California GOP ‘Star Search’

By Garry South

October 17, 2003

San Francisco Chronicle

In looking high and low for credible candidates for public office, California Republicans lately have been conducting their own version of “Star Search.”

Not that one can blame them. Last year, the GOP lost all statewide offices for the first time since 1882. Until the recall, they hadn’t won a top- of-the-ticket race since Gov. Pete Wilson’s 1994 re-election. They not only lack a bench of battle-tested officeholders with certifiable appeal — they don’t even have much of a single stool’s worth.

It should be remembered that in 1966, the Republicans put up Ronald Reagan, a B-movie actor who was elected governor of California. Two years before that, they dug up a retired tap dancer, George Murphy, who ended up in the U.S. Senate.

Now, nearly 40 years later, the sequel: They’ve just elected an Austrian- born bodybuilder and star of violent movies as governor of the Golden State.

But the current-day GOP’s frantic attempts to find — how shall we say? — “out of the box office” candidates with some connection to stardom has been under way for some time.

In the lead-up to the 2002 governor’s race, a guy named Tony Perkins popped up. He had Republicans titillated for a while — until they found out he wasn’t the Tony Perkins, of “Pyscho” fame, who had actually died in 1992. Rather, this one was the rich publisher of Red Herring, a technology and innovation magazine. Probably because most Republicans are averse to anything with “red” in it, Perkins headed for the shower.

Next came a bizarre boomlet for Robert Conrad, late of the 1960s TV series “The Wild, Wild West.” Conrad also portrayed G. Gordon Liddy in a movie and became a hawker of batteries. In one ad, he dared us to knock a battery off his shoulder. But the state GOP didn’t take the dare, and his role as James West didn’t turn out to be the political equivalent of the Energizer Bunny.

The real Republican fantasy in the ’02 cycle, of course, was the Terminator himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger. At the February 2001 state GOP convention in Sacramento, there were “T2 in ’02” T-shirts galore and an adoring “Draft the Terminator” Web site was announced. (Schwarzenegger was worshiped in absentia; he was in Rio celebrating Carnaval.)

For his part, Schwarzenegger was coy, having his PR agents declare first that he wasn’t running, then that he was, then again that he wasn’t. When several national magazines began running salacious stories about his personal life, Arnold suddenly remembered he had a $30 million movie contract to star in “Terminator 3.” Exit stage left (or was it right?).

But the recall election promised a short, chaotic campaign, and Schwarzenegger, fresh off the premiere of “T3,” finally became the Running Man.

Now, with Schwarzenegger’s easy victory in the recall election, the GOP is once again casting an eye toward Hollywood and the entertainment community.

Absent a top-flight candidate to fling against the always-endangered U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, the Republicans first flirted with Dennis Prager, the right-wing moralist with the eponymous radio show. But Prager got cold feet — apparently because he would have had to give up his lucrative talk show and lecture circuit fees.

Now, word surfaces that the hirsute Dennis Miller (Hey, what’s with the fixation on Dennises?), formerly of “Saturday Night Live” and “Dennis Miller Live,” may be offered the task of taking out Boxer. Using the Schwarzenegger model, Republican strategists apparently believe they can run another celebrity campaign that evades the mainstream media and uses star power to walk over more traditional candidates.

Before they get too far down the pick-a-star-any-star trajectory, Republicans might do well to recall (if you’ll pardon the expression) Schwarzenegger’s pal and “Predator” co-star, Jesse Ventura. Elected governor of Minnesota in 1998, the erstwhile professional wrestler turned out to be a bumptious boob. Among other things, he once relegated the practice of religion to the weak-minded and enthused about being reincarnated as a 44DD bra. Ventura declined to run again, to no observable mourning among denizens of the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

In fact, an editorial in the St. Paul Pioneer Press summed up his legacy this way: “Ventura will be remembered best for his boorish antics, his childish feuds with the Legislature and the media, and his unprecedented efforts to exploit the governorship for personal gain.”

Garrison Keillor, the humorist, wrote in Time magazine in August, “We [in Minnesota] invented the action-hero governor. We wrote that particular comic book… I doubt the Terminator would win if he were running in Minnesota. We’ve seen that movie already, and we wanted to leave after the first 20 minutes.”

Victory-starved California Republicans, of course, have convinced themselves that Schwarzenegger is more savvy and suave than the ill-fated Ventura. But that remains to be seen. Lexis-Nexis search engine and a plethora of Web sites are chock full of ignorant, arrogant, downright idiotic or outrageously sexist comments that have emanated from Schwarzenegger’s mouth over the past 30 years. Indeed, there was no lack of misstatements and loony remarks during the recall campaign itself. Not to mention, of course, the serious accusations of serial groping and sexual harassment.

Meanwhile, the California GOP’s star search apparently continues. Who’ll be next? Fabio? Anna Nicole Smith? The next winner of “American Idol”? The envelope, please.