Governor Tries to Keep It Light While Delivering Painful News
Watching Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger introduce his budget Friday, one would never have guessed that his proposal included cuts to some of the government’s most popular services. His upbeat bearing and broad smile were unchanged from the moment Tuesday night when he offered his congratulations to the Pasadena scientists who had landed a probe on Mars.
When breaking bad news, most governors are low-key, even apologetic. Not Schwarzenegger.
While discussing cuts to universities, roadwork and even children’s health care on Friday, Schwarzenegger cracked half a dozen jokes, bantered with reporters from around the world and talked repeatedly about how much fun he was having.
While it had been widely expected to be a tough day, even for a governor of otherworldly optimism, Schwarzenegger made clear that nothing would prevent him from putting on a happy show.
“It has been terrific,” he declared. “I have enjoyed every single day of this job. Ever since I got elected, the people have been extremely kind and nice. The legislators have been very helpful and very educational.”
Even dealing with the budget was fun, Schwarzenegger added, because “it is such a satisfying feeling for me to go every day to work and solve problems.”
He attracted such a massive media audience Friday -- more than 100 reporters, live national cable TV news coverage, Austrian and British reporters, 24 cameras in all -- that the announcement had to be relocated from the governor’s cramped press room to a huge auditorium at the secretary of state’s office, two blocks south.
“Instead of a little tiny room in the Capitol,” said state Sen. Wes Chesbro (D-Arcata), standing outside with state employees trying to catch a glimpse of Schwarzenegger, “the governor is in the biggest auditorium in the capital.”
The room had the look and feel of a nightclub, with dim lighting inside and Schwarzenegger staffers outside, literally manning a rope and denying admission to low-level legislative staffers. Eric Cushing, who sells flowers across the street from the secretary of state’s office, said that, with the hordes following Schwarzenegger, business had never been so good.
State Sen. Mike Machado (D-Linden), who was in an anteroom to provide a Democratic response to Schwarzenegger, explained the difference between this and budget announcements by former Gov. Gray Davis: “Davis wasn’t in ‘Terminator 3.’ ”
True to form, Schwarzenegger reminded his audience of his celebrity while praising the tireless work of his finance director, Donna Arduin. “I only play the machine in my movies,” he said. “She’s a real machine.”
Employing this breezy and personal style, Schwarzenegger talked so much about himself that he left the impression that the day’s subject was not the state’s fiscal crisis, but the continuing narrative of Arnold the Governor.
He teased a reporter who asked about a remark in his State of the State speech by saying, “It’s interesting that an Austrian journalist would be interested right away in blowing up things.” He complimented another reporter on his suit. “Man, you’re really decked out,” he said. “What’s the occasion?”
Schwarzenegger described his negotiating strategy with the Legislature as undefined. “I don’t have a specific plan on how I’m going to deal with each one of the legislators, how many cigars I need to smoke with them and all of those kind of things,” he said.
And he discussed his feelings for the cantankerous, foul-mouthed Democratic leader of the state Senate. “John Burton has been absolutely hilarious,” Schwarzenegger said, to knowing laughter from the media horde. “He’s a wonderful, kind man that has his own ways of dealing with things and just jumps up and screams and then sits down again and talks nice.”
The governor turned a question about a proposal in his budget for withholding property tax money from local governments into a brief discourse on his eating and sleeping habits. He didn’t mention cuts to child care, but he did volunteer that, in Sacramento, “the only thing I miss is my children and my family. Because we are still separate a few days a week.”
Budget unveilings are often aimed at insiders and legislators who negotiate the details in committees. But Schwarzenegger’s intended audience was clearly the voters. Throughout the 31-minute news conference, the governor talked more about his March ballot measures -- the $15-billion deficit bond and a balanced budget constitutional amendment -- than about any particular budget cut.
“We have a new phenomenon, and it’s a ‘talk to the people directly’ phenomenon,” said Barbara O’Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at Cal State Sacramento. “He’s not condescending. He’s presenting metaphors that people understand. The tone is just right. The enthusiasm is infectious. The content is almost immaterial.”
Schwarzenegger concluded his budget introduction by grabbing a chart off an easel and holding it against his leg. The moment produced, political commentators said later, a very effective visual.
And this most self-aware of governors jokingly let the photographers in the audience know that they had been co-conspirators in producing the pictures he wanted.
“Did you all get a good shot of me holding the graph?” he asked, before marching out of the room to a roar of laughter.
Times staff writer Michael Finnegan contributed to this report.