Arnold’s Choice

If there was a presidential candidate whose father accused "the Jew media" and "Jewish pundits in New York and Los Angeles" of beating the drums for war, and said he had no problem with harassing and punishing the Jews — but such things shouldn’t be done in "a loud clamor" — would you vote for that candidate?

The answer, of course, is that most Jews already did back in 1960. Joseph P. Kennedy, the father of John F. Kennedy, made his anti-Semitic views abundantly clear while serving as ambassador to the Court of St. James in the run-up to World War II. Germany’s ambassador to England at the time, Herbert von Dirksen, called Joseph Kennedy, "Germany’s best friend in London."

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s people would probably love to throw that example back at journalists who pepper him with questions about his father’s Nazi membership and his own inordinate affection for former Nazi Kurt Waldheim. But somehow, I don’t see Arnold pointing to his wife, Kennedy family member Maria Shriver, and saying, "You think my family’s got problems, look at hers."

More and more, it seems, candidates run as much against their pasts as they do against other candidates. They mount campaigns within campaigns to race not against opponents but against disclosure. The recall election for governor exaggerates the extent to which politics has become a form of forensic archaeology, with operatives and the press digging up skeletons as fast as the other candidate’s team can heap dirt on the bones.

Take Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante. The Democratic candidate for governor once belonged to a Latino group called MEChA when he was a student at Fresno State in the 1970s. MEChA called for the revolutionary and radical return of California to the Mexicans, from whom Anglos took it (though it stopped short of calling for the Mexicans to return it to the pure-blood Indians from whom it was first stolen).

Extremist Latinos still exist out there — one of their Web sites is particularly noxious and anti-Semitic — but clearly Bustamante is not one of them, and a thousand e-mails "exposing" him as otherwise doesn’t make it true.

Bustamante didn’t help matters by not directly refuting what the MEChA manifesto professed and discussing openly his involvement. The past is ever present in campaigns these days, but still candidates see it as a problem to be handled, rather than faced. We the voters have to decide what history matters and how much.

Arnold’s opponents want voters to hold his 1977 Oui magazine interview describing illicit drugs and explicit sex against him. Voters I’ve spoken with will give him a pass. What happened in the ’70s stays in the ’70s.

But Waldheim is different, and it sticks in my craw.

According to "Betrayal: The Untold Story of the Kurt Waldheim Investigation and Cover-Up," by Eli M. Rosenbaum and William Hoffer, Waldheim was an intelligence officer in Germany’s Army Group E when it committed mass murder in the Kozara region of western Bosnia. In 1944, Waldheim oversaw the dropping of anti-Semitic propaganda leaflets behind Russian lines.

One leaflet read, "Enough of the Jewish war, kill the Jews, come over." For these activities, the U.S. Justice Department put Waldheim on its watch list in 1987 and denied him entry.

In 1986, the Wiesenthal Center, according to its Web site, launched a massive campaign to urge the Reagan administration to bar Waldheim from entering the United States after reviewing the archival material dealing with his role in German atrocities in Yugoslavia and Greece during World War II. The center’s Rabbi Marvin Hier testified at the Waldheim hearings in Washington, D.C.

Just as the Waldheim controversy was heating up, Arnold invited Waldheim to his wedding. Waldheim declined, but sent a gift, and Arnold toasted the ex-Nazi at his celebration. He has never retracted or explained his affectionate statements or the support he demonstrated for Waldheim by allowing his name to appear on Waldheim’s campaign posters.

Hier recently told The Journal that there is no reason to hold Schwarzenegger responsible for the actions of his father and that the actor, a major financial donor to the center, has worked tirelessly for Holocaust awareness and tolerance. Still, even Hier said he would like to see Arnold publicly clarify his views about Waldheim.

Whatever our political or moral leanings, I think most of us can safely agree that a man doesn’t get a pass for saluting a war criminal. Toasting Nazis should not be anyone’s big issue in this race, but character does count. If in the past Arnold refused to distance himself from Waldheim because, as some critics have suggested, he wanted to keep his options open for electoral office in Austria, his behavior reeks of the kind of opportunism that already stinks up Sacramento.

A Republican strategist told me that Arnold’s Waldheim issue probably won’t matter "to anyone under 70 years old." That may be largely true. It may not be expedient for Arnold to come clean on Waldheim, but it’s right.