Arnold Schwarzenegger for governor!

Well, why not? I hadn’t thought of putting in a plug for the actor’s political career until Gov. Gray Davis’ top political operative, Garry South, conducted one of the meanest political smear jobs in recent memory.

South took the lowest of the low roads when he personally made sure that an article in Premiere magazine got into the hands of a host of reporters as well as potential Republican backers of a possible Schwarzenegger gubernatorial campaign. Not content with attacking Schwarzenegger as a womanizer, as the magazine did, South baited Republicans for even considering supporting a man whose political views might be described as more moderate than theirs.

As South told me, Schwarzenegger “defined himself as a social liberal, pro-choice and pro-gun control, plus he’s married to a Kennedy.” What a crime. But South sputtered on, adding that Schwarzenegger also is pro-gay rights, pro-immigrant and supported Clinton during the impeachment farce.

Most of this kind of talk is aimed at shocking Republicans, but apparently South got his call list mixed up and mistakenly placed me in the category of right-winger. Anything to destroy an opponent. South claimed Schwarzenegger’s suggestion that he might be a gubernatorial candidate made him fair game. Referring to the actor’s interview with L.A. Times columnist George Skelton, South said, “When Skelton put him in the ring, he [Schwarzenegger] trashed the governor.”

Not so. Schwarzenegger criticized Davis’s handling of the California energy crisis as being marked by uncertainty (an assessment shared by many) and said Davis hadn’t kept his campaign promises. But he said nothing personally denigrating about the Governor. In fact, he said of Davis, “I hope he does a great job so there’s no reason for anyone to run against him. Because that’s the ideal thing.” I call that gracious.

Yet South felt compelled to answer with a no-holds-barred smear, explaining: “When someone attacks my client, I will respond, that’s what I do for a living–when you do what Arnold Schwarzenegger did, you put yourself in the line of fire. That’s my rationale; I have no apology whatsoever.”

Nor does Davis. A campaign press spokesman, Gabriel Sanchez, when asked about the smear campaign conducted on behalf of the Governor’s campaign committee, said, “The Governor hasn’t made any comment on that issue, nor does he intend to.”

The Premiere piece, which South also e-mailed and faxed to a long list of reporters and political operatives, contained the kind of anonymously sourced dirt that gets hurled with impunity at public figures, who have less protection under libel laws. The primary thrust of the article was that the actor was a serial groper. Weirdly, the magazine’s writer also went into Schwarzenegger’s congenital heart problem, speculating that it was instead the result of steroids used when he was a competitive bodybuilder. As a smarmy aside, the writer made much of the evidently unfounded claim that pig, rather than human, heart valves were implanted in Schwarzenegger. (Schwarzenegger’s surgeon insisted the magazine was wrong, that human valves were used and that there’s no evidence that he used steroids.)

In taking advantage of the hit piece, South began his e-mail with: “RE: Ah-nuhld’s Piggish Behavior (Maybe It’s the Pig Valve?).” How puerile.

Why denigrate a man who has been an exemplary community activist? While Davis’s hatchet man chose to ignore his many charitable and service contributions over the decades, two are particularly well-known: Schwarzenegger is national chair of the effort to bring sports to inner-city kids and has been a major booster of the Special Olympics. Whatever his failings, and who among us is without, he is a family man seen frequently in Santa Monica in the company of his wife, NBC reporter Maria Shriver, and their four children, doing normal family things. I have observed Schwarzenegger in various settings and have never witnessed a scintilla of the crudeness ascribed to him. Many years ago, I occasionally would run into him at Elaine’s restaurant in New York, when he was the young Austrian immigrant bodybuilder who was suddenly the toast of the town after winning the Mr. Universe contest. It’s amazing to me, after all the worldwide media attention over the following decades, that he survived to be someone this seemingly decent and balanced.

This ugly episode tells more about Davis than about his feared opponent. We all know that the Governor is a control freak, and that South would not be doing this without his boss’s approval. It is infuriating that Davis, whom I have long respected and thought to be a classy guy, would stoop to this level. It’s time for Davis to terminate South’s antics and issue an apology to Schwarzenegger.