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The Curious Nixon-Humphrey Debate

From Times Staff Reports

Fresh from Austria, a socialist country, Arnold Schwarzenegger decided to become a Republican after listening to “the debates of Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon when they were debating for the presidential race,” or so he told television talk show host Bill O’Reilly in May 2001.

” ... Hubert Humphrey spoke about things I heard in Austria under socialism.”

But there was no presidential debate in 1968. Although Humphrey challenged Nixon to a debate, Nixon, who won the election, demurred.

Schwarzenegger previously recounted his version of history during an interview at the 2000 Republican National Convention. “When I came to this country, I was sitting in front of the television set, and I watched a debate between Humphrey and Nixon, and I didn’t even understand half of it because my English wasn’t good enough then. I had a friend of [mine] translating....”

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Much the same account reappeared in a recent Newsweek magazine article about him. Schwarzenegger “was a Republican before he was a citizen,” Newsweek wrote, “having watched a 1968 presidential debate for which a friend provided the translation. "[Hubert] Humphrey stood for the government [that] will solve all your problems,” Schwarzenegger recalled. "[Richard] Nixon said no, free to choose, let the people decide. So I said to my friend, which party is Nixon? He said Republican. OK, I said, I’m a Republican.”

In other accounts of his political conversion, including a TV interview with “Hardball’s” Chris Matthews last year, Schwarzenegger made no reference to presidential debates, instead saying that he made up his mind to be a Republican after listening to news conferences and speeches by Humphrey and Nixon in 1968.

Sean Walsh, a spokesman for the Schwarzenegger campaign, said Tuesday that the candidate never saw any debate. He said Schwarzenegger recalls having heard Humphrey and Nixon talking on TV, and he asked a friend to translate what they were saying for him. “He heard the two of them talking and someone was translating for him what they were saying.”

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Austro-Californian Ties That Bind

The Austrian consul general in Los Angeles, Peter Launsky-Tieffenthal, says the publicity generated by Schwarzenegger’s campaign is doing wonders for Austrian American relations.

“Until recently, fewer people were coming to the U.S. in reaction to the conflict in Iraq,” he said.

But all that has changed, thanks to the campaign. Tourism is on the rebound, and so is interest in doing business in California by Austrian firms.

Even the revelation that Schwarzenegger’s father was a member of the Nazi party is having a beneficial effect, said Launsky-Tieffenthal, pointing out that the elder Schwarzenegger’s past came to light only after his son asked the Simon Wiesenthal Center to investigate.

“I think the way he went about it is a reflection of a younger generation asking questions and demanding answers about a time some older people might be uncomfortable with,” Launsky-Tieffenthal said. “It reflects a sensitivity by younger Austrians which has translated into efforts to provide some sort of financial aid or restitution to Holocaust survivors.”


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