The hackneyed phrase “political circus” came vividly to life on the shores of the Pacific this month. The national media, hardly sober and substantive in the best of times, was postively drunk with tabloid glee over two lurid spectacles whose simultaneous explosions of sex, blood, celebrity and raw power merged into a single glop of fevered emotionalism, driving the real story deep into the shadows.
We refer, of course, to the elevation of a cartoonish muscle-man to high office and the near-devouring of a Las Vegas circus performer by a white tiger. In the garish cacophony of America’s 24-7 media bubble, the election of scandal-plagued Arnold Schwarznegger to the governorship of California was scarcely differentiated from the mauling of Vegas showman Roy Horn during his animal act at the aptly-named Mirage Hotel. Both stories were the subject of non-stop gabbling on every news outlet, with the American media’s high priest, CNN’s Larry King, alternating interviews with California political players and Vegas heavyweights on the implications of it all.
Politics, tigers, governments, movies: it’s all one thing, one product in America’s mega-merged media these days. Diversion is the name of the game: keep ’em stirred up, with witless tittilation, primitive emotion, gossip, chatter, anxiety (“Are your taxes going up? Is your deodorant letting you down? Are the terrorists gonna get you? Does your butt look big in this?”)–endlessly evoking unfufillable desires for beauty, riches, security, love. Reality gets smothered in the glop.
The rightwing money-men behind the Schwarzenegger sideshow are well aware of this new paradigm. They were no doubt delighted when the stories about Arnold’s aggressively roving hands hit the papers the weekend before the vote (at the same time Horn’s tiger lit up the airwaves with his bloodwork). The meticulously detailed allegations of the actor’s boorish mauling of women over the past quarter-century provided the perfect opportunity to shovel the election into the diversionary ditch of personal scandal, with its ritual patterns of charge, denial, contrition and counterattack. It wasn’t likely that louche behavior from a Hollywood actor would come as a great shock to anyone already enthralled by celebrity–including stalwart Republican conservatives, like prim Mormon politico Orrin Hatch, who had rained hellfire on Bill Clinton for consensual dalliances, but leapt to defend Arnold for his “youthful indiscretions.” (In fact, Hatch went so far as to introduce legislation to lift the Constitutional ban on foreign-born citizens–like Austrian native Schwarzenegger–running for president. Next stop: Das Weisse Haus, baby.)
All this non-signifying sound and fury kept voter–and media–attention away from the real impetus behind the recall. As always, it comes down to big money. The same weekend that sex charges and circus blood flooded the news, muckracker extraordinaire Greg Palast produced the smoking gun: reams of corporate memos that confirmed Schwarzenegger’s involvement with Bush-backing Enron chief Ken Lay and convicted stock swindler Mike Milken in a scheme to thwart the California government’s attempt to win back $9 billion in illegal profits looted by Lay and his fellow energy barons during the state’s manufactured “energy crisis” in 2000.
Taking advantage of the state’s Republican-installed, loophole-ridden “deregulation” laws, Lay and the barons gamed the energy grid in 1999-2000, forcing massive blackouts and monstrous price hikes, and costing California more than $70 billion, as Jason Leopold reports in Scoop. After hard evidence of widespread tampering and manipulation came to light, the state government of Governor Gray Davis filed a $9 billion civil suit against Lay and the boys to recover some of those ill-gotten gains.
It was then that Arnie sat down with “Kenny Boy” (the cutesy nickname George W. Bush gave to his biggest contributor) and Conman Mike in L.A.’s swank Peninsula Hotel to launch their plunder protection plan. Kenny Boy would work on the Washington energy regulators–whose chief had been appointed by Bush on Lay’s personal recommendation–to reduce any federal penalties to peanuts. The moguls would then use Arnold’s boundless ambition for power (his admiration for dictators was as well-documented as his girl-groping) to take over the state government and put the kibosh on the private lawsuit.
Here’s the crux: the main charge against Davis in the recall was that his inept leadership had led to an $8 billion budget deficit. (Actually, Arnie–and the national media–continually repeated the falsehood that the state had a $38 billion deficit. But who cares? Hey, did you hear about that tiger?) Yet a Schwarzenegger win meant throwing away $9 billion — leaving it in the pockets of Kenny Boy and his fellow Bush bagmen.
But Palast’s story didn’t stand a chance against Vegas tigers, Kennedy wives, kinky sex and celebrity glitz. Nor, as Leopold points out, did the bedazzled media bother to visit Arnold’s own website, where he–or rather, his advisers like Ken Lay–clearly laid out the Recaller’s rapacious energy policy: a return to Enron-friendly deregulation and the gutting of state programs to build small, publicly-owned power plants to ward off future blackouts.
So Arnold was swept in–and the deficit-clearing lawsuit was, of course, swept out. Immediately after the election, a Schwarzenegger spokesman said the new governor would not pursue the court action: “It’s time to settle and move on.”
Indeed. For Arnold has also pledged to eliminate public oversight on any future state contracts with his baronial energy backers. In other words, the tigers have been set loose again–and California’s hapless, misinformed, media-cheated citizens are in for another fierce mauling.
CHRIS FLOYD is a columnist for the Moscow Times and a regular contributor to CounterPunch. His CounterPunch piece on Rumsfeld’s plan to provoke terrorist attacks came in at Number 4 on Project Censored’s final tally of the Most Censored stories of 2002. He can be reached at: email@example.com