Friday, April 30, 2021 | 2 a.m.
In the California of popular myth, the air is sweetly perfumed and endless sunshine warms the Beautiful People — perfect hair, flawless teeth — for whom stardom waits just around the corner.
A parade of Hollywood celebrities — Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sonny Bono, Clint Eastwood — have stepped from the screen to help lead this fantasy version of the golden state,where anyone who’s ever walked a red carpet is instantly a credible candidate for political office.
After all, fame is what Californians supposedly worship and A-listers are who they elect.
The reality, of course, is far different. (And that’s not speaking of the smog, traffic, homelessness and deep income and social inequalities that plague our seaside idyll.)
California has had 40 governors and 47 U.S. senators. If you add George Murphy, a former song-and-dance man who served a single Senate term in the 1960s, the entire roster of celebrity politicians elected to statewide office comes to a sum total of three: Murphy, Reagan and Schwarzenegger.
Bono was elected to Congress from Palm Springs and Eastwood served as Carmel mayor.
If you’re looking for the archetypal California governor, you’ll find him not on some marquee but in the resolutely bland Pete Wilson, the self-effacing George Deukmejian or the aptly named Gray Davis.
Still, the state’s image as land of the airhead and home of the star-struck stubbornly persists — especially among East Coast sophisticates — which helps explain the inordinate attention paid to the gubernatorial candidacy of Olympic athlete-turned-tabloid-TV personality Caitlyn Jenner. (That along with the urge to monetize clicks and attract eyeballs.)
Two seriously credentialed Republicans are vying to replace Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom in the anticipated recall election: San Diego’s former Mayor Kevin Faulconer and Doug Ose, who served three terms in Congress representing the Sacramento area. You’re unlikely to find either of them on the E! network, however, or babbling an acceptance speech at one of Hollywood’s self-regarding award ceremonies, so it remains to be seen if they receive remotely as much media coverage as Jenner.
There are several reasons to question the viability of her candidacy. (Being transgender is not one of them, so save those outraged cards and letters for another time.)
As Politico first reported, Jenner has a spotty voting record, failing to cast a ballot in nearly two-thirds of the elections held over the past 20 years, including the 2018 governor’s race; apparently any political office worth having isn’t worth paying attention to — unless you’re seeking to occupy it. A similar lack of civic-mindedness hurt Meg Whitman and Al Checchi when they squandered part of their fortunes on failed bids for governor.
Jenner’s inattention to political detail apparently extends to some basic facts of how government operates. A day after declaring her candidacy, she attempted a soft-on-crime attack against Newsom by assailing the leniency of “Gavin’s district attorneys.” In fact, local prosecutors are elected by voters, not chosen by the governor.
Jenner’s candidacy appears to be a half-baked confection of the exiled Trump political operation. Participants include his onetime campaign manager Brad Parscale and Republican fundraiser Caroline Wren, who helped organize the rally that preceded the Jan. 6 siege on the Capitol. While that might allow Jenner to nail down the insurrectionist-who-hates-democracy vote, it also makes it far easier for Newsom and his political allies to tie the recall to the despised ex-president.
The main reason, though, to doubt the seriousness of Jenner’s gubernatorial bid is a complete and utter lack of qualification for the office. Her naiveté and inexperience will appeal to a certain number of voters who prefer ineptitude to “politics as usual.” But that’s probably become a much smaller percentage of the electorate after Trump’s ham-fisted presidency.
One thing Murphy, Reagan and Schwarzenegger had in common was a grounding in politics, which gave them credibility before they made their leap into elected office.
Murphy, a star of vaudeville, Broadway and several Hollywood musicals, was an Earl Warren delegate to the 1948 Republican National Convention, helped lead the California Republican Party and worked on President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s two inaugural celebrations before winning a U.S. Senate seat.
Reagan spent years on the political speaking circuit, honing the anti-government, pro-free-enterprise message that became his lodestar. His speech on behalf of Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential candidacy, “A Time For Choosing,” is one of the most consequential campaign addresses ever given and helped launch Reagan two years later to the governor’s office.
Schwarzenegger was guided by strategists for former Gov. Wilson, who spent months schooling the Hollywood action hero on politics and policy before he launched a successful statewide ballot measure expanding after-school programs. The initiative campaign was an intended prelude to Schwarzenegger’s run for governor, applying a veneer of substance to his splashy candidacy.
“It’s not just celebrity,” said Don Sipple, a political ad maker who was part of the team that helped elect Schwarzenegger. “Anybody who’s running for public office has to have a sense of purpose and translate it to people. It can’t be about you and your ambitions. There has to be a public policy dimension, something you’re about.”
In the case of Bono and Eastwood, it was fighting City Hall. Both owned businesses and established their credentials by taking on bureaucratic roadblocks, winning political followers in the process.
Not one of California’s celebrity lawmakers succeeded on fame alone.
That’s something Jenner, an Olympic decathlon champion, should appreciate. You don’t win a medal just by showing up.
Mark Barabak is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.