Schwarzenegger Finally Showing That He Gets It

By George Skelton, Capitol Journal

Learning on the job can be painful. Especially if you're a rookie governor who's used to being a Hollywood superstar.

The question is how long can Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger stay in civics class without flunking out.

He has displayed a basic misunderstanding of the American political system â€" exhibiting a cavalier attitude toward the role of governor and a disregard for some institutional pillars erected by the nation's founders, such as coequal branches of government.

But he is demonstrating a capacity to learn from mistakes and adapt to his new surroundings.

Even before his abrupt severance Friday of an $8-million, sweet but smelly deal with some muscle magazines, Schwarzenegger was showing signs of beginning to get it.

• You haven't heard "girlie men" or "stooges" or "I am always kicking their butts" lately. The partisan rhetoric has become less pugnacious.

• The political rallies have become less gimmicky, less hokey. He has been spending more time at the Capitol, although that's largely because of recent budget negotiations.

• And let's give him credit for ramming through a budget that was almost on time, certainly close enough for Sacramento. That special election he called will waste tax money, but it did set up a political dynamic that prodded Democrats into submission on Schwarzenegger's budget demands rather than be seen as the devils of deadlock.

• He's trying to negotiate an agreement with Democrats to place an alternative set of reforms on the November ballot. But he's so weak politically and his "reforms" so flawed, Democrats believe, that they see him going over a cliff and are anxious to push. He'd be wise to apply the brakes and ask for a bill canceling the election but hasn't yet learned that lesson.

It didn't take long for the magazine lesson to soak in for Schwarzenegger.

The Times and the Sacramento Bee reported the longsecret deal Thursday morning. There was a media frenzy. By Friday morning it was being reported on the front page of the New York Times and on network TV shows.

Schwarzenegger quickly agreed with advisors that he needed to cut his image loss by severing the money deal.

Let's back up for the basics:

Just before taking office, Schwarzenegger agreed to a five-year deal with Weider Publications, founded by longtime bodybuilding pal Joe Weider. The company publishes muscle magazines that are crammed with advertising for nutritional supplements.

Last fall, Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill by state Sen. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough) that would have prohibited high school athletes from taking certain performance-enhancing supplements. The National Collegiate Athletic Assn. already had banned such supplements.

Recently, the California Interscholastic Federation also moved against performance-enhancing drugs, requiring athletes to sign an agreement not to use them.

In vetoing the Speier bill, however, Schwarzenegger contended that her measure's definition of performance-enhancing supplements was "unclear, open-ended and difficult to interpret."

Schwarzenegger â€" a former steroid user â€" long has been a promoter of nutritional supplements. And it's irrelevant, aides argued Thursday, that the Weider deal paid him 1% of the magazines' ad revenue and guaranteed at least $1 million a year â€" or that it contracted the governor to "further the business objectives" of the publications.

Sure, you can argue that Schwarzenegger would have vetoed the bill anyway, and it's believable. But we'll never really know. He was, after all, taking millions from a magazine group whose advertisers benefited from the veto.

"It's embarrassing," said a veteran Republican consultant, who did not want his name used for fear of alienating the governor. "It doesn't pass the smell test by any standard I know."

The rule is that a Hollywood superstar â€" or an all-star athlete, a platinum-plus rocker â€" can make a consulting deal with a special interest that pays him $8 million. A California governor cannot, unless he doesn't mind creating the noxious odor.

There also was a reek of hypocrisy. While campaigning for office, Schwarzenegger bragged of being so rich that he didn't need special-interest political money or even the governor's salary. But after getting elected, he began setting a new record for special-interest money-grubbing. He didn't pick up his $175,000 salary but started raking in millions from a special interest.

Myself, I'd rather have a governor on the public payroll than some special interest's.

But if he is going to take millions from the outside, not disclosing it publicly until newspapers start sniffing around and your employer feels compelled to report the deal to federal regulators, it just adds to the suspicion of sleaze.

There's also the issue of moonlighting. A governor should be committed 24/7 to running the state â€" not working part time for muscle magazines.

"I don't want there to be any question or doubt that the people have my full devotion," Schwarzenegger said in announcing that he had stopped taking money from the mags.

But he won't be returning any checks. Giving back money, he felt, could be interpreted as an admission of guilt, of acknowledging a conflict.

Fine, keep it. For a day or two. Then send the money to some charities that can actually use it.

And sign a new Speier bill that bans harmful supplements for teen athletes.

Schwarzenegger has the ability to learn fast â€" and better use it to avoid flunking.

See the article on Los Angeles Times website

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

   Become a Clean Money Member