Man Without Qualities

Wednesday, October 01, 2003

Davis Descending LVI: The Old Soft Other Shoe

The Los Angeles Times reports that Arnold Schwarzenegger "groped" and "humiliated" about half a dozen women with unwanted touching and sexual advances. Rapes are disclaimed. The women related surprise and discomfort when Schwarzenegger grabbed their breasts and buttocks. One says he tried to remove her swimsuit in an elevator and one said Schwarzenegger pulled her onto his lap and asked whether a certain sexual act had ever been performed on her. None of the women filed criminal or civil claims against him - and four refused to be named.

By far the most amazing thing about this article is that this is all the Los Angeles Times could uncover. But perhaps Mr. Mulhulland can muster something nastier - if only imagined - in the final week of the campaign. That's his specialty, after all.

Assuming these accusations are true, are they a smear? Do they count as "the other shoe dropping?" Will they have much political effect in the upcoming election? Are they even news?

Time and the polls will tell if the story has political effect. The story has some real problems. Four of the six women refuse to be named, and even though the Times says that their stories were related to friends and family years ago, the refusal to be named deprives Arnold Schwarzenegger of any real ability to confront those stories, and his campaign seems to be denying all of them. What is a voter supposed to do with that situation?

But the bigger issue from the standpoint of any effect on the election is that the story doesn't seem to be much in the way of news. Even the Times admits: Schwarzenegger's conduct toward women also has been widely discussed in Hollywood over the years, no more so than after a March 2001 article in Premiere magazine called "Arnold the Barbarian." That's putting it mildly. These stories - and worse - have been circulating for many years. Similar stories exist about Lyndon Johnson, Ted Kennedy and many others in elected office. These accusations are trivial compared to some of those made against Bill Clinton - and the less heard of that mess the better. Maybe those people should not have been elected. But how much does this story change the substance of Mr. Schwarzenegger's reputation?

For example, there was an article ten years ago in the old Spy magazine that alluded to similar behavior - complete with nude picture of the perhaps-governor-to-be and a story of him tumbling from a studio closet where he has just coupled with a woman to tell a startled observer not to inform Maria about what has just occurred.

For the same reasons, it's hard to say that the article is a "smear." If Mr. Schwarzenegger isn't prepared to defend this kind of accusation, then he's a lot more naive than he seems to be. His best strategy is to leave the denials to his campaign aides, keep the denials minimal and hope for the best. Many feminists and women voters seem to view personal behavior as less significant than whether a politician has been good on feminist policy. Mr. Schwarzenegger is a "social moderate." If he can continue to point that out effectively, he may not have to deal with the accusations directly.

The fact is that we are talking about - and apparently preparing to elect - a man who made himself famous and wealthy being photographed in nylon jockstraps. Of course he's lived a hyper-sexualized life. How many voters think he's been a Benedictine Monk? Maybe this kind of accusation will change or refocus some people's minds. But it's hard to imagine there are many in California for whom this story will break new ground.

True or false, these accusations are of a type that is a very real part of Mr. Schwarzenegger's longstanding reputation, and the public deserves to hear about them in a reasonably responsible fashion. Assuming the fact checking described in the article has been is accurately described, it is hard to see why the Times should not have run such an article.


Mr. Schwarzenegger seems to be following the strategy outlined above: minimal denial (He apologises for offense he may have caused with rowdy "things I thought were playful") and focusing on policy ("I will be a champion for women. I hope you will give me the chance to prove this.")

"Yes, I have behaved badly some times, yes it is true that I was on rowdy movie sets ... and I have done things I thought were playful that now I recognize that I have offended people ... I want to say to them that I am deeply sorry about that, and I apologize because that is not what I was trying to do. When I am governor I will prove to women that I will be a champion for women. I hope you will give me the chance to prove this."

There also seems to be some agreement that the Times story will not affect the election, largely because there's not much news in it and because Schwarzenegger seems to have had a well-executed plan for dealing with such inevitable accusations:

Political experts said that they did not think the Times story would have an effect on the campaign, especially in light of Schwarzenegger's moving quickly to defuse the issue quickly. Republican political consultant Allan Hoffenblum said that for the issue to harm Schwarzenegger's campaign, "they would have had to come up with something completely new. This is not a new issue."

One might quibble with the Times running this article so late in the campaign - but I can't really agree. The charges seem fairly well supported and the Times says it started the investigation seven weeks ago. That seems right. There would be no good reason for the Times to have started to intensively investigate such well-known rumors prior to the scheduling of the election. This type of charge is easy to make and hear - but notoriously hard to support well. It's not a surprise that the Times needed seven weeks, just to be responsible. So this doesn't look like something the Times has been sitting on to release for maximum effect - and there's no evidence or accusation that the women making the charges have been induced to say (or delay saying) these things by political operatives.

And the charges do reflect a general reputation issue Mr. Schwarzenegger should address before the election, one that he should have been prepared to address. And Mr. Schwarzenegger is not outright denying the central events - he's jusr spinning his intent.

So what's not to print?

This is not a blindsiding comparable to Barbara Boxer's 1992 smear against Bruce Herschensohn "revealing" - on the Friday before that Senate election - that he and others had visited a strip club. Nor is this article like the 1994 Democratic smear against Michael Huffington - a few days before that Senate election - "revealing" that he had hired an illegal immigrant as a nanny. In fact, Mr. Schwarzenegger seems to have done a pretty good job of immediately addressing the charges - which suggests he was, in fact, well prepared to do so.

Time and the overnight polls will to some extent tell.

FURTHER UPDATE: More people - here, the LA Weekly - say that the Times article does not contain much news:

It’s a real blot on the Times’ new administration that the article doesn’t advance the Schwarzenegger character story one iota.

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