I don’t believe I’ve ever had good feelings about Republicans. For me, growing up, Republicans were greedy old white men who liked to play cowboy. Reagan was my first real Republican. I have vague memories of Ford. I could not at the time articulate how I felt about him, but looking back at contemporary pictures or videos, he looked sad and vulnerable. That bald pate, beedy-alien eyes, and gruff, weedy voice seemed to generate an conception of a man better suited to orderly work at the mental hospital. But he was essentially a harmless man. The bridge between the odious kraken known as Richard Nixon (who I do not remember, though Watergate overlaps by toddler years) and the intellectual experimentalism and arrogant rebellion of Jimmy Carter.
Reagan, as Vidal says, was a masterpiece of the embalmer’s trade. He looked bad, but in a good way. He really did look like an animated corpse, or a sultana in a Brooks Brother’s suit. He was simple minded, politically savvy, sincerely folksy, psychopathic, kindly, parodic, dumber than a cow turd, and charismatic in the way fictional characters are charismatic. They called him “Teflon” because no scandal could stick to him. No one would believe that this tired looking old B-movie star with the hair cemented in place with Brylcreem could be responsible for death squads in Central American, arms for hostages, or placating future evil doers as Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden. We (Americans) wanted to believe we were good, and in as much as we place our hopes and dreams in the person of President as-Head-of-State; and in as much as we were desperate to redeem our shattered national pride after Vietnam and Nixon, we had to believe in someone.
We’ve done this time and time again. Most recently we settled for W Bush , a man not fit to serve as Reagan’s towel boy. And when I say “not fit,” what I mean to say is that Reagan was satanically magisterial, whereas W was simply craven. A bottom feeder who was propped up as figurehead for the Cheney/Rumsfeld/Ashcroft/Rove cabal. Reagan, taken for all-in-all, was his own man. An operative and a player of the old school.
Reagan cut his teeth here in California before my time. I grew up with the mercurial Jerry Brown who was replaced by the decidedly non-mercurial, non-moonish George Deukmejian who I, for the life of me, cannot think of leaving a single footprint in Brown’s dust. I attempted to revive my memory with a trip to his Wikipedia page. Evidently, he was sort of an appetizer to Pete Wilson’s smorgasbord of intolerance and myopia. He put the kibosh on CalTran’s bicycle program which may have eventually helped develop something like a bicycle culture in this congested, auto-addicted state. And, naturally, he hated queers, vetoing an anti-discrimination bill in the State legislature.
But “Duke” was strictly small potatoes compared to the eight nightmare years of fear and loathing that were the Pete Wilson era. His Three Stirke’s law stuffed our prisons with pizza thieves and pot heads. He shepherded Prop 187 which attempted to deny public benefits (like medical care for, say, tuberculosis) to illegal immigrants. Yes, what we wanted in this state was a culture of terror so that no one ever helped cops with crime investigations because they feared being sent back to El Salvador. And we certainly wanted to makes sure that undocumented grandma never get’s treatment for TB because, naturally, the highly contagious bacillus knows better than to infect good, hardworking legal residents. I am assuming, too, that we all wanted to pay ten dollars a pound for the tomatoes and six dollars a head for the lettuce that would be picked by the legal replacement workers for the illegals we’d be shipping back in freight cars.
I should not overlook Wilson’s positive achievements in the state, leaving it with a massive budget surplus. Fiscally, the man was an effective with a calculator. It is this aspect of budgetary discipline that somewhat counteracts the cowardice and lack of vision that are the hallmarks of the 20th century Republican’s economic philosophy. The current crop of spend-and-scare GOPers don’t even have this to recommend them.
Wilson also championed an initiative that I fully supported in his case. Prop 140 set term limits on the state’s executive. Thus, he termed himself out.
After the tragic boom and bust cycle of the Gray Davis administration, the man who seemed to take into his political body, an analogue of the dot.com era and false, Clintonian prosperity, we in California were ready again to flirt with fancy, caprice, and self-parody. For the second time, we elected a bad actor to the state’s highest post. Well, at least Ronnie could give a speech. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s term in office has been highlighted by mugging, posturing, bad jokes, bad speeches, hubristic abuse of the initiative system, and an utter inability to properly pronounce the name of the state he governs. That being said, the man is like no Republican I’ve ever seen. He is personally pro-gay rights (although cowardly when it came to Prop. 8), pro-universal health care (as befits his European heritage), and a frequent lip-server of environmental reform. He is also, by marriage, a Kennedy (via the Shriver line) and probably has not a single Southern Republican friend. He makes a lousy Republican, if by Republican, we are going by the hard cases California has seen in its history, or the more recent examples of paranoid foil-hatters and brain trusts that currently populate the ranks of the Grand Old Party.
Truth to be told, Arnold would probably be much more comfortable in the company of Reagan or Teddy Roosevelt than Dick Cheney or Rush Limbaugh.. He is basically a gregarious “guy” who prefers cigars and glad-handing to demagoguery. His cowardice on the issue of gay marriage and silence on immigration reform is unsurprising. As a western European and a member of the Hollywood crowd, assuming the de rigueur posture of the “pro-family” Christian would seem as foreign to him as his accent seems to us. And he is smart enough to know that Austrians are not the go-to folks for discussions of race. (But what a signal that would have sent to the crazy-right in this state, the Minutemen. Their masculine fantasies would be challenged by Conan himself!). He likes the idea of the Republican party, at least the old idea. The decidedly Eastern, Rockefeller, old-money idea of low taxes, privileges for the wealthy, and a beefy, flexing military. That, joined with the Western, folksy sensibilities of Goldwater and Reagan, caught Arnold’s imagination at a young age. It suited his testosterone dreams. But that Republican party is gone. KBW – Killed By W. In its place, the Southern Republicans. A vile pack of unreconstructed, dumb-as-pig-shit, racists, xenophobes, and misogynists. I am thinking Arnold would like to never meet one of these bumpkins. Perhaps he’s run into one or two of their Golden State cousins. The northeast and the southeast of the state are stuffed with similar types.
The biggest difference between Arnold and any of the other Republicans who have spent time in the governor’s seat in Sacramento is that I cannot muster the righteous antagonism that comes so easily when I meditate on the legacy of Reagan, Wilson, and the Bushes. Were we in prosperous times, he would be an innocuous placeholder, happy to cut ribbons and promote gym class. In other words, a lifestyle politician. A Warren Harding or, to be more generous, an Eisenhower. But Arnold took the reigns as things went from bad, to worst, to a point where we are nostalgic for the bad. Now the essential absurdity of his election is starting to take on tragic dimensions. And Californians have no one to blame but themselves, which is why no recall election is forthcoming in his case. Plus, who wants the job of selling seat belts while we’re in freefall? It is easier to hate the legislature. That feels like bureaucracy rather than the populist democracy that put Arnold out head of a diminutive child actor, a porn star, and a loopy political commentator with an accent even thicker than his. But then again, Californians usually go with their “feelings,” don’t we?