Climbing 'Golem' heights in California

Posted: Aug 18, 2003 12:00 AM

Arnold Schwarzenegger has muscled himself onto the national stage as a spectacular example of what it takes to be famous in our time. He's a cultural symbol of post-modern celebrity, a deconstructed icon with a profile in synthetic courage. His image changes by the minute in the eyes of the beholder, depending on whether the beholder is a fan or a follower.

He's an artful dodger, talking around weighty matters, and both fans and followers seem satisfied that he's done enough heavy lifting on the screen to get a pass through real life. He walks through contradictions with the glibness of someone who can capture a large audience with a short attention span. His support emanates more from hatred of Gray Davis than love of Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The political balance is rich in possibilities because it poses a fascinating question essential to contemporary leaders: Do we appreciate them more for what they are for or what we are against? The question is not academic.

Ronald Reagan was an actor, too, and lots of liberals hated him. He was elected president twice because those who voted for him loved him as much as they loved his politics. His enemies couldn't disrupt that kind of base. Bill Clinton was a consummate political performer, hated by lots of conservatives, but those who voted for him loved him as much as his enemies hated him. His opponents could impeach him but they couldn't defeat him.

Negative politics is powerful when it can be galvanized, and it will be with us always, but it can rarely defeat a candidate who is loved both for himself and for his politics. The schizophrenic affection for Arnold Schwarzenegger is ambivalent and unpredictable. Those who love him love him as the movie star, the Terminator (a robot, after all), and not necessarily as the politician. He's off to a barn-burning start, but it still isn't clear that there are enough fans to deliver victory on Oct. 7.

Jews, for example, call Arnold the "golem." The golem was a large robot, a mythological figure forged of clay in the Middle Ages. He was programmed to do whatever the rabbi who created him wanted him to do for the benefit of the Jews, but the robot-like invention would occasionally run amok and turn not only on his creator but on the Jews he was created to defend.

The analogy is obvious if not precise. Many of the producers of the Terminator movies are liberal Democrats (and Jewish). They've helped Arnold Schwarzenegger become a big star on the screen, but they can't control his politics.

Some say they may have created a Frankenstein monster, a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a celebrity insider but a political "Other." The man who was one of the "Hollywood us" has morphed into one of the "Washington them." It doesn't make any difference that the candidate holds liberal positions on social issues; he will enhance the power of Republicans if he becomes the governor of California.

The debate in California, such as there is, so far focuses more on which political party will benefit than on what's good for curing what ails California. Perhaps the debate will shed some light on creative solutions as it slouches toward October, but between now and then the California public will have a hard time separating ideas from egos.

Most modern celebrities are famous mostly for being famous. Such fame has little to do with actual achievement but a lot to do with public perception. It's almost impossible in our complex high-tech culture to produce a Renaissance man. There's too much to learn. We run the risk of assuming that the talent someone shows in one ring of the human circus can be transferred to another.

A public performer can be marketed as a political product, but movie talent is not a reliable touchstone for leadership. Ronald Reagan, after all, was a seasoned political performer by the time he tried out for governor.

It's unlikely that we'll learn much from Arnold in a campaign with hundreds of candidates, all trying to make the biggest splash. Splashes are the most temporary of phenomena, never going deep, and there's not enough water in San Francisco Bay to enable the hundreds of candidates to make much of a splash.

The golem, it should be recalled, had many disguises, both human and superhuman. He could fly over houses and race like a robot through town and countryside. But nobody could be sure what he would be at any given moment. Eventually, in attacking his own people, the golem went too far. He had to be stopped. His creator turned him back into clay. Moral, anyone?