Ionce played pool with Arnold Schwarzenegger. Really. He invited me to his home in Sun Valley, Idaho, (one of several homes he owns) and I walked in through a massive foyer and came upon a dining room table that had to be, conservatively, a mile and a half long.

Arnold sat at the far end, like a dot on the horizon. His wife, Maria Shriver, sat next to him. (I think it was her; I’m a little nearsighted.) Upon seeing me, Arnold, a friendly fellow, waved hello and yelled something. I waited for the echo to reach me, and when it did, these were the words:

“Come in. We’re talking politics.”

I did what I usually do when an acquaintance wants to talk politics. I smiled and asked where the bathroom was. We ate dinner. Later, Arnold and I teamed together in a game of pool. At one point, I carefully lined up the cue ball, slid the stick through my nimble fingers — and clunked the shot off the side bumper.

Arnold took a cigar from his mouth and smiled.

“Nice shot,” he said. “Does your husband play pool, too?”

He knows a good line

I always thought that was a funny line. In fact, I would say that was the funniest thing I ever heard Arnold Schwarzenegger say. Until last week, when, on the “Tonight Show,” I heard him say this:

“I plan to pump up Sacramento.”

And, “1.6 million Californians said ‘we’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore!’ “

And, “Do your job, or you’re ‘Hasta la vista, baby!’ “

Oh. And this:

“I’m going to run for governor.”

Note that only the last line is not a movie or TV quote. But the audience cheered them all the same. And just like that, Arnold, with not a whit of political experience, may be seven weeks from the governor’s mansion.

Now, I should mention a few other Arnold encounters. I once wrote a song for a movie he directed. I attended a premiere with him. I did jumping jacks with him on a stage. I ate dessert with him. I met his kids.

I say all this not to impress you, but to suggest that I probably have had more personal encounters with the Terminator than 99.9 percent of Californians will ever have — and I haven’t got a clue if he’s fit for office.

But suddenly he’s the front-runner? Suddenly people think if HE were in office, the stock bubble wouldn’t have burst, the energy scandal would disappear and their budget would be balanced?

A crazy cast of characters

For this, I don’t blame Arnold. He’s doing what he’s always done — seize an opportunity. He did it as an immigrant Austrian bodybuilder 35 years ago, and he’s doing it now that the stars have aligned in his Golden State, and, thanks to a hate-induced recall vote on Gov. Gray Davis, anyone can snatch the nation’s biggest governorship — even if they only have 10 percent of the vote
— as long as Davis doesn’t exceed 49 percent.

Hey. Who wouldn’t grab a chance like that? Campaign? What campaign? Majority? What majority? All Arnold needs to do is stay away from saying anything of substance and outpoint his opponents. These include: Arianna Huffington, the omnipresent commentator; Larry Flynt, the porn publisher; and Gary Coleman, the onetime child star from “Diff’rent Strokes.” You know what they call that? A Hollywood Squares panel.

And if Davis falls — ta-da — it’s the Governator.

I would like to scream against this insanity. I would like to rant about how important California is, how its economy and legislation affect the nation, how this election is not some prank or joke — it really matters.

But then I read where NBC is making a made-for-TV movie about Pvt. Jessica Lynch. And even though no one knows what Lynch did or didn’t do in Iraq, NBC has a deadline — sweeps month in November — so it’s gonna go with what it has and reality will have to adjust. And I realize celebrity rules us now, and I’m wasting my breath.

I don’t know if Arnold can govern a shoe box. All I know is this country is becoming a sad place. A sad and silly place.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com.

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