Once Again, Disaster Tests the Nation

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Governor Schwarzenegger at the scene of a fire at Lake Arrowhead.

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IRVINE, CALIF.—It helps to have an action hero handy in a crisis, even if he is only a Hollywood version. But for California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, famous for playing a cyborg known as the Terminator, it was perfect casting. There were strong echoes of that swagger last week as Schwarzenegger presided over the response to California's raging wildfires. The "Governator" seemed to be everywhere, high-fiving firefighters in Irvine, visiting evacuees in Escondido, escorting President Bush around disaster zones. He made the kind of commitments that people were eager to hear—promising blankets for the elderly, nurses for the sick, even diapers for the babies.

It's not certain whether the government response will hold up over time. But what rang true for now was the importance of strong leadership in a crisis, as people in trouble look for someone to take charge, to clear the obstacles to recovery. That didn't happen after Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana, where the images of death and destruction linger and Americans still shake their heads at the staggering ineptitude displayed at all levels of government. But it is happening in California.

Schwarzenegger projected competence and brio as he hopscotched around the state. Onlookers delighted in recognizing him, often with a shout of "Arnold!" as he grinned in response, shaking hands and giving autographs. "I think the key thing is to be out there with the people," Schwarzenegger told U.S. News. "If you see any shortcomings anywhere, you've got to jump into action." An emergency, he says, calls for leadership that is "hands on" and "in the trenches." Californians would seem to agree.