November 13, 2018

Can Arnold Schwarzenegger save Washington politics?

Can a Hollywood action hero save Washington politics?

That seems to be the aim of former California “Governator” Arnold Schwarzenegger, who last week launched the new Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy at USC with characteristic bravado. 

“If you don’t have political courage,” the former governor swaggered during his opening remarks, “You have nothing. Meaningful change takes balls.”

He would know. As governor, the centrist Republican strong-armed a Democratic legislature in order to reduce the debt during one California budget crisis early in his tenure, and then topped it off by calling his opponents “girlie men.” Even so, he was much lauded for working both sides of the aisle. 

Now, he just wants everybody to get along. 

Decrying “poisonous partisanship” and politicians who are “party servants, not public servants,” the daylong symposium at the Sol Price School for Public Policy was a rallying cry to restore “civility” and “decency” to Washington. The Governator’s brand-new bag — which brings with it a new job and new title as professor — promises to “advance policy, not politics.”

It sounds soul soothing, especially in the midst of a dramatic election that The New Republic’s Walter Kirn has called a “cross-dimensional struggle” between constitutional opposites. Of Republican nominee Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama, Kirn wrote, “One reason their rivalry may try our patience is that the candidates speak such different languages that they seem to be talking past each other, like separate halves of one lobotomized brain.”

Now, in steps the action star to save us from political apocalypse: 

“Political courage is not political suicide,” Schwarzenegger declared, rattling off a list of his most courageous acts as governor, like building infrastructure and supporting stem-cell research when it was unpopular in Washington. “People risk their lives in war,” he said of the bravery of American troops. “Why would a politician not risk his office to make the right decision?”

What politicians need to do, he said, is put aside personal beliefs and ask, “What does the state need? How do we serve the people?” So it was a little awkward when, intending to assert his own selflessness and altruism, his best evidence was his former marriage, which ended with his admission of infidelity: “Remember, I was married to a Democrat for 25 years,” he said with dizzying unselfconsciousness.

Decency and politics can make a bitter cocktail. At the morning panel, which included mostly former congressional and state leaders who can now afford to make nice — including former Senate majority leader and South Dakota Democrat Tom Daschle, former Democratic governor of New Mexico Bill Richardson and the first Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge — former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist recalled how a 2009 hug with President Obama probably cost the former Republican his 2010 Senate race, so aggrieved were his GOP compatriots at his PDA with the enemy. 

“The notion that some in my former party would so disdain an act of decency” really stunned him, Crist said. “We have to respect each other. We don’t have to agree.”

But all the talk of compromise and coming together eventually sounded … like talk. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) ominously warned that Congress couldn’t stand its 11 percent approval rating much longer without “something seismic happening.” Schwarzenegger promised to “bring [to Washington] the most dazzling ideas no matter the ideology behind it.”  

Who is “right” in a face-off between values? 

Enter Hollywood, a mysterious body whose political power is best described as something definite but inscrutable. During the afternoon panel on innovation with Universal Studios president Ron Meyer, Imagine Entertainment chairman Brian Grazer, Lionsgate co-chairman Rob Friedman and Interscope Geffen A&M chair Jimmy Iovine (James Cameron withdrew at the last minute because he was on a “creative roll” with his “Avatar 2” script), the conversation focused on Hollywood’s triumph in its own political battle — the culture wars. 

“Anyone who’s covered politics knows the entertainment industry has this enormous power,” moderator and former Politico writer Ben Smith said, “but as a kind of dark matter.”

Yet, all one needs to do is turn toward the light of the projector or the television screen or the smartphone to see how Hollywood has, in some instances, moved the political pendulum in American culture. The panel agreed that it was Hollywood — or, more specifically, Grazer’s Fox series, “24”— that “got America used to the idea of a black president,” as well as classics like “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” that brought interracial relationships to the fore, and shows like NBC’s “Will & Grace” and the Oscar-nominated “Brokeback Mountain” that helped to normalize homosexual love. 

Hollywood has a history of promulgating progressive values not yet totally accepted by the culture. Hollywood at its best is about taking risks, showcasing shared humanity, working together in community and contributing to charity, all while amassing capitalist fortunes and affording mansions in Beverly Hills. 

When the music business suffered through its own existential crisis, Iovine led a charge to develop headphones that would sound better than those of Apple’s iPod. If the industry couldn’t control where the music was being heard, it could at least attempt to control how. The Beats by Dr. Dre headphones were a hit, and the content-providing music industry discovered its competitive advantage over the platform-controlling Silicon Valley. 

“It took being scared to death to be motivated to do this,” Iovine told the crowd.

Hollywood runs a good business. Must it also teach Washington how to act?