LOS ANGELES - This is how weird the past week has been in California:
On Monday, crippled smut publisher Larry Flynt became the most prominent Democratic politician to announce he was running for governor, on a platform of building casinos all over the state to pay for the mind-blowing US$38-billion budget deficit. On Tuesday, Flynt's organization held a National Prayer Day asking the Deity to afflict Fox Television commentator Bill O'Reilly with a brain aneurysm, so that his "blood vessels bulge out of his head and explode without mercy."
But that wasn't even the crazy part. Flynt's call for a popular TV personality's agonizing death (during which, the Hustler publisher prayed, O'Reilly would "lose control of his own bowels") didn't merit a sirit a single mention in any California newspaper indexed by Lexis-Nexis. Not one. There was just too much other crazy stuff going on.
Where to start? Let's just take the Huffington couple. In 1994, Arianna and Michael set out to reshape American politics by earning the Republicans one of California's two seats in the U.S. Senate, using Arianna's brains and ambitions and Michael's money and American citizenship (the wife was a Greek import mesmerized by Newt Gingrich). The couple proved so unnerving --Michael looked like a lost puppet, Arianna a mad ventriloquist with an elaborate accent and ties to the bizarre Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness cult -- that Time magazine devoted a long article to the pressing topic of "Should the Huffingtons Be Stopped?" The voters finally decided they should, and the couple eventually divorced.
Last week, with recall politics turning the state upside down, both Huffingtons took out preliminary papers to run for governor in the unprecedented Oct. 7 election that will A) decide whether or not the hated Democrat incumbent Gray Davis should be tossed out on his ear, and B) if so, which candidate among untold dozens should replace him in a winner-take-all vote. Much negotiation with teenaged Huffingtonites undoubtedly ensued. Finally, Arianna announced her candidacy on Wednesday. On Thursday, her ex-husband revealed that not only was he not running, he was throwing his support behind Austrian-born actor Arnold Schwarzenegger instead of the mother of his children. Did I mention she's now a populist left-winger who rails against the "embittered cult of right-wing zealots" leading the recall? Or that her ex-husband is an uncloseted homosexual?
It gets funnier, literally, thanks to the remarkably low barriers to entry on the ballot -- US$3,500 and 65 signatures. Single-named comedian Gallagher, known for smashing watermelons on stage, says he's running.
So is embittered former child actor Gary Coleman, who is being championed by the Oakland-based weekly newspaper the East Bay Express.
"I would actually cut back on the buses," he told the paper. "All buses do is hold up traffic."
Comedian Steve Young tried to auction off his entrance fee on eBay, but the humourless dot-com shut down the bidding.
Angelyne, a massively busted blonde mildly famous for having her curves displayed on a few prominent Hollywood billboards since the 1980s, has also thrown her thong into the ring.
As of Friday morning, only 13 people were fully qualified for the ballot, but a staggering 359 were pending.
Are we barking mad? You bet! How did we get here? A brief primer:
California adopted the recall mechanism in 1911, as part of slate of Progressive reforms to roll back the corrupting influence of railroad barons. (Another feature introduced then was the ballot initiative, whereby citizens could propose legislation, gather enough signatures to put it on a ballot, then vote it into law. This has been a tool for political mini-revolutions, most notably Proposition 13 in the 1970s, which drastically slashed property tax rates and signaled the beginning of a nationwide tax-revolt.)
Democrat pols and their union backers, who have been busy portraying the recall as an "ultra-conservative coup attempt" (in the words of California Labour Federation executive secretary Art Pulaski), surely can't be pleased that the reforms introduced by their forebears are being used, gleefully, by Republicans. (And, it should be said, the initiative process has made legislators' jobs more difficult by imposing a crazy quilt of laws, processes and government programs.)
Every sitting governor of the past 50 years has endured at least some half-hearted recall attempt, but no one could collect enough signatures, until now. What changed? Gray Davis took over a state with swollen coffers in 1998, with his party firmly in control of the legislature, then managed to expand government as if the dot-com boom would last forever, while navigating clumsily through a multi-billion-dollar energy crisis fiasco. Almost every state in the union has some budget crisis triggered by recession and over-spending, but California's is by far the worst, driving its bond rating to junk status even while creating a long-term need to borrow tens of billions of dollars just to pay government salaries.
The other two factors: Davis is a particularly loathsome character (the Los Angeles Times interviewed 30 people at a shopping mall this week and not a one would say a kind thing about the man). And a loose cannon of a Republican politician, United States Congressman Darrell Issa, bankrolled the signature gathering with US$1.5-million of his own money. The process went from a long shot to a done deal in a remarkably short time.
The sheer goofiness of the spectacle since then has been tough sledding for people and institutions dedicated to preserving the gravity of public life. The Los Angeles Times editorial page called it "a circus without solutions" yesterday, in perhaps its 125th editorial condemning the recall. "The easy access to the ballot is an invitation to hordes of candidates, making it unlikely that there will be a way to hold debates," The New York Times editorial board complained yesterday. "Given the fecklessness of the news coverage at most California television stations, the number of candidates and the crazy rules for the election, the person with the best name recognition begins with an enormous advantage."
The horror! The only person who seems tuned into Californians' increasingly giddy frequency is Schwarzenegger himself. His announcement on The Tonight Show on Wednesday, on a night when even his closest advisors assumed he would withdraw his name from contention, was a classic pop- culture milestone in the state's political history. Naturally, the fuddy-duddies condemned it.
Republican speechwriter Doug Gamble, writing in yesterday's L.A. Times, called Arnold's choice of Jay Leno as a political venue "an insult to everyone who takes politics and California's problems seriously."
This is exactly backward. Davis has taken politics seriously his whole life, and Californians will be paying the price for decades to come. The same people lamenting the frivolity of the recall are the ones who shake their heads sadly every time voter turnout decreases another notch.
California, which was flying so high just three years ago, had been uncharacteristically down in the mouth of late. But after the Terminator's surprise announcement, you could hear an audible squeal of delight, and even pride in our weirdness.
"This is going to be the best election ever from a theatrical standpoint," novelist Roger Simon wrote on his Web site on Wednesday. "Ah-nold, Arianna Huffington and Larry Flynt! Who could ask for anything more? Can you imagine the debates? They will outdraw the Super Bowl! Everyone can say all they want about all the nuts rolling across the continent into California, but who would want to miss this?"
Matt Welch is an Associate Editor at Reason magazine and lives in Los Angeles. His work is archived at www.mattwelch.com