Election Day, the Body Politic Had Gone Numb

Shortly before the 1990 gubernatorial election in Minnesota, the biggest newspaper in the state disclosed allegations of sexual misconduct by the Republican candidate, who was running against an unpopular Democratic governor. The explosive revelations rattled the race and became the defining moment of the campaign. The beleaguered subject of the accusations denied the charges and blamed it all on last-minute dirty tricks by the governor’s operatives.

Sound familiar? Republican nominee Jon Grunseth was nailed by the Minneapolis Star-Tribune for swimming nude with teenage friends of his daughter at a birthday party at his home on an occasion nine years before.

Grunseth’s approval ratings plummeted. A week before the election, he withdrew from the race, unable to continue in the face of massive public opprobrium.

By contrast, Arnold Schwarzenegger survived reports that he had groped, harassed and/or humiliated 16 women over nearly 30 years, with the latest incidents occurring in 2000. And that’s not all. In a relatively brief, two-month campaign, he also faced reports that he had smoked marijuana and hashish, abused steroids, praised Hitler, engaged in group sex and worked a scam with a friend that involved climbing up and breaking off the chimneys of unsuspecting California residents. But far from exiting the race in disgrace, Schwarzenegger is now governor-elect of California.

To my knowledge, no candidate for statewide or national office has ever been able to withstand such a battery of charges. So how did he get away with it?

First, the Schwarzenegger campaign stiff-armed the political press, which could have put him on the spot and held him to account for such serious allegations. He gave only one full-bore press conference worthy of the name, in mid- August, and none after the sexual charges began popping.

Mainstream reporters were held at bay. He submitted to no formal editorial board interviews. He agreed to few one-on-one sessions with reporters, and then mostly with courtly national figures like Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings. Instead, he hid under the skirts of the more permissive, entertainment shows — “The Tonight Show,” “Larry King Live,” Howard Stern and Oprah — where he was treated like an old friend.

Second, Schwarzenegger was partly inoculated from the late-breaking disclosures by previous public glimpses of raunchy sexual behavior. In late August, a 1977 Schwarzenegger interview in the now-defunct Oui skin magazine came to light. In it, the muscleman bragged of having group sex with an anonymous black woman at a gym.

Voters, frankly, have been desensitized to such allegations slowly over the years. Gary Hart was forced out of the 1988 presidential race when he was caught by photographers cavorting with a girlfriend, but only four years later, Bill Clinton survived allegations of a decade-long affair with Gennifer Flowers. And the Monica Lewinsky scandal further desensitized voters, lowering the behavioral bar for other would-be politicians.

A third factor in Schwarzenegger’s favor is that, unlike Grunseth in 1990, there was no significant backlash from within his own Republican ranks. How could those in the self-proclaimed party of family values countenance — let alone dismiss — such loutish, perhaps unlawful, behavior? Presumably they were so victory-starved they would make excuses if Arnold ran over his mother-in-law in his Hummer.

After the disclosures, the Schwarzenegger campaign took to stuffing the stage at his well-choreographed events with dozens of women and pushing forward for interviews those who would say, nosiree, the possibility their boy had committed acts of felony sexual battery didn’t bother them. “He could grope me anytime,” one woman told the press.

Fourth, the Schwarzenegger camp, long anticipating charges of sexual misconduct, prepared the public by warning in advance that Davis would engage in “trash politics,” although there is no evidence that the Davis camp had anything to do with the stories.

They also sought to differentiate Schwarzenegger from other politicians by noting he had not lived his life to be governor.

Last Sunday, responding to the allegations of sexual harassment, Schwarzenegger told Brokaw, “As soon as the campaign is over, I will — I can get into all of these specifics and find out what is really going on.” Will he? Will there be a public demand for a full accounting?

And what will happen if still more incidents surface after Schwarzenegger is sworn in? Will the mainstream media roll over and play dead, assuming that the charges of misconduct were considered and discounted by the voters? If so, that would be a real crime against the body politic.