Arnold Schwarzenegger's zeitgeist surfing.

Arnold Schwarzenegger's zeitgeist surfing.

Arnold Schwarzenegger's zeitgeist surfing.

Policy made plain.
Sept. 4 2003 12:00 PM

Zeitgeist Surfing

In 1977 Arnold Schwarzenegger thought of himself as a swinger. In 2003 he thinks of himself as governor.

Just a zeitgeist kind of guy
Just a zeitgeist kind of guy

If sexual intercourse, as the poets tell us, began in 1963 ("Between the end of the 'Chatterley' ban/ And the Beatles' first LP."—Philip Larkin), it was another decade and a half before the American political system began to take notice. In those days, the late 1970s, one of the leading politicians was a soon-to-be uncle by marriage of Arnold Schwarzenegger, named Ted Kennedy. Kennedy challenged the incumbent president, Jimmy Carter, for the 1980 Democratic nomination. But he was thought to be a "womanizer," and the press was in an agony of indecision about how to deal with adultery by a politician. Apparently this was something that never had happened before.

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The press spent most of that election campaign pretending that it still hadn't happened, with two exceptions. There were veiled and unexplained references to Kennedy's "private life" as a matter of potential concern. And there were earnest media-crit discussions about the issue of whether the issue should be an issue, which necessarily involved at least a hint or two of what exactly the issue might be.

This arrangement reflected the majority view among journalists at the time that a politician's sex life was politically irrelevant. The minority view (mine, among others) was the opposite. Some sexual habits reflect an attitude toward other people, especially women, that is worth knowing about in the voting booth. It's also worth knowing if a politician is a liar and hypocrite, which he is if he's campaigning with his wife and canoodling with someone else. In any event, the proper question isn't what a journalist thinks is relevant but what his or her audience thinks is relevant. Denying people information they would find useful because you think they shouldn't find it useful is censorship, not journalism.

In recurring episodes over the next couple of decades, the minority view gradually won. A profusion of factors differentiates each case from the others, including naked partisanship on both sides, but the trend has been clear. In 1987 Gary Hart said, "Follow me around—you'll be bored." In 1991, Clarence Thomas was under oath and up for a lifetime court appointment. In 1997 Bill Clinton … well, take your pick.

In 2003, though, we may have come full circle. Schwarzenegger, now running for governor of California, was interviewed in a porn mag back in 1977. The killer quote (among other, similar bits of beefcake braggadocio): "Once in Gold's gym there was a black girl who came out naked. Everybody jumped on her and took her upstairs, where we all got together. But not everybody, just the guys who can f*** in front of other guys." 

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Thanks in part to the Internet (especially, in this case, Slate's Mickey Kaus), you can't actually suppress information like this any longer, once it is known at all. The media treated themselves to a medium-sized frenzy over the news-starved Labor Day weekend. ("Shock Confession Haunts Terminator," headlined Britain's Mirror newspaper. "Schwarzenegger Gave Racy Interview in '77," declared the dainty Washington Post. "Recall Candidates Court Central Valley Moderates," screamed the New York Times.) Yet after a few days, the self-fulfilling consensus of the political community—pols, journalists, strategists, commentators, even Schwarzenegger's opponents—seems to be that this shouldn't and isn't going to be an issue in the campaign.

Not only that, but by at least one of the standards of the tell-all minority when this argument first started, hustling this story off the stage may even be justified because the public seems to agree that it is a nonissue. It's nice that the political pros and the public are in agreement about this. But are they right? Or has world-weary sophistication gone universal and bonkers at the same time?

True, you can't nail Arnold on hypocrisy. He told this story on himself 26 years ago and hasn't troubled to deny it since it re-emerged. In fact, if there is any dishonesty here, it may be in the anecdote itself. Did this parody of a testosterone fantasy really happen? (Kaus quotes Mr. Gold himself saying that Gold's gym had no women members back then.) But if it did happen, exactly as Arnold described it in 1977, it's pretty disgusting. It's disgusting even if it was consensual all around. It's disgusting even though Arnold wasn't married at the time. It's disgusting even if this amounts to applying the standards of the 21st century to events of the mid-1970s. Schwarzenegger isn't running for governor of California in 1975.

In terms of his fitness for elected office, the fact that Schwarzenegger bragged about this episode in a published interview makes the question of whether it really happened almost irrelevant. In 1977, at least, he wished to have people believe that he shared and was proud of an attitude toward women that is not acceptable in a politician. And in 2003, all he has said is that he doesn't remember the interview. He hasn't said whether he remembers the episode itself—or, if he doesn't, whether that is because it never happened or because it happened too often to keep track. More important, he hasn't said what he thinks about it all from the perspective of 2003.

Arnold may be just surfing the zeitgeist: a swinger in the swinging '70s (Were they swinging? Hard to recall …), a governor in the sober 2000s. Like similar statements from George W. Bush about his drinking and Dan Quayle about evading the draft, Schwarzenegger has said he didn't know back then that he'd be running for governor today. Which works fine as an explanation, but fails miserably as exoneration.