis or anybody else do something about a $38 billion state deficit in an economic climate like the present one in a state whose out-of-control referendum process has rendered any conceivable revenue enhancement out of the question?

Never mind, let's not clutter up the movie. We can always think about a sequel.

Meanwhile, to keep this one interesting, we must have complications. Let's make the hero -- who will do his best to redeem himself in the last reel -- a chronic groper. And the son of a Nazi. Yeah, that's the ticket. He's an Austrian, isn't he? Wasn't Hitler an Austrian? Yeah, well, let's have the hero say something nice about Hitler then. Something he said so far back that maybe he's lived it down, and ...

Folks, this is no movie. This is actual bona fide politics in the age of the reality drama. The audience -- er, the electorate -- in California wasn't asked to make real decisions about self-government or the future of that state. It was asked to entertain itself in the face of problems that seemed vexing, prosaic, and finally insoluble.

California, again, is the cutting edge. Trends that come out of there eventually show up everywhere else. Despair not, the same show will probably be playing in our neighborhood somewhere down the line. And meanwhile there's the video. Take a look at it and try to decide who -- or what -- is the likely survivor.

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