Sex and the Candidate

Photo: Steve Brodner

I’m in favor of extending the California recall as long as possible—even making it become something of a permanent condition. The big rush to try to oust the governor has made this election more a comic book than the novel it ought to be. I’d hate to miss any of the nuances and deeper meaning of the race.

The other day, for instance, the Times ran a front-page story with the headline A MACHO CANDIDATE FOR GOVERNOR AND HIS ACHILLES HEEL: WOMEN. I don’t know anybody who didn’t dive into the story eager to read all about the details of Arnold’s famously lush, promiscuous, and down-and-dirty sex life.

And not just the youthful (well, not so youthful) stuff that’s been surfacing on the Internet, but the dish on the present-day prowling Arnold.

Lots of political operatives and reporters in the know had told me that Arnold, if he ever really decided to run for governor, would get whacked by the dossier of lewdness that the Democrats had on him (which, in fact, the tabloids have been floating for years anyway). And there were even the stories, just before he declared in August (impetuously, perhaps), that in fact he wasn’t going to run because of family issues—because Maria didn’t want to face the inevitable and unavoidable embarrassment of a very public Arnold.

So finally, it appeared, the Times was really going to deliver the goods on this famous letch and unfaithful spouse.

But alas.

The Times story was not about sex. Or it was, but it was expressed in soft-focus gender terms. Not about who Arnold was boning but about Arnold’s perceived sensitivity failings, his regard-for-women image problems—his particular kind of guyness—resulting in a 13-point deficit against Cruz Bustamante among female voters.

So I have two issues to explore here. The first is the Arnold campaign as another event on the American political-sexual continuum—reflecting both new tolerance (he’s openly a sexual bon vivant but running credibly for governor) and, at the same time, whole new strains of societal mortification and uptightness. The other issue is the unexpected and hard-to-justify fondness I find myself having for Arnold. Even for the possibility of Governor Arnold.

This fondness is a helpless thing. There is surely no reasonable rationale for making Arnold governor—he plainly has no qualifications for what is quite a by-the-numbers, management-intensive job. And even if he had some modicum of experience—say as head of the Screen Actors Guild—I would ordinarily be predisposed against him because he’s a Republican (as well as an actor). What’s more, I agree that recalling a governor who’s just recently been elected is an unfair, mean, and impulsive thing to do.

And yet—Arnold. As horrifying or surreal or absurd a prospect as he originally seemed, more and more he strikes me, in context, anyway, as reasonable. Even understated.

This is partly the contrast-gainer thing. Gray Davis just invites revulsion. Shiftiness and insincerity and deep, inhuman coldness mix here with demonstrable incompetence. (How this reptilian figure got elected in the first place—twice—is altogether another matter.) You can see how it might be physically difficult for Californians to pull the lever for him this one extra time. It takes a certain self-loathing.

And Cruz Bustamante—an even more ridiculous and undeserving likely winner than Gray Davis himself. Cruz Bustamante, who gets to run only because every other Democrat agreed not to, would be the ultimate absurdity of recall. You can’t go down much lower on the hack ladder.

And then there’s the right-wing McClintock. His kind of old-fashioned, Orange County–ish, John Wayne conservatism makes Arnold seem like Nelson Rockefeller.

But, of course, it isn’t just these half-baked rogues that make Arnold, the ultimate rogue, look good. Arnold has his own odd virtues.

Among them, arguably: sex.

In my brief survey, Arnold is the first major-party candidate for high office to have discussed in public the various aspects of group sex. He seems definitely the first to do it with some psychological insight—it surely does take a certain kind of man, as Arnold’s observed, to be able to have sex with an audience.

There’s a naked-ape quality to Arnold (to say the very least).

I have always wondered what would have been different for Bill Clinton if he’d come clean. If he had honestly discussed his drives and appetites and needs with the American people. What a squandered opportunity.

Arnold, even as he issues obligatory denials, is, unlike Bill, neither furtive nor guilty.

Quite possibly, no one has ever even tried to make Arnold feel terribly guilty. He seems beyond hypocrisy (even as he tries on Oprah to be a traditional American hypocrite)—a truly novel category in American politics.

Actors, of course, are allowed to have sex. As, perhaps, are foreigners (more than Americans, anyway).

Not that Arnold’s incapable of observing the blander conventions of public life (there’s the cleanup of his father’s Nazi past, for instance). His avoidance of most any sort of random-question situations may be not so much to stonewall on the hard political issues but to sidestep the ever-present possibility that someone will ask him when he last had sex with someone not his wife. And yet it’s not just his hiding out that has helped him avoid this question. Rather, why should anybody ask a question to which the answer (if not in its exact particulars) is widely presumed (although the exact particulars would be a treat to know)?

Arnold is a dog.

This in itself, this understanding and recognition, represents a turn in the treatment of sex in American politics. No mainstream candidate has ever defended sex itself. Nobody has ever stood for sex.

But here, with Arnold, a key issue is, would you vote for a man of rapacious desires? Would you vote for an unapologetically sexually aggressive hunk, however past his prime?

In fact, what the Times story was saying is that there are many women who would not.

This marks an interesting divide because women—especially California women—have certainly been willing and eager to vote for that other rapacious hound.

It may be a key political and cultural question: What’s the difference between the ways in which we perceive Arnold’s and Bill’s sexuality? Is there a substantive difference here or just a difference in presentation?

Republican sexuality versus Democratic sexuality—is that the political divide?

“I have always wondered what would have been different if Bill Clinton had honestly discussed his drives and appetites with the American people.”

The Times story put the emphasis on the words boorish and predatory. This seems to mean both a certain lack of social finesse in the pursuit of sex and a certain “fuck me” efficiency and clarity in the transaction. It’s an old story: The more entreaties you make, the more likely you are to find someone more or less willing to have sex. And, of course, there is, too, an amount of groping that goes with this. We’re in a quantity-over-quality world.

But this is—unless I’ve read everything wrong—exactly the Clinton approach. And yet Clinton is the once and future candidate of California moms everywhere.

Where’s the divergence?

Clinton’s public sex life is, of course, closely tied to confession and contrition (if also recidivism). Arnold’s sex life, on the other hand, seems cavalier and unrepentant and quite full of public joie de vivre.

There is, too, hugely and tellingly, the issue of the wives: Hillary and Maria. The couple business. Bill and Hillary are that complex knot of checks and balances—great primal drives inartfully obscured by all sorts of awkward and dowdy clothes.

Arnold and Maria don’t appear to have that pretense or awkwardness.

Indeed, Maria, it has not been much observed, is certainly as freaky as he is. How does she come to look like that? What are those angles about? The jaw planes, the cheekbone ridges. The porno-star hairdo. Hello? She’s out there.

I once had lunch with Maria. I was writing about Teddy Kennedy’s all-but-forgotten insurgent run for president in 1980 for Life magazine. Maria was the family spokesperson. We went to Duke Zeibert’s, the old Washington hangout. I remember both nothing and everything about the interview. That is, nothing that was said but everything about her. She was over-vivid. On. Crystal-clear. Fabulous. Carpe diem–ish. She frightened me.

It is worth remembering that virtually all of the other next-gen Kennedy cousins have been crushed by ambivalence while Maria has been marching forward full of overblown determination and ambition. Possibly, as a Shriver, she felt she had to earn the right to be a Kennedy.

And then there’s the marriage. If you marry Arnold Schwarzenegger, it is hard to obscure your primary interest.

Which brings us to that touchstone of contemporary political history: the sex lives of the Kennedys.

That convergence of sex and ambition and entitlement.

I want. I take. I get away with it.

Getting away with it is, of course, the true character note.

Now, getting away with it, and the sense that Arnold has gotten away with an enormous amount, is, in this prosecutorial time, one of the big drags on Arnold’s campaign. The audacity and humor (part of the Schwarzenegger as well as the Kennedy charm) that often go hand-in-hand with getting away with it don’t seem to be attributes that easily cross the gender divide (forcing him to become, via Oprah, more cuddly and domesticated—which is not a pretty sight).

Nor does an extended, aggrieved, pick-at-the-scab campaign augur well for the forces of getting away with it.

The sudden emergence of the disapproving-woman Zeitgeist seems to have surprised everyone. This, it appears, may not be Arnold’s moment.

Still, I can’t get away from it: I have a soft spot for the guy.

There is time, however, to bring me back into line.

Sex and the Candidate