So Familiar Yet So Unknown
Californians have never known more about a new governor. We’ve seen him naked on screen. We know about the Nazi father, the celebrity journalist wife, the bodybuilding titles and the crude behavior toward women. We have seen him in theaters, fallen asleep to his voice on television and imitated his accent.
Californians have never known less about a new governor. We’ve never seen him hold office. We don’t know what programs he’ll cut, how he’ll balance the budget, how he’ll negotiate with recalcitrant legislators or how he’ll manage the state’s bureaucracy.
Lawyers, business people, doctors, even actors leave behind their professions for politics. Arnold Schwarzenegger -- at various times the most physically developed man in the world, Hollywood’s most famous actor and soon the 38th governor of California -- has made the switch too, with one critical difference. He is bringing his lifetime of personas, real and fictional, with him to office.
Schwarzenegger, who built his career on changing shape, could claim during his campaign to be just about anything. When talking about his strength in handling a challenge, he was the seven-time world champion in bodybuilding; on the Oprah Winfrey and Howard Stern television shows, an entertainer; to Central Valley alfalfa growers, a farm boy from Austria; to the California Chamber of Commerce, a businessman and investor; in East Los Angeles, a fellow hard-working immigrant.
“He really is six different personalities,” said his friend, the fitness entrepreneur Augie Nieto.
Schwarzenegger has never considered his true profession to be muscleman or actor or entrepreneur. Ask the new governor, and he’ll tell you we’ve elected a salesman. His life, as he has told it in interviews and books over the last 25 years, is the story of a man who could sell anything -- and has.
He has sold T-shirts, tank tops, weightlifting belts, gym bags, exercise videos, weights, bricklaying services, bodybuilding for women, magazines, bicycles, motorcycles, Hummers, books, seminars, movies, German food, cigars, restaurants, real estate, malls, sports for inner-city children, after-school programs, Milton Friedman, Austria, the English language, the United States -- and above all, self-improvement. Politics, Schwarzenegger told The Times in his only campaign interview with the paper, “is challenging, it’s refreshing, it’s a learning experience. It enriches me.”
Schwarzenegger is the first politician in American history to use the selling of a movie -- a worldwide promotional tour for “Terminator 3" -- as the warmup for a political campaign.
The details of bills and budgets are not of interest to him or voters, Schwarzenegger said. Being governor, he says, is another sales job. The product is California.
“I’m good at selling,” he said. “I’ve always done it in my whole life, and I will do it again in this campaign and as governor.”
Schwarzenegger’s campaign strategists have offered him up almost as the personification of California, an icon, postcard ready. “Imagine having this guy as a personal magnet, drawing people and investment to California,” said Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas), who is expected to head Schwarzenegger’s transition team.
But what kind of a leader does a salesman make?
His campaign has offered few clues. And his multiple personas compound the difficulty of discerning his intentions. When he talks about “terminating” the budget deficit or pledges to “kick some butt” in Sacramento, what does he mean? Is he playing the “Terminator” or is he himself?
It hasn’t helped that Schwarzenegger, ever tuned to the public’s wishes, seems deaf to contradiction. Lastly, he sees himself less as a fixed character than as a piece of clay that he can work into nearly any form.
“That’s the way I always see my life. It’s a big play,” he told Esquire magazine earlier this year.
In one of his films, Schwarzenegger plays a man whose name, life and even memories appear not to be entirely his own, a sort of sci-fi existential crisis. “If I’m not me,” he asks in the film, “who the hell am I?”
The movie’s name?
Grow Big First
In the 1890s, a Prussian strongman named Eugen Sandow immigrated to Britain. Promoted by Florenz Ziegfeld, he traveled the world, got rich, dated starlets and, proud of his mind as well, was named professor of scientific physical culture to King Edward VII. Sandow helped revive the Greek ideal and among those who followed in his footsteps was Arnold Schwarzenegger.
In his “New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding,” Schwarzenegger writes that we have muscles because of gravity. With big muscles, he said, a man can do anything.
As a bodybuilder, his strategy was “to build the mass first” -- he swelled up to more than 240 pounds -- become as big as possible and later use exercises to “chisel it down to get the quality.”
That philosophy was born of his admiration for strength and has guided him since: Grow big first, then refine your image.
Schwarzenegger was born in a small town in weakened post-World War II Austria on July 30, 1947. His father, Gustav, had returned from a defeated Nazi army to become a small-town police chief. His mother, Aurelia, hit Schwarzenegger with a stick when he misbehaved.
Before Schwarzenegger ever picked up a barbell, he had an outsized view of himself. “By the time I was 13, team sports no longer satisfied me,” he wrote in his autobiography. “I disliked it when we won a game and I didn’t get personal recognition.” He dreamed of becoming a powerful man. “I’d always been impressed by stories of greatness. Caesar, Charlemagne, Napoleon were names I knew and remembered.”
He didn’t care for Austria. “I kept thinking, ‘It’s not big enough, it’s stifling.’ ” he wrote. “Even people’s ideas were small.” He served in the Austrian army, but he went absent without leave to attend and win the Junior Mr. Europe bodybuilding contest. He later moved to Munich to train and run a gym. But the United States, where the world’s top bodybuilders trained, beckoned.
As a political candidate, Schwarzenegger would say that he liked the country’s values.
As an immigrant, though, what appealed to him most was America’s strength.
“I always believed in shooting for the top,” he once told The Times, “and becoming an American is like becoming a member of the winning team.”
As he piled up bodybuilding titles and then started to make movies, Schwarzenegger learned lessons that he would draw upon in politics.
He learned how to surprise and intimidate rivals. Schwarzenegger, by his own account, saw that being underestimated was an advantage. In bodybuilding, his European heritage allowed him to sneak up on the sport’s champions, who were American.
“It’s a great advantage in many ways when people expect less,” he told a magazine interviewer in 1988. “You only can surprise them.”
Most of all, he learned how to reinvent himself. When his thin legs cost him bodybuilding titles, he built up his calves into a strength. When his posing routines were criticized, he learned how to pose to music. Later, as an actor, when action roles threatened to limit him as a movie star, he made comedies.
Schwarzenegger’s breakthrough came in the successful 1977 bodybuilding documentary “Pumping Iron.” He published a best-selling autobiography after the film and said he had recognized during promotional interviews that his size made him an unusually effective salesman.
“One thing is that people listen much more to bigger guys; the bigger you are and the more impressive you look, physically, the more people listen and the better you can sell yourself or anything else,” he told an interviewer years later. “I found it out myself that I can persuade people easier than a small person can.”
Schwarzenegger’s own words suggest that it was at about this time that he first began to realize his childhood dreams of power.
In 1977, six years before he became a U.S. citizen, he told a German magazine, “When one has money, one day it becomes less interesting. And when one is also the best in film, what can be more interesting? Perhaps power. Then one moves into politics and becomes governor or president or something.”
Schwarzenegger’s first big political break also came that year. An enthusiastic if mediocre tennis player, he earned an invitation to the Robert Kennedy Celebrity Tennis Tournament. There he charmed the Shriver family, which invited him to Hyannis Port, Mass., for a few days. According to his account of the weekend in his book “Arnold’s Bodyshaping for Women,” he left impressed with the Shrivers’ commitment to physical fitness, and suggested exercise programs for Rose Kennedy and Eunice Shriver, his future mother-in-law.
Nine years later, he would marry Maria Shriver. They have four children: Katherine, 13; Christina, 12; Patrick, 10; and Christopher, 6.
Schwarzenegger’s growing fame allowed him to make famous friends. Among them are Warren E. Buffett, Milton Friedman and Jaime Escalante, who would become emblematic advisors of his gubernatorial campaign. Schwarzenegger joined the Regency Club, a conservative businessman’s organization, where he met people who would become campaign donors.
Borrowing from his weightlifting strategy, Schwarzenegger went to work building political muscle. He gave a speech during a breakfast at the 1984 Republican National Convention and talked up President Reagan to the entertainment press. In 1988, he campaigned for George H.W. Bush. The next year, the New York tabloids reported that he was considering a run for California governor.
As it happened, he was named chairman of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, an unpaid position. Using his own money, he financed a group of experts and a private jet that took him to all 50 states to promote the benefits of exercise.
The program gave Schwarzenegger his first political credentials.
Calling himself an expert on after-school education, Schwarzenegger successfully campaigned last year for Proposition 49, which sets aside general fund money for after-school programs. (No money has been provided yet, because of the state’s deteriorating budget).
His work in the inner city also softened his positions on social issues, particularly race.
“In the beginning, I was naive about the problems those kids were having,” he told Salon.com in 2001. “As an outsider, you can say, ‘Oh, these minorities, look at the trouble they’re creating.’ When I got into it, I found out how many of the kids really want to be better and be good students.”
Having built himself into a large political figure, Schwarzenegger -- true to form -- began to give his profile more definition. While still a Republican, he cut a more politically independent persona to match California voters.
He emphasized his acceptance of homosexuality, which dates to his bodybuilding days. He criticized the impeachment of President Clinton for sexual peccadilloes and said that he was “ashamed to call myself a Republican during that period.” He also criticized the Supreme Court’s decision in Bush vs. Gore, saying of President George W. Bush, “I think it would have been better if he had really won, instead of through the courts.”
Schwarzenegger contemplated running for governor in 2002. He decided against it, later citing both the possible effect on his family and a contract to make “Terminator 3.”
Many political experts thought the reluctance of his Democratic wife to see her husband run and speculation about his past sexual conduct would preclude a campaign this year. As Schwarzenegger prepared to go on the “Tonight Show” three days before the Aug. 9 deadline to get on the ballot for governor, those experts did not believe he would run.
Schwarzenegger’s announcement drew on the lessons of a lifetime. It had the element of surprise. He told only his wife and a few longtime associates. While unconventional as a campaign kickoff, the “Tonight Show” stage immediately made him the biggest force in the recall campaign.
Like a bodybuilder, he would make himself as big as possible first.
The novice campaigner snapped up as many California political professionals as he could, typically giving them 24 hours to decide whether to get on board. His paid staff would grow to 80 people. He gave interviews on the biggest stages -- Winfrey, Larry King, Stern -- drawing attention other candidates could not match.
There was a cost to the big opening. The surprise announcement caught his political aides flat-footed. His staff was left without desks for the first week of the campaign. He took few questions, suggesting he had little to say on the issues, an impression that lingered even after he released detailed positions on several subjects.
When Schwarzenegger finally did put out serious policy positions, experts in the fields in which he made proposals often noted the two-sided nature of his plans.
Environmentalists generally liked his proposal for reducing air pollution and switching to hydrogen fuel, but said it didn’t match the history of an actor who helped popularize the massive Hummer sport utility vehicle.
He called for an amendment to the state Constitution that guaranteed access to public records and open hearings on all bills. The next day, The Times reported that he had required his political staff to sign confidentiality agreements as a condition of employment. He said he didn’t need to raise money and wanted to limit political fund-raising, even as his campaign raked in more money than his opponents’.
His political positions were also hard to parse. He’s for the 2nd Amendment, but wants more gun-control laws. He’s for gay adoption but not gay marriage. He wants to balance the budget but won’t cut education, one of the state’s largest expenses.
At times, Schwarzenegger’s performance skills betrayed him. He had a habit of sounding like a candidate for mayor of Los Angeles, talking about Southern California schools and saying, “Here in Los Angeles,” during speeches in Fresno, Riverside and Orange County. He had a difficult time remembering names -- he needed note cards to get the names of even close supporters right. Campaign aides and Schwarzenegger himself would occasionally blame his sometimes awkward English for unconvincing answers to questions.
He often presented himself as a humble person (“I don’t have all the answers. I’m not that smart”) who champions the “will of the people,” even though he has long expressed fascination with power. “I think that we can’t live without authority,” he said during interviews for “Pumping Iron,” “because I feel there is a certain amount of people who are meant to be leaders and to control, and another larger amount -- like 95% of the people -- followers, who we have to tell what to do.”
“Who is he?” asked Republican consultant Arnold Steinberg. “In a normal campaign, there would be more focus on these contradictions. But in this campaign and with his history as a personality, there haven’t been as many questions.”
As aides and friends boasted of his prodigious memory and quick mind for figures, Schwarzenegger blamed a faulty memory when asked about his past. At press conferences to roll out his policies, Schwarzenegger often would leave the lectern when technical questions were asked and let his experts on economics, education or the environment answer.
Schwarzenegger often emphasized his celebrity -- appearing with Chuck Norris, Dennis Miller and Dana Carvey on the campaign trail -- and would briefly play familiar characters in speeches. At the same time, he said in speeches that he was a successful businessman, downplayed his movie roles (“I’m not here today as the Terminator or the guy who fought the Predator” was a stump speech line), and said that his comments as a celebrity promoter of movies and bodybuilding should not be held against him as a politician.
“He wants it both ways,” said Marty Kaplan, director of USC’s Norman Lear Center, which studies the intersection of entertainment and politics. “He wants the charisma of his background without being accountable for the part that makes your nose grow.”
Schwarzenegger’s talent at being underestimated helped him in the final weeks of the campaign. By refusing to attend early debates, he lowered expectations for his performance in the most watched event of the campaign: the Sept. 24 debate in Sacramento. His own campaign aides graded his performance as average, but he surged into the lead afterward in several polls.
“The bar might not have been extraordinarily high,” said GOP consultant Dan Schnur, who ran Peter V. Ueberroth’s failed campaign. “He might not have dazzled everybody, but he showed enough competence and familiarity with issues to get most voters over the hump.”
In the last few days of the campaign, he confronted allegations that he had repeatedly groped women. He was able to blame yet another of his personas -- the on-set, movie-star prankster.
“I don’t think he’ll be worse than what we have,” said Brenda Armstrong, 39, a home health-care nurse in Santa Maria who voted for Schwarzenegger. “I think he’ll do a good job as governor, but I’m not sure exactly what he’ll do. I feel like I know him so well, but it’s hard to tell about even the people you think you know. Does that make any sense?”
Californians know Gov. Schwarzenegger well. Whoever he turns out to be.