Ten years later, the recall of Gov. Gray Davis hasn’t had the impact that its backers (a revolution! We’re saving California!) or its detractors (a Republican takeover of California! A fascist attack on representative government!) predicted at the time. But it lives on as a singular moment in the life of California. And in my life.
I was a reporter at the LA Times, in my final few months in Southern California being transferred to the Washington bureau. I wouldn’t make it to the bureau. I ended up covering the recall and Gov. Schwarzenegger’s campaign and first term in office, ultimately writing a book about those times, and about the crazy-quilt system of media, consultants, money and direct democracy that governed California politics then, and still does it today. I called it blockbuster democracy.
Covering the recall wasn’t much fun. It was a brutally hot summer, even for an LA Times reporter who managed to get away with wearing shorts to work. The players on all sides were angry most of the time, and angry people are not fun to interview. And the Schwarzenegger campaign made life difficult by dodging questions even about basic matters, like the candidate’s schedule. But it was endlessly interesting, an only-in-California mash-up of culture, entertainment, politics, civic engagement and good old-fashioned madness.
Below are five of my favorite memories of those days
5. Twisted Sister at the mall. The first really huge crowd of the Schwarzenegger campaign was at a mall in Fresno. It was hot as blazes, but the crowd was simply delirious, mostly male and oddly muscular, and full of energy and anticipation at the show they were about to see. Schwarzenegger gave a speech typically devoid of detail and ideas but with great one-liners and exquisite comic timing. Then, to my disbelief, the Twisted Sister song “We’re Not Gonna Take It”, which would become the candidate’s theme, came on, and Schwarzenegger started throwing T-shirts to the crowd. And people just lost their minds. I can remember thinking two things. This is a little bit scary. And this sure is one hell of a story.
4. The Norwalk Nightclub. The scene at the L.A. county office buildings in Norwalk, where dozens of the 135 candidates came, including Schwarzenegger and Arianna Huffington, who arrived just behind Arnold to soak up his press. And there were hundreds of reporters there – from news outlets, California papers, entertainment shows, and from international media all over the world. This was not about politics; it was about being seen. The registrar-recorder’s office had somehow become an exclusive club. Tapes of the whole thing exist in TV stations; they should be unearthed and used to build college curricula in voyeurism and exhibitionism.
3. Going to the bathroom in Ted Costa’s office. It was my assignment to profile and keep up with the original proponent of the recall, a peculiar anti-tax activist who worked out of offices in a former roller derby rink behind a Krispy Kreme donut shop in an unattractive part of Sacramento. I spent so much time, listening to all the wild conversation, there that all of the pictures and posters of Abe Lincoln – the 16th president could see you everywhere – that I started to think the president was judging me with his stares. I found myself retreating to the bathroom not for physical relief but to escape Lincoln’s gaze.
2. The flying brothel. For the first and only time in my life, I rented a private jet. It was the next to last day of the recall, and Schwarzenegger was flying around the state, but, in typical fashion, not letting reporters go with him (or providing a press plane). So I convinced my bosses at the LA Times to let me rent a private plane at Van Nuys Airport (it was $6,000 for the whole day), and share the costs with the Associated Press and the New York Times, who would also put reporters on the flight. The plane we got was more than 30 years old, with tacky red upholstery, and the pilot introduced it as “The Flying Brothel.” Rest assured, my journalistic colleagues and I kept our clothes on throughout a day of flying around the state, with stops from Santa Barbara to Redding. The real fun was working with the pilot to play cat and mouse with the Schwarzenegger pilots, who didn’t appreciate being followed and tried to prevent us from getting to airfields before they did.
1. The Schwarzenegger’s team spin wasn’t always convincing, but it was professionally offered and unlike anything I had encountered before. The campaign explained a host of episodes from Schwarzenegger’s past by saying that the candidate had been exaggerating or fabricating to pump up bodybuilding or his movies. This “So he lied – what the heck is your problem, Mathews?” spin was the perfect post-modern strategy for a perfectly post-modern election.