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California Über Alles

Posted: November 17, 2013

By Kevin Forest Moreau, Time-Traveling Journalist

Ten years ago on this date, Arnold Schwarzenegger was inaugurated as governor of California. At the time, few observers saw this momentous event as little more than an amusing footnote in the annals of politics. That an Austrian bodybuilder turned Hollywood action-movie star, with absolutely no experience in politics, had been handed the reins to the world's fifth-largest economy struck most of us as just another example of just how important the currency of celebrity was to star-obsessed Californians. What a crazy world we live in, some of us chuckled to ourselves. Why, CBS had just recently caved in to pressure from the right wing to sink a TV-movie about former President (and former California Governor) Ronald Reagan. So it wasn't okay for James Brolin to portray a politician, but it was okay for The Terminator to act like a real one? How we laughed.

Oh, for a return to those innocent times. Today, as the nation -- indeed, the world -- writhes in the grip of war, we can only marvel at how good we had it.

How did we miss the signs? Some of Governor Schwarzenegger's early moves struck us as odd and harmless at first -- pushing through a bill that named "the hardbody" the official "state physique" and a rich, golden tan the official "state skin tone" comes to mind. Remember when the administration chartered a fleet of Humvees to bus impoverished students into new, voucher-financed schools? "Forced humming," the press called it, and we all had a good laugh. It seems so obvious now that such amusing antics were there to distract us from more troubling truths beneath the surface: Like for instance, the fact that these new magnet schools -- "Schwarzenegger Centers" -- were run by former Scientologists and staffed with very old men of vaguely Teutonic descent, most of them with sketchy, hard-to-trace resumes dotted by "independent research labs" in the wilds of Brazil. Or that the teens who graduated from these schools -- at an astonishingly high rate -- were leaving the state in record numbers to put down roots in cities all across the country, where they quickly entrenched themselves in the business and political arenas with a savage efficiency that belied their precocious looks.

Credit where credit's due: Although he kept us entertained, Schwarzenegger did manage to turn his state around, miraculously solving California's staggering financial crisis. How we all smirked when he filed papers establishing the state of California as an independent film studio! How we guffawed when he named Miramax head Harvey Weinstein the state's new "Secretary of Movies." (How we shook our heads at the bitter turf war that resulted, as sore loser Robert Evans, now completely lost to his own ego-soaked delusions of relevancy, launched unsuccessful hits on the Schwarzenegger administration's top dogs, only to be taken down himself in an apocalyptic gun battle on the steps of the State Capitol.) How we tittered when Team Schwarzenegger attempted, unsuccessfully, to annex Colorado, Nevada and Washington, presumably in order to benefit from their own economies. But when State of California Studios churned out a string of cheesy blockbusters in quick succession, and its realized profits (even before foreign distribution and DVD sales) put the state back in the black -- we weren't laughing so hard then, were we?

Schwarzenegger's brilliant financial coup was well-timed: The governor's poll numbers shot into the triple digits, and he so handily won re-election in 2006 that his Democratic opponents -- the cast of the recently canceled NBC White House drama The West Wing, convinced that having played politicians on television gave them at least as much right as Schwarzenegger to the governorship -- have never been seen or heard from since. Los Angeles, that bastion of liberalism that had Fox News pundits railing against the "Left Coast", voted overwhelmingly to keep one of its own at the state's helm. "The Arnold"'s popularity was so complete that even those women who had, during the heyday of his initial recall campaign, accused him of inappropriate sexual advances, had backed him: the political action committee Gropees for Arnold Schwarzenegger, or GAS, helped him amass a campaign war chest that surpassed the budgets of all of his action-vehicle blockbusters combined.

Despite rampant speculation that Schwarzenegger would use this political capital to succeed George W. Bush in the White House in 2008, The Arnold completed his second term faithfully, although he did campaign tirelessly behind the scenes to set the stage for future political endeavors. For starters, there was that pesky little matter of the U.S. Constitution barring non-native-born citizens from running for office; he'd have to work on that. But it wasn't going to be easy. The Bush/Cheney administration had won re-election in 2004 by the slimmest of margins, thanks to Bush's handling of post-war Iraq, and often found itself stonewalled by a Democratically controlled Congress. This Congress saw no profit in rewriting the Constitution to benefit a potential Republican presidential aspirant, and rebuffed Schwarzenegger's every gambit. The election of the second Clinton-Gore ticket in 2008 didn't help matters: President Hillary Clinton and Vice-President Tipper Gore made keeping Schwarzenegger's political ambitions at bay one of their administration's top priorities, and no amount of Hollywood schmoozing could budge them.

Schwarzenegger left the governor's office in 2010 a martyr instead of a lame duck; his Hollywood PR machine had worked tirelessly to paint him as unfairly deprived of his selfless goal to serve the American people. Even the election of several pro-Schwarzenegger Senators and Representatives (most of them, surprise surprise, graduates of those Schwarzenegger Centers) barely made a dent. After his last attempt at a Constitutional amendment ballot initiative failed two years ago, The Arnold's political career seemed terminated. When he looked us all in the eye at that grim-faced press conference and solemnly intoned "I'll be back," most of us cheered, our underdog reflexes kicking in, and wished him well in a whispered-about run for Senator.

But Schwarzenegger had other plans, plans that none of us saw coming. Who doesn't remember where they were on that fateful day in 2011 when a stoic, resolved Rob Lowe, who had succeeded his former boss as state governor, announced California's intention to secede from the United States, citing an "appalling lack of respect for what our state has to offer"? Who was surprised when all those Schwarzenegger Center business leaders suddenly retired, returning to their home state even as their companies mysteriously dissolved in brazen acts of corporate sabotage? And who, really, was surprised when Rob Lowe stepped down the day after California left the union, ceding his chair to none other than -- The Arnold?

Even so, did any of us really expect it to come to war? Wasn't the whole reason we elected Bruce Willis President last year because he pledged to put an end to this whole fiasco? But absolute power corrupts absolutely, or something, because relations between the two bodies soon became heated, with U.S. Secretary of Defense Sylvester Stallone making disparaging remarks about the acting abilities of California SecDef Steven Seagal. Since the first Bush administration, it's been a rite of passage for Republican regimes to declare war on smaller nations, and California presented the perfect target -- if we invade, after all, no one can accuse us of "nation building," since the only nation we'd be rebuilding would be our own.

It doesn't look good. Last week, U.S. Secretary of State John Travolta canceled talks with his California counterpart, The Rock, and within days California's military -- now led by newly-installed General Clint Eastwood -- was once again trying to annex Washington State, in order to avail itself of the technology-rich minds at Microsoft. Just yesterday, Willis and his Vice President, Will Smith, met with Pentagon brass to discuss the feasibility of a preemptive nuclear strike. And California Press Secretary Jay Leno denied rumors that California Vice President Tom Arnold had been relocated to an "undisclosed location," promising "all-out action" as he announced the next step in California's diabolical plan. In a stunning move, State of California Studios has annexed all of the major Hollywood production houses, and announced an immediate cinematic embargo, leaving American cineplex screens dark, completely devoid of pictures.

"Those fiends!" seethed White House Press Secretary Seann William Scott at this morning's briefing. "Seceding from our country is one thing, but to cut off our access to the Dream Factory? To deny us the talents of Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts and the Olsen Twins? To abrogate our right to the moviegoing experience itself?!!! That's just going too far!" Asked about rumored plans to send Nicolas Cage and Angelina Jolie back in time to assassinate Schwarzenegger before he could run for Governor, Scott replied with a terse "No comment." That may have something to do with the inconvenient little fact that time travel hasn't been invented yet. But somebody'd better hope for a pretty decent deus ex machina soon, or it's "Hasta la vista, baby" for all of us.

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November 22, 2006: Half Decade Anniversary
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