Arnold's All Talk and No Action

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, it turns out, is just an action figure. Scratch his buff, plastic exterior and you'll find a man who lacks the courage of his convictions -- if he actually has any at all.

Even though he "believes gay couples are entitled to full protection under the law and should not be discriminated against," according to his office, he nevertheless vetoed a bill on Thursday that would have granted them exactly that. Given an opportunity to be a leader on this historic civil rights issue, he instead chose to pander to a fundamentalist Republican base.

"He cannot claim to support fair and equal legal protection for same-sex couples and veto the very bill that would have provided it to them," said the bill's author, Assemblyman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco). "Words are cheap. We're looking for action. We're looking for leadership."

Unfortunately, leadership has turned out not to be Schwarzenegger's forte, despite rolling into office two years ago on a surge of popularity. Currently sitting on a paltry 33 percent approval rating, he has outpaced even President Bush in the severity of his post-election free fall. Typical of his fecklessness has been his handling of the gay-marriage issue, which has seen him tell TV host Jay Leno that he supports it and TV host Chris Matthews that he doesn't -- without explaining his position either time.

Like those Southern Democrats who winked at segregation while claiming to be progressive, Schwarzenegger wants to have it both ways, insisting as he vetoed the bill that California is a leader in "recognizing and respecting domestic partnerships and the equal rights of domestic partners." Unfortunately, this is the equivalent of "separate but equal" -- a legal palliative that avoids granting the same rights to all citizens.

Furthermore, he didn't have the decency to also mention that California became such a leader despite the efforts of his right-wing supporters. Nor has he made an unequivocal statement opposing the various initiatives being proposed for the June ballot that would not only ban the Legislature or courts from legalizing gay marriage but would eliminate key domestic-partner rights currently on the books.

Even some Democrats -- such as Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who said after the 2004 election that the movement to legalize gay marriage was "too much, too fast, too soon" -- seem to view same-sex marriage as a political issue rather than an essential civil rights battle. But that's exactly what it is. In addition to its financial, care-giving and legal benefits, marriage encompasses the dignity of commitment -- which is precisely why its use is being so aggressively fought by the fundamentalist Republican base the governor is so terrified of alienating.

Schwarzenegger insisted that his hands were tied by an initiative passed by the voters five years ago. But he could have shown real courage and signed the bill into law, and then allowed the courts to determine if it was unconstitutional. Instead, as Leno pointed out, Schwarzenegger seized upon Proposition 22 as a political "fig leaf." It would appear that the pampered star, used to near-universal adulation as a bodybuilder, actor and recall-election candidate, is incapable of taking a brave stand in either direction. And, as when Ronald Reagan turned a deaf ear to the first victims of AIDS, Schwarzenegger's decision to stick his head in the sand instead of seizing this opportunity to dramatically advance civil rights is all the worse because we know he is neither a religious zealot nor provincially ignorant concerning homosexuality.

Anyone who has worked in Hollywood, as Schwarzenegger has for decades, knows from daily experience that partners in same-sex romantic relationships are as likely as their heterosexual peers to be solid and productive members of their community. The idea that they should not be empowered as consenting adults to make their own decisions concerning marital arrangements and to receive equal opportunities under the law is therefore doubly galling.

How wonderful it would have been if Schwarzenegger had used the lessons of tolerance and respect for gays garnered from a lifetime of workaday experiences to help lead the public to a more enlightened view. Alas, he failed that test of courage.

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