Catch Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger by himself and he’s downright chatty -- he loves to talk about himself and his family. But lately, he has been as conversational with the news media as a mechanical robot from the future.
With one notable exception -- the international press.
During a freewheeling meeting with the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. last week, Schwarzenegger talked about, among other things, sitting in a Jacuzzi with his wife discussing his run for governor, his relationship with President Bush, and sexual harassment training.
In response to a question, Schwarzenegger said he had “learned my lesson” about groping women, an allegation that surfaced a year ago in The Times when he was running for governor.
Schwarzenegger admitted no wrongdoing, only saying “it is a totally different ballgame” now that he is representing the state of California instead of just himself.
The world “has changed so much that any kind of a comment you make to a woman now about her clothes or about this or that could be misinterpreted and could make someone uncomfortable and open the door to a lawsuit,” he said.
The candid admission was a noticeable departure from the Schwarzenegger who has avoided California press for more than a month -- while making scores of controversial decisions, vetoing bills to stop outsourcing of California jobs and to allow cheaper prescription drugs from Canada.
His comments about taking a class on how to avoid sexual harassment, which is required for most state employees, were printed in London’s Daily Mirror and dozens of publications around the world.
The Mirror used the headline: “I’m Trying to Terminate My Groping Urge,” while an India news site took a more academic approach: “Arnie Enrolls for Sexual Harassment Class.”
The free-flowing, conversational foreign press interview took place with about 45 reporters around a conference table in the association’s West Hollywood offices. It lasted about an hour and was punctuated by jokes and banter.
“He had a very good command of the room and on the subjects,” said Lorenzo Soria, president of the foreign press association. “He was a little evasive and skillful at not addressing some of them directly and on others I have to say he was extremely open.”
Soria said the Mirror’s headline was a “real mischaracterization” of about a 25-second answer during an hourlong interview. (Most of them were far less obsequious than the reporter who asked: “You look great and very strong. I wanted to ask you how often do you work out?”)
Schwarzenegger related a very California-sounding story about informing his wife, Maria Shriver, that he was planning on running for governor.
He said they moved to California to get away from politics and “to her I was the perfect guy because she knew I would never get into politics.”
“Then we were sitting in the Jacuzzi one day and I said I wanted to run for governor -- and she started shaking and crying. It was very tough for her but her mother -- Eunice Kennedy -- was in favor of me running so she talked to Maria and she finally agreed. If she hadn’t agreed, I wouldn’t have done it because my marriage and my family are the most important things.”
Schwarzenegger also said he is friends with Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry -- they have adjacent homes in Sun Valley -- but that he thinks President Bush is the better choice for president. But he and Bush are “are not hanging-out pals,” he said.
Schwarzenegger clearly enjoys engaging the media.
In the foreign press interview, he said: “I get my ego satisfaction from the press conferences, appearances and speeches I have to do now. I’m in front of cameras all the time, so I don’t miss it at all.
“It’s like asking, do I miss bodybuilding?” he continued. “I train every day, but I don’t miss standing up there in those little posing trunks, to prove that I’m the best-built man in the world. It was great when I was young, but you grow up and something else becomes more important. After 25 years in motion pictures, it was time for me to move on.”
Amid a busy political season -- with the governor having just considered 1,270 bills sent to him by the Legislature, 16 measures on the November ballot and an aggressive fundraising schedule this month -- Schwarzenegger has been avoiding the Capitol press corps in favor of staged events and a few conservative talk radio interviews.
“He is setting the agenda right now and there is very little you can do about it,” said Barbara O’Connor, a political communications expert at Cal State Sacramento.
“He perceives himself as an international figure. In terms of his movie roles, he is an international figure,” she said. “They are doing their first-year stories, and it’s a way to make them know he still cares about them. He has movies and residuals that are interdependent on the international press corps.”
At a public event last month where he signed legislation creating a Sierra Nevada conservancy, Schwarzenegger refused to take questions from reporters -- most of whom wanted to ask why he vetoed a bill that would have allowed illegal immigrants to get driver’s licenses.
He declined again after two recent rallies in Orange County and San Jose that were organized to defeat two gambling initiatives on the November ballot.
For the last month, Schwarzenegger has defined his political philosophy more clearly than at any other time -- through his endorsements on initiatives and his vetoes of hundreds of bills. His staff didn’t feel he had to explain his decisions in detail through interviews with the media.
“He felt pretty comfortable making decisions without talking to you guys,” said his communications director, Rob Stutzman, predicting excellent press access next month when Schwarzenegger travels to Tokyo.