I recently came across an old notebook of mine, written out at the breakfast table of Arnold Schwarzenegger, a political novice who had recently made the improbable leap to governor of California in 2003.
Schwarzenegger was so confident he had mastered the art of political misdirection in just a few short months that he had invited me, then a reporter for The New York Times, to join him and his pals on a motorbike ride along the coastal highway. We stopped at a breakfast joint deep in Malibu Canyon.
Among those pals was James Cameron, director of the Terminator pictures, the ones in which Schwarzenegger stars as a killing machine from the future.
“So how's it going up there?” asked Cameron about Sacramento, picking over a bowl of boiled oats and berries.
“It's a real trip,” Schwarzenegger said. “It's just like the movies. The people voted for a hero. And I'm the hero. If I can't win, then California is finished. If I am defeated then there will be no one left who is able to fight the special interests.”
“What special interests?” asked Cameron.
“That's the trip,” says Schwarzenegger. “No one knows. It's whatever I say! Journalists ask me 'what special interests'? I say 'those special interests' or 'these special interests.' Just special interests, and they write it down. People don't really care who the villain is, just that the good guy and his people win. It's like the movies.”
“That's funny,” says Cameron. “In your movies, all your sidekicks die.”
It's been nearly 20 years since Schwarzenegger let me in on the secret. But the movie rolls on, playing on a continual loop.
Fiction becomes fact
Donald J. Trump continues with his whopper about the election being stolen. Trot out a “witness” and an “expert” and the audience believes. The audience here wants to believe despite the fact that the GOP-led Michigan Senate found no evidence of election fraud.
“Big Gretch” Whitmer shuts down the state of Michigan in the name of saving lives. She claims her decisions are based on science and data. And her audience believed. We come to find out that "science and data" was suspect, and now the state Auditor General has announced he will review whether nursing home deaths were undercounted.
Former Detroit Police Chief James Craig is so good in front of the camera, they call him “Hollywood." Craig claims he cleaned up Detroit, brought down crime by historic levels and stopped protesters from torching the city. Except his data, like Whitmer's, is suspect. So wild and unrealistic were his crime statistics in 2017, for instance, that the FBI refused to accept them. A first.
He is likely to challenge for Whitmer's chair next year. And judging by his early poll numbers, his audience believes.
Craig's former boss, Mayor Mike Duggan, claims he's the guy who cleaned up Detroit. It was he who rekindled the street lights, balanced the books, tore down the blight. But it was Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr who actually turned on the lights and balanced the books. Duggan sees the feds barking at the city's heels on those demolitions, an exploding crime problem and an exodus from the city.
The Detroit Free Press recently wrote: “(Duggan) has too little regard for the ethical boundaries or transparency voters typically demand of their elected representatives to uphold.”
Then the editorial board endorsed him for reelection, anyway.
And so, the political embellishments go unchallenged. The fiction becomes fact.
It rains in Michigan and the power goes out. It rains in Michigan and the sewers overflow. It rains in Michigan and dams wash away. In every case, the politicians assemble a press conference, dress in working man's wardrobe, promise a full investigation and then tell us our future looks sunny. A scene straight from the back lots of Paramount.
It's not a question effectiveness or incompetence, Schwarzenegger was saying. It's a matter of sticking to the dramatic arc. The sheriff rides into town. The sheriff gets ambushed. But by way of virtue of a dead eye and a steady hand, he fights his way out.
That's the script.
But in truth, the gun shoots blanks.