Things were not going well for Arnold Schwarzenegger. The recall debate had started off badly. Schwarzenegger looked surprised when the moderator asked him for an opening statement; he then proceeded to flub his way through a convoluted speech about Hiram Johnson and the origins of the California recall.
On the next question, Schwarzenegger uttered a series of platitudes about the evils of California's workers' compensation system. The shallowness of Schwarnegger's response was highlighted by Tom McClintock's ultra-articulate explanation of the workers' comp problem.
Tom McClintock was poised to make big strides. Arnold was poised to blow his big opportunity.
And then, Arianna Huffington opened her big mouth.
Now, Arianna never had any intention of winning the recall race. She was in the recall race to sell her book, an anti-corporation, anti-Bush administration diatribe titled "Pigs at the Trough." During the debate, Arianna mentioned Enron twice, Global Crossing twice, corporate tax loopholes five times, the Bush administration three times, and her book twice. When Arianna spoke, it was difficult to tell whether you were watching the Home Shopping Network or a political debate.
Arianna was so obnoxious that viewers couldn't help but pray she would spontaneously combust. After seeing Arianna's debate performance, Keith Larson of WBT Radio in North Carolina put it best: "Michael Huffington's change of orientation could rightly be labeled justifiable homosexuality."
But easily the most obnoxious aspect of Arianna's performance was her emphasis on her gender. She wore a blouse with a neckline plunging somewhere south of Antarctica. She touted herself as the only candidate able to bring "the priorities of a mother" to Sacramento (never mind that Arianna's own children moved out of her house and into the house of their gay father because they opposed Arianna's campaign).
Then, Arnold got his opportunity. Arianna started a bare-knuckles brawl with Arnold. After being asked a question about the California car tax, Huffington launched into a nonsensical attack on the Bush administration's education policy. Schwarzenegger interrupted: "Arianna, we're talking about the car tax right now and not about education." Arianna responded: "Let me finish. Let me finish. Let me finish. You know, this is completely impolite, and we know this is how you treat women, and we know that, but not right now." The crowd, apparently trucked in from the "Jerry Springer Show," ooohed in anticipation.
Arnold fired back: "I would like to say that I just realized that I have a perfect part for you in 'Terminator 4.' That's it." Pow.
It wasn't exactly Ronald Reagan's "There he goes again," or even Reagan's "I paid for this microphone, Mr. Green." Nevertheless, it was a debate-stopping moment. In just 22 words, Arnold turned the debate to his advantage. Of registered voters, 23 percent would label Arnold the night's winner; Arianna won according to only 4 percent. Even more importantly, Arnold's poll numbers would jump drastically; the debate catapulted Arnold into a 15 percent lead over Democratic candidate Cruz Bustamante.
Why would such a seemingly inane comment help Arnold so much? Because the California recall is a referendum on truth. Californians want to toss Davis because he is an inveterate liar. They want a candidate who can cut through the cow pies. With one brilliant stroke, Arnold Schwarzenegger became that candidate.
Arianna's remark about Arnold's treatment of women was clearly hypocritical. Here was Arianna, acting without a shred of dignity: ripping the Bush administration non-stop, interrupting other candidates, selling her book, patronizing the other politicians on the platform, playing the California public for fools. Then, she asked Arnold to treat her like a lady.
So when Arnold, instead of apologizing, struck back, voters found their man. Schwarzenegger would not be taken in by Arianna's double standard. Arnold's message: If you want to be treated like a lady, act like a lady.
My mother, an executive at a film and television production company, often says that to be treated with dignity, a woman must act with dignity. As usual, she's right. Arianna Huffington should not expect Arnold to sit by while she rambles endlessly, simply because she is a woman.
With Arianna dropping out of the recall race, this election will be a lot less interesting and a lot more dignified. Arianna provided amusement, as well as a big target for Arnold. At least in that way, she's been invaluable. Here's hoping she runs against Bush in 2004.