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Schwarzenegger, party of one

JOE MATHEWS, a Times staff writer, is the author of "The People's Machine: Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Rise of Blockbuster Democracy."

IN THE AUSTRIA of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s youth, small institutions such as clubs, pubs and even gyms often affiliated with one of the leading political parties -- the Social Democrats, commonly called the reds, or the conservative Austrian People’s Party, known as the blacks. With little money in private hands, groups needed the parties for funds.

In his hometown of Thal, a teenage Schwarzenegger seemed to hold opinions in line with the Social Democrats. His longtime schoolmate Peter Urdl, now the mayor, recalls listening to Schwarzenegger express admiration for Bruno Kreisky, the Social Democrat foreign minister who had traveled to the United States, talked politics with the Kennedys and would become chancellor.

Whatever his real sympathies were, Schwarzenegger began working out in a gym funded by the blacks. As a gym regular, he was officially a member of the youth weightlifting team of the Austrian People’s Party. He pumped iron for Austria’s version of the Republicans. He has been, at least nominally, a Republican ever since.

But is California’s governor really a closet Democrat? The question has been raised by journalists and conservative critics, who never tire of taking note of Schwarzenegger’s politically assertive wife, his hiring of Democratic aides, his liberal social values, his championing of public works projects and, of late, his compromises with the Legislature’s Democratic leadership on a minimum-wage hike, mandatory prescription drug discounts and a measure to fight global warming.

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To attempt to answer that question is not to end a conversation but to begin it. Schwarzenegger routinely sides with business and asserts quasi-libertarian views on individual freedom. But the governor, reflecting something inherent in his nature, has always gravitated to people with whom he disagrees. Time and again, he has crossed borders and associated with groups whose experiences seem foreign to his own. In the process, he has made a virtue of not belonging.

Schwarzenegger prospered by coming to a country where he did not speak the language, by appearing in motion pictures despite the obstacles of accent and limited acting skills, and by switching mid-career from action roles to comedic ones that drew laughs in part because they didn’t naturally suit him. He won the governorship in large part because he could present himself as an outsider to politics. Square pegs may not fit in round holes, but to his way of thinking, being a square peg puts you ahead of the game. Everyone notices you when you don’t fit.

So, it fits that Schwarzenegger doesn’t fit politically. Publicly and privately, he revels in the difficulty that pundits and political journalists have in describing him. When I pressed him on his philosophy, he said the man whose views have had the most lasting influence on him was Helmut Knaur, an anarchist who hung out with young bodybuilders around Thal. Knaur liked to say outrageous things and tried to teach English to Schwarzenegger by having him read copies of Playboy.

“He was a very important influence to inspire me to learn, to speak languages, to be more worldly,” Schwarzenegger recalled. “He said, ‘Think big.’ ”

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When the governor attempts to describes his politics, he invariably turns to his giant life story, and with good reason. He is a Republican not by ideology but by biography. The oft-told story of how he heard Richard Nixon during the 1968 presidential campaign and declared himself a Republican often misses the point. Schwarzenegger was not primarily attracted to Nixon but to the Republican message of individual freedom, which sounded completely different from anything he’d heard in Austria. The Republicans did not sound like the kind of party that would make you join before they let you use their gym.

Austrian social democracy, he believed, limited the horizons of many of his friends. By age 18, in Schwarzenegger’s telling, his classmates were seeking to line up government jobs with pensions. A key mentor lined up Schwarzenegger for the job of head lifeguard at the biggest swimming pool in the city of Graz. “I didn’t want a safety net,” Schwarzenegger said.

His own life has taught him again and again that personal connections trump ideological commitment. His most persistent political booster has been his mother-in-law, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, a Democratic icon and sister of President Kennedy. She persuaded President George H.W. Bush to appoint Schwarzenegger as the nation’s fitness czar despite misgivings about elevating a movie star who had used steroids and loved cigars.

The first President Bush liked to call the star “Conan the Republican,” but Schwarzenegger wore the label lightly. During the 1990s, he often sounded disgusted with the state of the Republican Party. When Pete Wilson’s right hand, Bob White, came to visit him on the set of “End of Days” in 1999, Schwarzenegger was cool to White’s idea that he enter politics and revive the state GOP. The star instead complained about the party’s support for the impeachment of President Clinton.

Two years later, Schwarzenegger’s political consultants sat him down in front of a camera and asked him to state his views on issues. He railed against partisan politics and laid out his plan for expanding healthcare coverage. After focus groups complained that the plan sounded like something Hillary Rodham Clinton would embrace, he dropped the idea.

His Republican coming-out party -- his speech to the party’s national convention in New York in the summer of 2004 -- caused debate within his camp. His wife, Maria Shriver, and his pollster, John McLaughlin, a conservative Republican, suggested that he skip the speech to avoid any partisan taint. And George W. Bush’s campaign officials didn’t care for his style. They shot down his plans for a big Hollywood entrance. Under one scheme, a stunt double would ride out on stage on a motorcycle in “Terminator” leather as the governor entered from the other side in a suit and tie. In another, Schwarzenegger would reach the stage by walking out of the audience.

His trip to Columbus, Ohio, in late 2004 to campaign for President Bush, a speech that is now the subject of a Democratic attack ad, was made at the urging of Jim Lorimer, his longtime business partner in a fitness convention and bodybuilding tournament that Schwarzenegger has put on in Columbus for years. In the days before the speech, Schwarzenegger went out of his way to disclose his personal affection for the Democratic nominee, John Kerry, an acquaintance since the 1970s, when the future Massachusetts senator helped Schwarzenegger raise money for the documentary “Pumping Iron.”

Even as the Republican governor of California, the party label has never been an easy fit. State GOP legislators opposed his early compromises with Democrats on the budget, and they balked at voting for his early Indian gaming compacts. Schwarzenegger made no secret of the fact that he found his main Democratic negotiating partner, state Sen. John Burton, more interesting than GOP legislative leaders.

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If voters are uncertain about the governor’s true beliefs, Schwarzenegger’s own staffers have often been similarly puzzled about them. At the same time Schwarzenegger was publicly accused of “turning to the right” in 2005, many of his allies said privately that they couldn’t discern his true intentions. Throughout that year of the special election, his GOP aides complained bitterly about being shut out by “the posse,” a group of aides who were personally as well as professionally close to him. Most of the posse were Democrats, among them senior advisor Bonnie Reiss and business czar David Crane.

To evaluate such a governor in partisan terms is beside the point. The question of the November election -- and of Schwarzenegger’s governorship for as long as it lasts -- is whether he can fashion an effective bipartisan coalition to make the big, structural changes in California he has long promised. Or whether this most unusual of men will prove to be a party of one.


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