Political Muscle

There's no doubt which movie star is dominating attention this summer. It's not Tobey Maguire of Seabiscuit, Will Smith of Bad Boys 2 or Colin Farrell of S.W.A.T. No, it's Arnold Schwarzenegger.

I'm not talking about his turn in Terminator 3: The Rise of the Machines; I'm talking, of course, about his new role as a would-be politician. After he broke the news Wednesday on The Tonight Show, Schwarzenegger was everywhere. On Friday alone he appeared on five network morning news programs. He even kicked the Kobe Bryant story off cable television (thank goodness someone did).

Compare that with Al Gore. I wanted to watch the former vice president speak on Thursday about President George W. Bush's poor job of handling foreign policy, the economy and the environment. But I couldn't find it anywhere. CNN showed a quick clip, then -- before going back to covering regular news -- said it would break in if Gore said something interesting. The paltry bit of coverage Gore received was only because of rumors that he would jump into the presidential race. If there hadn't been that element of potential surprise, Gore's speech might not have been coverage at all.

It's a sad state of affairs when the media ignore the message of a real politician for that of a fake. He may be boring, serious and not exactly chiseled, but Gore understands the issues he's talking about. He laid out a thoughtful analysis of why Bush is misleading America. Unfortunately, thoughtful doesn't have the same sex appeal as good-looking.

For all of Schwarzenegger's coverage, we got very few details. He called Gov. Gray Davis' (D-Calif.) administration "disastrous," but didn't outline the policies he'd use to rescue California from its $38 billion deficit. He hammered away at the point that California needs to draw more businesses to the state, but he didn't get into any specifics. Granted, Schwarzenegger just entered the race, but the recall vote is Oct. 7, so there's not much time for him to make his views and plans known.

His strategy instead appears to be following what Bush did in 2000: Be as vague as possible. "You have to be a uniter, not a divider," Schwarzenegger told The Today Show on Friday. (Sound familiar?) But vague words too often allow politicians to cloud their real intentions. That was part of Gore's message. As he said, Bush "has used tactics that deprived the American people of any opportunity to effectively subject his arguments to the kind of informed system that is essential to our system of checks and balances."

I'm upset that Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) hasn't jumped into the race, but I understand her rationale; after all, the recall has become "like a carnival." While actors like Schwarzenegger and Gary Coleman, models like Angelyne and "smut peddlers" like Larry Flynt may think it's summertime fun to run for governor, the state faces problems that demand serious solutions. (As Time magazine notes today, "All that's missing is the popcorn.") Looking good and delivering lines well just isn't enough, especially when the state's governor could have a crucial influence on the 2004 presidential election.

There's always been a mutual love interest between Hollywood and Washington, actors and politicians. Senators show up in movies (Traffic) and Hollywood imitates the inner workings of the White House (The West Wing). It's one thing for these relationships to take place on the silver or small screen; it's another when you're talking about a celebrity running the nation's most populous state, which also happens to face a fiscal crisis.

No doubt Schwarzenegger will continue to get tons of ink: The California recall is unprecedented, and he's certainly more exciting than any other candidate right now, including all of the Democratic presidential hopefuls. And there was reason for the media to cover his announcement: Unlike Gore, he's actually running for office.

But voters and the media must resist the tendency to fawn over Schwarzenegger's brawn. They must ask and demand answers from a man who has little political or government experience. It's not enough for Schwarzenegger to grant an interview to Pat O'Brien; he also needs to answer questions from someone like Tim Russert.

With its colorful cast of characters, the California recall is the ultimate version of a reality show. But as Feinstein warned, there are more than television ratings at stake. "I hope as the next two months unwind, the frivolous nature of this recall will become more apparent as well as the dark repercussions sure to follow," she said.

In government, being boring and serious may not be such a bad thing after all.

Mary Lynn F. Jones is online editor of The Hill.