LOS ANGELES - There was an interesting moment on Wednesday at the end of Arnold Schwarzenegger's first news conference as California's governor-elect. "Please do me a favour," he asked the room full of television cameras and journalists from more than a dozen countries. "Stay with me the next three years, OK? Because you are absolutely essential for me to get my message out there."
It was a curious thing to say for a man whose main interaction with the media the previous week had been to fend off ugly allegations, first published in the Los Angeles Times just five days before the election, that he had pawed and/or sexually humiliated more than a dozen women not named Maria Shriver over the past three decades.
And it wasn't like he was palling around with grizzled newspaper veterans prior to that bit of effective-enough damage control. For the 77 lunatic days of the globally covered election campaign, Schwarzenegger's basic media strategy was to avoid experienced political reporters and unscripted scrutiny like lepers, in favour of more friendly AM talk-radio hosts, and softball celebrity interviewers from Jay Leno (on whose show he famously announced his surprise candidacy) to Oprah Winfrey, who he knew wouldn't give two figs about any of his 134 opponents.
"A lot of thought was given to the idea that we had the ability to expand upon the traditional outlets that tend to cover politics and take our message directly to a segment of the population that frankly isn't the Meet the Press crowd," senior Schwarzenegger advisor Todd Harris told The New York Times this week. "Because of who our candidate was, we could take advantage of that."
Yet Arnold's plea for post-election media attention, uttered at the end of a news conference that was more impressive and charismatic than anything he offered up on the campaign trail, was very real, and provides an important clue about how this Austrian showman will attempt to govern the largest and clearly most unhinged of the 50 states.
Faced with a Democratic legislature that was significantly to the left of fired Governor Gray Davis (that is, until the last two months of Davis's historically shameful reign, when he put his signature on just about any piece of paper that might have bought him a single vote against the recall), Schwarzenegger will try to use his camera-attracting celebrity to maintain the unheard of media attention being focused on the arcana of California governance.
For nine unprecedented weeks, Los Angeles' local television news programs, which are known the world over for live freeway chases and imaginative methods for filling 10 minutes of every newscast with half-naked female flesh, have been delving into the minutiae of workers' compensation reform, legislative redistricting, and money transfers between counties and the state capitol. It's been weird.
And Schwarzenegger clearly wants to keep it that way. More coverage from non-traditional media outlets means a bigger bully pulpit from which to pressure foot-dragging legislators. If they become flat-out obstructionists -- and already, prominent state Democrats have called the new governor a "boob," promised to walk out on his speeches, and threatened to retire rather than work with him -- then Arnold will take his popularity and increased media exposure directly to the voters, via California's legendarily free-wheeling initiative process. Political adversaries who fail to reverse some of the damage they've already inflicted will soon begin to feel like campaign reporters for the Los Angeles Times -- shut out of a system they were supposed to control.
Already, Schwarzenegger has given lawmakers 100 days from his inauguration to repeal a controversial bill, signed by Davis in August after he had vetoed a better version the year before, that allows illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licences. It was opposed by around 70% of California voters, and Schwarzenegger vows to put it up for referendum next spring if the state senators don't act now.
"The legislators up there have gotten this message last night, that the people of California want change," Schwarzenegger said on Wednesday.
The governor-elect might well use the initiative process to address the single most pressing issue at hand -- the state's grotesque budget crisis. On Thursday, he named an auditing team that will examine Sacramento's bleeding books, which already include an estimated US$8-billion deficit for this year (which is technically illegal according to state law), and US$14-billion in long-term borrowing of also-questionable legality.
Daniel Weintraub, a shrewd political columnist for the Sacramento Bee, speculated that Schwarzenegger might push for a March ballot initiative to issue a massive deficit bond to "wipe the slate clean and then balance the operating budget going forward." This would help make it possible for the Milton Friedman-quoting governor to keep his promise about not raising new taxes, and it would cement an intimate and potentially powerful working relationship between the state's top official and its citizens.
But all this depends in part on the media maintaining something near its recent level of interest. Which means, someone's gonna have to keep the circus in town.
This will be hard. Schwarz-enegger's supporting cast in the recall provided reliable entertainment throughout the condensed campaign schedule. Hustler publisher Larry Flynt, calling himself "the smut peddler who cares," lobbied for the grisly death of Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly. Porn actress Mary Carey promised to tax breast implants. A cute and earnest twentysomething software engineer named Georgy Russell sold souvenir thongs from her Web site, and the front-man of SoCal punk-rock band T.S.O.L. campaigned seriously, even refusing to discuss his music career in order to demonstrate his gravitas.
Most every Californian probably knows someone who knows someone who ran for governor, and for a few weeks there you couldn't stop running into them. A friend of mine attended a class A minor league baseball game in Modesto this August ... and nine gubernatorial candidates showed up.
Yet for all the East Coast sniffing about the "circus," voters proved to be remarkably sober, designating 93.7% of their support to just the top three candidates. After fears that Schwar-zenegger's mandate would be laughable, the actor actually got more votes running against 134 opponents than Gray Davis did against a mere handful in November, 2002.
But barring more groping revelations, it's hard to imagine the media intensity keeping pace. Already this week, local talk-radio shows that had been in nonstop "total recall" mode for months, were avidly discussing the sexual positions of L.A. Lakers star Kobe Bryant, who is accused of rape.
But it's not as if Schwarzenegger won't be trying. Hours after encouraging journalists to stay with him, he was back on Jay Leno's Tonight Show, needling the host for acting bored at his election-night party, where Leno had introduced him to the crowd. The serious-journalism types were predictably appalled.
"This seems another step in the same muddy ruin of politics that we're trekking through," cultural grump Todd Gitlin told The Washington Post. "This is a very slippery slope, and we're way down it."
That is Schwarzenegger's hope, anyway. And maybe California's, too.
Matt Welch is an associate; editor at Reason magazine and lives in Los Angeles.; His work is archived at www.mattwelch.com