The Running Man: Go, Arnold, Go!

Jacob Sullum

8/8/2003 12:00:00 AM - Jacob Sullum

Years ago I was handing out place cards at a banquet sponsored by the Reason Foundation when I was approached by a square-jawed man with bushy eyebrows and a prominent forehead. "Schwarz-e-neg-ger," he said helpfully.

The flat, Austrian-accented delivery was familiar, but I was surprised that a big movie star would pick up his place card personally. Didn't he have people for that sort of thing?

I also was impressed that Schwarzenegger did not count on being recognized -- or, at least, pretended not to count on it. The appearance of humility was not what you'd expect from a man who'd been publicly cocky since his days as a Mr. Olympia contender. Also, he was shorter than I'd imagined.

But the weirdest thing about my encounter with the bodybuilder turned action hero, who announced Wednesday that he's running to replace Gray Davis as governor of California, may have been that he was there at all. What was the Terminator doing at an anniversary celebration for a libertarian think tank?

The Reason Foundation (which publishes Reason magazine, where I work) may be based in Los Angeles, but it's a world away from the glamour of the movie business. The only plausible explanation for Schwarzenegger's presence was a genuine interest in the ideas promoted by the foundation, which focuses on maximizing individual freedom and minimizing government.

That impression was confirmed by the actor's enthusiasm for Milton and Rose Friedman's PBS series "Free to Choose," which explores the connections between personal, political and economic freedom. When the series was reissued in 1991, Schwarzenegger taped an introduction in which he said:

"I come from Austria, a socialistic country. There you can hear 18-year-olds talking about their pension. But me, I wanted more. I wanted to be the best. Individualism like that is incompatible with socialism. I felt I had to come to America, where the government wasn't always breathing down your neck or standing on your shoes."

Schwarzenegger's attraction to individualism can only have been reinforced by his unlikely success story. After immigrating to the United States at the age of 21 "with little money and even less English," as The Wall Street Journal's John Fund puts it, he conquered first bodybuilding and then Hollywood, making money in real estate along the way.

The most remarkable thing about Schwarzenegger is that he seems so unremarkable. He's not tall, he's not handsome, he's not much of an actor, and he's got a heavy, vaguely menacing accent. Yet through hard work, determination, wit and charm, he managed to become one of the most successful movie stars in history.

Does that qualify him to be governor of California? I don't know. Is Gray Davis qualified to be governor of California? Most Californians don't seem to think so.

Davis portrays the recall as "an effort by the right wing to steal back an election they couldn't win last November." But if the recall is a theft, it's one that's perfectly legal, and it can happen only with the agreement of most voters. That doesn't sound like an assault on democracy.

Davis' supporters (I've counted at least half a dozen) say Schwarzenegger's candidacy only enhances the "circus," "carnival" or "sideshow" quality of the recall vote. Notice what all those things have in common: Unlike politics as usual, they're fun.

So even if Schwarzenegger's libertarian tendencies have been exaggerated, he can still strike a blow for freedom by encouraging people to take politicians less seriously. Running for governor was "the most difficult (decision) I've made in my entire life," he told Jay Leno, "except the one I made in 1978 when I decided to get a bikini wax."

Judging from their dismissive comments, the members of California's political elite recognize the threat to their self-importance. "The Terminator!" Davis harrumphed in response to Schwarzenegger's announcement. "I just don't want to comment."

State Democratic Party Chairman Art Torres told the Los Angeles Times: "People are derisive and kind of like joking, 'the Terminator running, you've got to be kidding.' I think it's one thing to see a movie or to see a bodybuilding exhibition, but to have this guy as your governor . . . "

If Jesse Ventura, who had a much smaller role in "Predator," can be governor of Minnesota, why can't Arnold Schwarzenegger be governor of California? His political career should be judged by the same standard as his movie career: its entertainment value.