Schwarzenegger Walks Softly on Visit to D.C.
The cinder-block corridor where press conferences are regularly held on Capitol Hill serves the purpose just fine when your garden variety lawmaker is at the mike. But when the featured speaker is a celebrity superstar who has just knocked off the sitting governor of California, staging a Washington debut in a hallway is like throwing a birthday party in a broom closet.
“Push back! Push back! He’s gonna come through here!” a harried Capitol police officer implored as a media clot clogged the only artery out of the conference room where Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger had just met with virtually every Republican in the House.
In his first visit to Washington since being elected in the Oct. 7 recall, Schwarzenegger continued the transition from celebrity to politician, while being careful not to overreach his authority before he officially takes office. He carried an appeal for disaster assistance from Gov. Gray Davis, met with key lawmakers from both parties and seemed to distance himself from Terminator-tinged campaign rhetoric.
“I came to Washington basically to establish relationships and make sure we are getting more federal money,” he told reporters who jammed the corridor and snarled at each other for a spot close enough to hear him. “But disastrous fires have changed my mission a little bit.”
He ended the first day of his two-day visit with an unofficial assurance of increased federal help as the state struggles against fires that have swallowed 2,605 homes and killed 20 people.
Meeting first with Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael D. Brown, Schwarzenegger relayed Davis’ request for one-stop disaster relief centers. He said he had been told that six would be set up as early as Friday -- one in each of the four counties that had been declared disaster areas as of Wednesday morning and two mobile units. A FEMA spokeswoman said an official announcement was pending.
Even in the relatively unfamiliar environment of Capitol Hill, Schwarzenegger seemed subdued and comfortable. The tough talk that laced his three-month campaign was gone. He kept the speeches short and the listening long. His tone was cordial and bipartisan, and he reminded many that nearly one in five Democrats who voted had voted for him.
“I am here basically to just work very hard to get more money to California so we can ... rebuild businesses and homes for people who have lost them,” he said.
When a reporter invited him to indulge in partisan bashing, he declined: “I don’t think the fire victims care about Democrats and Republicans. What is important is, we all work together to help California.”
He looked more the politician than the celebrity in standard Washington attire -- blue suit, red tie. But Schwarzenegger stood apart nevertheless, with his perpetual tan and brown, exotic leather shoes that the Defenders of Wildlife would only hope were not genuine alligator.
The star power was undeniable. Tourists stopped him for autographs in Statuary Hall. A Capitol conference room was so packed that lawmakers spilled into the ante-chambers. One said that Schwarzenegger had been given more time at the House Republicans’ weekly meeting than any governor in recent memory.
He sat down with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, three Cabinet secretaries and lawmakers who hold the federal purse strings. He was scheduled to meet this morning with Vice President Dick Cheney. (He saw President Bush several days ago in California.)
Home state Sen. Barbara Boxer, a Democrat, took advantage of her private meeting to give the governor-elect a PowerPoint presentation on issues such as energy and after-school care, complete with charts; she had nine topics in mind but whittled it down to a more manageable three.
Political hatchets were buried. Sen. Dianne Feinstein -- the California Democrat who actively campaigned against Schwarzenegger -- sat with him over a pot of coffee in her cozy Senate private office and vowed to “turn the page.”
“What’s past is past,” she declared.
“We will be working together like a jewel,” he vowed, promising to support an extension of the assault weapons ban that she has long championed.
Rep. Mary Bono, the Palm Springs Republican who saw her late husband move from rock singer to congressman before his death in a skiing accident, said Sonny Bono’s Washington debut had been big, but Schwarzenegger’s was bigger.
She warned that fame could be “a double-edged sword” -- some people think celebrities walk on water and others assume them incompetent. “But in Arnold’s case, he is really proving he has the stuff.”
Some Democrats were skeptical, nonetheless.
“There are issues within the Bush administration that are directly contradictory to what people in California believe,” said Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Alamo). “We need to understand more about where the governor stands. But we all are very willing to work with him.”
In all, the day was filled with important people eager to shake his hand. Schwarzenegger lunched at the exclusive Willard Hotel with his wife, Maria Shriver, and her Democratic uncle, Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.
The sessions were “a bit more than a photo op, but not much,” as Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) put it. Asked whether members had been charmed by Schwarzenegger’s stardom, he said: “Some of my colleagues raised very important substantive issues, so I think they have gotten over the star quality.”
Still, they all posed for pictures.
How Schwarzenegger’s famously commanding presence will ultimately play in these stately halls was a subject of speculation.
“His celebrity status will help California, period, because everybody wants to hear him out. Everybody wants to spend time with him,” said Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.). “I think frankly, the vast majority of Americans want him to succeed.”
Asked whether that would translate into additional dollars for a state that pays Washington more in taxes than it gets back in services, Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) predicted: “He’ll get some cooperation. I don’t know how much more money.”
Schwarzenegger stopped by a party in his honor Wednesday night, attended by much of official Washington. He seemed to come away satisfied that he had delivered his message “loud and clear.”
He promised that this would be the first of many visits -- an irresistible temptation to utter one of his famous movie lines. But the delivery this time was understated.
“I didn’t want to say exactly the line ‘I’ll be back,’ ” he said, softening his tone. “But I’ll be back many more times.”
Times staff writers Richard Simon and Joe Mathews contributed to this report.