His media muscle has gone flabby
During his first year as governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger directed his image like Cecil B. DeMille, scripting each moment, calling each shot and scoring boffo at the political box office.
From his vantage point in Sacramento, the governor may fancy himself in control. He is a master of the pithy sound bite, irresistible to television cameras. From his days as a movie star, he has a symbiotic relationship with the entertainment media, who in exchange for access largely do his bidding.
As far as the California political media, well, who needs them? He corrals them off at the back of his rallies and rarely gives them much more than a photogenic smile.
But Californians are no longer so intrigued by the gigantic figure looming over the state, and as interest-group anger against him rises and his poll numbers plummet, it’s unclear if the incorrigible optimist recognizes the seriousness of his plight.
A little history: When Schwarzenegger first considered running against Gov. Gray Davis in 2002, he backed away after the National Enquirer ran a spate of articles on his sex life. One of the most sensational ran in April 2001 under the headline “Arnold’s 7-Year Affair.” It included photos of Schwarzenegger with a former television personality named Gigi Goyette, referred to by the tabloid as Schwarzenegger’s “mistress.” (Goyette told me that she had a once-yearly relationship with Schwarzenegger and denies that she was ever his mistress; Schwarzenegger declined to discuss Goyette with me on the record.)
The tabloid boasted in print that “Arnold Schwarzenegger terminated his plans to run for governor of California ... because he didn’t want even more scandals uncovered if he made a bid for public office!”
By the time he entered the 2003 recall election, the movie star had the tabloid problem solved.
The National Enquirer, the Globe and the Star are all owned by one company, American Media, headed by David Pecker. In July 2003, as Schwarzenegger was contemplating entering the recall election, he ushered Pecker into his massive office in Santa Monica, both participants have told me. The parameters of this get-together had been set by bodybuilding impresario Joe Weider, Schwarzenegger’s longtime mentor. American Media had just purchased Weider’s bodybuilding magazine empire, and Weider said he saw manifold benefits to both parties if the tabloids would stop doing articles about Schwarzenegger’s past sex life.
Schwarzenegger says no deal was made that day.
But an interview with the governor for my book, “Fantastic: The Life of Arnold Schwarzenegger,” made it clear that no deal had to be made.
“There was no discussion about the National Enquirer,” Schwarzenegger said. “I think it’s common sense. Do you want to work with someone who you are attacking? You don’t have to say anything. You don’t have to be sleazy and make deals. It’s human nature.”
In August 2003, Schwarzenegger announced his candidacy on the “Tonight Show” -- a brilliant, celebrity-age move. Shortly thereafter, Goyette, Schwarzenegger’s alleged former lover, said that a National Enquirer editor told her that American Media wanted to sign her up to write a book. In return for $20,000, she signed a contract. Nothing more about Goyette has ever appeared in the tabloids, and Goyette says no one ever mentioned a book again. Pecker says he knows nothing of any agreement with Goyette.
During the campaign, the American Media tabloids celebrated the Schwarzenegger candidacy in article after article. The company published a special $4.95 magazine on Schwarzenegger -- a 120-page valentine. Soon after his election, Schwarzenegger agreed to be the executive editor of two bodybuilding magazines in return for $250,000 a year paid to charity.
With the tabloids off his back, he had only the mainstream media to contend with, and again he used star tactics.
During his first months in office, Schwarzenegger’s media strategy worked brilliantly. For the first anniversary of his largely successful year as governor, virtually all major newspaper and television stations sought to interview the governor. Instead, he went on “Larry King Live.”
In his second year in office, Schwarzenegger has continued this strategy, literally fencing off reporters at events and rarely giving interviews, preferring benign chats with King and Jay Leno.
Unfortunately for the governor, this approach is starting to fail.
He continues to stonewall, but the mainstream California media corps is finally reporting with relish the governor’s missteps. His continual forays on national television no longer electrify California voters. His pithy quotes sound like B-movie dialogue repeated too many times on cable. His handlers no longer talk boldly about 2005 as the epic “Year of Reform.” The governor’s aides, mimicking Hollywood flacks, are trying to spin voter anger and freefalling polls as elements of an ongoing political action-drama, in which the hero is biding his time before coming out with guns blazing.
“You couldn’t have had a better script,” Schwarzenegger said recently on “Good Morning America.” “I mean, it’s absolutely perfect. It’s now in the middle of the big struggle.”
Schwarzenegger may be right, but if he is to succeed, he must abandon his Hollywood obsession with image control and find a way to reconnect to a discontented electorate. It is the greatest challenge of his public life, to appear in a new, more authentic manner and convince the electorate he is grappling with honesty and depth to solve the problems that plague California.