Thugs and Hummers

Is this the future of California political coverage?

Arnold considers Ken Lay’s rise to stardom.

Arnold considers Ken Lay’s rise to stardom.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Call me naive, but one place I never expected to find myself last week was in a secluded alleyway with a guy in a suit and surveillance earpiece aggressively body-checking me.

My press pass and tape recorder in hand, I tried to step around or away from my new best friend, who mirrored every move like some evil Patty Duke. Two policemen, who’d already spent 10 minutes examining my governor-approved press credential and writing down everything off my driver’s license, silently stood vigil while the black sport-utility vehicle carrying the candidate approached the four of us. In vain, I called out to the man in the passenger seat as he passed by, cigar in mouth, staring at—or perhaps through—the odd choreography outside his window.

Getting Arnold Schwarzenegger to answer just one question that’s not on a list of Republican talking points has turned out to be nearly impossible. The California Broadcasters Association even pandered to the actor by providing all of Arnold’s debate questions well in advance. (Amusingly, the association insisted the real reason was so the public could prepare itself for the debate.) The Schwarzenegger campaign doesn’t want anyone to look too closely, so it’s no surprise that as election day draws nearer, he’s becoming less and less accessible to the print media.

This is the main reason the Terminator beat is frustrating for journalists seeking anything like a candid or unscripted moment. One such journalist—a high-profile political reporter for a major metropolitan daily—told me horror stories about following Schwarzenegger around the state, getting ignored in press conferences and not being granted even a minute of one-on-one access.

My attempts began inside the swanky Sheraton with the obligatory “town-hall meeting” in which Arnold interacts with a cast of carefully selected supporting actors. As always, Schwarzenegger never fails to be “amazed” that he hears virtually the same questions everywhere he goes.

Well, almost everywhere. Interactions with the press still hold the possibility, however remote, of something genuine transpiring. Typically, Schwarzenegger compensates for this by declaring unwelcome questions irrelevant, claiming amnesia or returning to what really matters: the fact that, come October 7, he will be, as he puts it, “Governor Arnold.”

During a press conference after the town-hall meeting, Schwarzenegger did back himself into a corner, insisting he wasn’t beholden to special interests. “I’ve probably taken money from the shoe store or from the real-estate agent and all that,” he shrugged, but those aren’t the “guys you sit across the table from” when it’s time to make policy.

Ignoring fervent follow-up questions, Schwarzenegger turned quickly to the friendly face of a correspondent from his hometown paper Kleine Zeitung, for an easy exit question: Mr. Schwarzenegger, just what does “Austrian-American Day” [September 26] mean to you?

Thus the vigil in the alley, where I’d hoped to ask Schwarzenegger if he considered Ken Lay a special interest and why it was that he denied any recollection of his secret meeting with the Enron chief during California’s energy crisis. (For more on Arnold’s meeting with Lay, Michael Milken and other players, see “Total amnesia,” SN&R Essay, August 28.) After all, if Schwarzenegger already was denying his meeting with the man who oversaw the gaming of our state’s energy market, what was to stop him from pulling a Dick Cheney and letting the Ken Lays of the world completely have their way with California?

The next afternoon, Arnold took part in his televised debate at California State University, Sacramento, followed by a press conference. Once again, print journalists appeared to be passed over in favor of hard-hitting television reporters. Yet, no matter how many times we heard these same sound bites—like some hellishly repetitive movie trailer—we still waved our hands and called his name. Eventually, I decided to just leave my hand in the air, belatedly noticing that I was, in effect, giving Schwarzenegger the straight-arm salute associated with certain fascist regimes. Still, I thought, it might catch his interest.

My third encounter with Arnold, I vowed, would be more fruitful. The debate organizers had decided to hold an additional press conference, this one for the overflow journalists stationed in the campus library. Positioning myself front and center, I watched the tough questions begin to fly, things like: Arnold, just why are Democrats so afraid of you?

Before long, Schwarzenegger’s spin doctor announced the last call for questions, and I weighed my options: Skulking in alleyways had not worked. The straight-arm salute felt creepy and also had proved ineffective. My only choice, I decided, was to be as submissive and pathetic as possible.

When Schwarzenegger made eye contact with me, I affected a look more desperate than a man trying to hail a cab in a hurricane, more sickeningly sincere than those Margaret Keane paintings of big-eyed kids on black velvet.

He broke eye contact, continuing to speak about the special interests to which lesser candidates are beholden. And then he looked back. I raised an index finger, silently mouthing a prayer: One question, just one.

OK, this really was the last question, the spin-guy insisted, as I offered up my most hopeful expression, the kind a dog makes after it has chewed up the rug.

It worked. Arnold pointed to me. The sea of reporters parted, and I rose to my feet and spoke the question: “Do you consider Ken Lay a special interest, and why won’t you talk about when you met with him during our California energy crisis?”

And this is how he answered: “Well, first of all, I just found out very recently [turning to his handler]—How many days ago? Two days ago? Three days ago?—I had someone look at the record [to see] who was there,” he continued, insisting he was just one of 30 people at Lay’s meeting. “And at that time, he was not a star. He was unknown, not the way he is known now. So, I did not remember ever meeting him. So, then we looked at the record, and then we found out two days ago, yes, he was in that room, but I don’t even remember meeting him.”

Another reporter followed up with a question about deregulation. As it turns out, Arnold is for it. And then it was time to go. As he left the room, reporters called out questions about Karl Rove and Cheney. Arnold ignored them, exiting to applause from the more star-struck “reporters” left behind.

This weekend—while I pondered the idea that Lay’s public disgrace was actually a rise to stardom—the Schwarzenegger campaign reportedly put journalists in isolation. The media was placed in a press-only section behind a stage from which he would no longer take questions. Now more than ever, with only days left before the vote, Arnold’s handlers need to make sure that no one screws things up. Not even Arnold.