Out of the Ashes: California Fires Provide Arnold With a Chance to Shine

The audience cheered. They roared in fact. You'd think it was for a movie star or something.

The guy they were cheering for was shouting "GO CHARGERS, GO!!" in the heart of San Diego Chargers country. The location was what had been the team's home before 25,000 shell-shocked people took it over for nearly a week, taking refuge from a massive natural disaster.

The politician who elicited heart-felt cheers had, of course, been an actor before becoming California's governor. But he had become something even more than both as he stood there that Sunday after hideous fires had decimated many parts of San Diego County and incinerated some 1200 structures. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was in Qualcomm stadium during a Chargers football game to honor the firefighters. Just one day earlier, the 41-year-old stadium had been emptied of some 20,000 fire evacuees -- some of them leaving to live in hotels, or elsewhere, because they were without homes. The game was a victory celebration of sorts.

The worst of the big fires were waning, and it seemed that Schwarzenegger was back in the good graces of the bulk of California voters. From cynical reporters to the man and woman on the street, the man some call "Ahnold" received high marks for his management style during the disaster that caused the largest evacuations in state history.

President George Bush's high-concept imagery moment came after 9/11 when he picked up the bullhorn in the rubble of the World Trade Center. Much of that image would later dissipate in the partisan polarization wars that followed. But it was an image-making moment.

Schwarzengger had earlier tried political polarization, got burned and pulled back. Arnold was back to the kind of politics for which a broad coalition of Californians elected him four years ago, when they angrily kicked out the hapless Governor Gray Davis in a recall election. He had come full circle.

Schwarzenegger never really had his bullhorn moment. But it could be argued that he has had his bullhorn phase -- his handling of the California wildfires.

He became the role model of a governor on the move, a Consoler-in-Chief, a go-between clamoring for help for his state's residents from federal officials. His poll numbers had been on the rise, but the tragedy of the fires seemed to restore Arnold to the man who came to office seeming to be a different kind of governor.

Schwarzenegger hit just the right note and received praise in newspapers and from the man and woman on the street. For instance, Bill Whalen, writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, said:

If you found yourself mesmerized by California's terrible wildfires last week, you might have overlooked an even uglier conflagration that's engulfed the entire nation: the acid state of political discourse, and the abject failure of the left, the right and a supposedly neutral media to resist their darker natures and juvenile tendencies.

There are notable exceptions to this claim, with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger being the premier example. Throughout the week, he stayed optimistic, talked action and results, and resisted the media's bait to blame someone - anyone - for California's misfortunes. It's exactly what you look for in a leader.

The AP's report echoed this view, a view you heard if you talked with Californians (even some of the most partisan Democrats and most conservative Republicans, constituences that are not usually among his most fervent admirers):

Schwarzenegger appears to have gotten a powerful boost in public approval from his reassuring and highly visible handling of the biggest crisis to hit his administration.

Still, given that Schwarzenegger is a Republican in a heavily Democratic state, many analysts doubt this outpouring of affection will enable him to resuscitate his plan for universal health care or get his way on some of his other bogged-down legislative projects.

The disaster did play to the celebrity governor's strength for connecting with people and his taste for decisive action.

Schwarzenegger appeared nonstop on television, comforting fire victims and bucking up their exhausted rescuers. He chaperoned Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and President Bush while they got a look at the destruction. During a tour of Qualcomm at the peak of the crisis, he said he had made sure that evacuees had baby food and toilet paper.

The Sacramento Bee's Dan Weintraub, perhaps the most authoritative reporter on Schwarzenegger and author of a highly anticipated upcoming book on the governor, had this:

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, recalling the sense of abandonment that fell upon victims of the 2005 hurricane who made their way to the Louisiana Superdome, visited the San Diego stadium, took a very public walk through the crowd, and made a point of inquiring about the basics of life that every evacuee would need.

"We were concerned, do we have enough cots down here, do we have the enough blankets, do we have enough food, do we have water, do we have the baby formulas, do we have the diapers, do we have enough toilet paper, do we have enough toilets?" Schwarzenegger said at a press conference after his tour. "Do we have everything we need for the people here so they can stay overnight?"

Toilets might seem beneath the pay grade of the governor of the nation's most populous state. But if the toilets are overflowing, even if they're not his responsibility, nothing else a chief executive does is going to have much credibility.

And Schwarzenegger was doing a lot. Almost from the moment Monday morning when it became clear that the fires might grow into a serious crisis, the governor cleared his schedule, headed for the action and stayed there for days. Using his personal private jet, he shuttled between Los Angeles and San Diego all week, touring command posts, getting briefed by emergency operations managers and fire chiefs, and convening meetings of his own staff to deal with problems.

......All California governors, if they serve long enough, seem to be tested by natural disasters. Floods, fires and earthquakes are almost commonplace here, even if we never quite get used to them. It was Schwarzenegger's lot this week to be tested by fire.

So far, at least, he seems to be passing the exam.

The AP story also recounted his visit to the refugees, describing it as an almost festive atmosphere.

Was it all about his celebrity?

That's the easy -- and trite -- way to describe what Schwarzenegger brings to the table (and refugee center). He seems to really enjoy meeting people. The AP again:

Analysts said the former action hero instinctively understood the drama of the moment and projected optimism and calm.

"I think people find him a reassuring figure who does a good job at speaking directly to the news media," said Bill Carrick, a Democratic consultant. "He has a sense of what to do in these situations."

Disasters, both manmade and natural, are a leader's ultimate testing ground. They can remake someone's image - as the Sept. 11 attacks did for Rudy Giuliani - or destroy it, as Hurricane Katrina did to Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco.

By now the Schwarzenegger political saga is known to political junkies. He is now in the middle of his third political incarnation.

In 2003 he was sworn in after winning the recall election against Davis. He had some early legislative successes, seemed to govern as a kind of bipartisan governor (a RINO to Republican conservatives). But then, as his popularity grew and there was talk about trying to change the constitution to allow a foreign born person to run for President, he seemed to veer to the right and sound more like a typical partisan governor. The low point came when he jokingly said Democrats acted like "girlie men" and ignited a firestorm of PC anger.

He proposed several special initiatives, some of them taking on the state's most powerful interests. In September 2005 his proposals flopped big time at the ballot box, and by then Schwarzenegger's opinion polls had fallen so far it looked like he had a great future -- as governor of the South Pole.

He then changed course, and some to this day attribute it to the influence of his Kennedy-family wife Maria Shriver. He infuriated Republicans by appointing a Democrat as his chief of staff and quickly began to move back to the center. He won re-election with some 56 percent of the vote and a one million vote margin.

There seems to almost be a parallel to Schwarzenegger's career and the career of former govenor and senator Pete Wilson, whose advisers are close to Schwarzenegger. Wilson was a popular figure with a seemingly great future but left office with his popularity dissipated and his bright future unrealized.

To some in San Diego, Wilson was never the same once he lost Otto Bos.

Bos was Wilson's director of communications and public affairs when he died shockingly and suddenly at a young age on June 2, 1991. Bos had been a reporter on the San Diego Union-Tribune newspaper (where I worked later on) and became Wilson's press secretary when Wilson became mayor of San Diego (one of the most popular ever).

But Bos had another role: he had also been one of Wilson's close advisers. And some here in San Diego have said over the years that once Bos passed away Wilson began to veer more towards the right, particularly on the hot-button issue of immigration. Wilson's popularity vanished and his seemingly bright national future started to dim.

By contrast, Schwarzenegger pulled himself back from a clear pattern of political decline and put himself back squarely in California's political middle.

That means he is still detested by some on the right who feel he is a Democrat masquerading as a Republican and some on the far left who still use the phrase "the Gropinator" to refer to sexual harassment allegations. The hard-core right and the hard-core left would rather have a more "pure" Governor than someone who politically bobs and weaves.

But now he can't run again. And even a head of cabbage in a supermarket knows the constitution is not going to be changed to allow "Ahnold" to run for the White House.

So is he through after this term?

Hardly.

He has seemingly consolidated his image and standing in California. So he has a future.

But where?

There has been a lot of speculation about him running against Senator Barbara Boxer, the scrappy three-term liberal Democrat Senator who is up for re-election in 2010. Some think it's a silly idea since his personality is too effusive for the clubby Senate. Also, news stories don't note that if he ran against the mega-partisan Boxer he'd have to run a mega-partisan campaign himself, and much of his bipartisan aura (and support) would vanish. It could still happen, but he'd have to walk through some political minefields.

Mayor of L.A.? Become another Al Gore by choosing some issue to advocate?

Schwarzenegger, who had a reputation as an excellent negotiator when it came to dealing with studios and his film career, isn't saying much but is keeping his options open.

Unless something hideous occurs, or he performs poorly during a future crisis, more than ever it looks as if Schwarzenegger will leave office much the way former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani left office -- as someone who appears a cut above other politicians and enjoys support that cuts across party lines. In other words, with a lot of political "baaahcking."

Joe Gandelman is editor-in-chief of The Moderate Voice.