Time is chasing Arnold Schwarzenegger and catching up.
Ordinarily, a politician’s body would not be noteworthy. But California is witnessing a singular moment: the deconstruction of one of the greatest bodies of all time.
At 15, Schwarzenegger began pounding, pressing and transforming himself into a symbol of physical perfection. Now, a few months from his 60th birthday, he has been photographed in a hospital bed, hobbling around on crutches and publicly lamenting his anger at being in constant pain.
Referring to himself last week as the “bionic man,” he finds himself with an artificial hip, reconstructed heart valves, surgically repaired shoulder and a badly broken femur, an injury common among the elderly. And in perhaps an even bigger blow to his ego, photos from a vacation in Maui a few years ago showed him in a swimsuit with a sagging chest, robust stomach and ashen chest hair.
During a Christmas holiday at his 10,000-square-foot lodge in Idaho, Schwarzenegger slipped on skis and fractured a leg that already had an artificial hip. His doctor has said the governor’s past steroid use had nothing to do with the slow-speed injury. Schwarzenegger himself blamed the hip and “torque” -- a bad angle meeting momentum.
Since then, the governor has walked onstage with crutches at his own inauguration and the Golden Globe awards and discussed his painkiller protocol on national TV with George Stephanopoulos. He has appeared tired and has cut back his schedule, forgoing a trip this week to the annual economic forum in Davos, Switzerland.
Unable to ride motorcycles in Malibu or continue a twice-daily workout routine, the governor has seemed depressed by his injury. Capitol aides are used to seeing him at a gym in Sacramento in a white T-shirt and Chinese slippers, working his biceps.
Wednesday in Sacramento, a hobbling and weary-looking Schwarzenegger encouraged a middle school assembly to remain physically active. The event for the Governor’s Council on Physical Fitness was far more subdued than when he made former Gov. Pete Wilson do push-ups on the Capitol steps. He told a story about Jake Steinfeld -- the Body By Jake founder -- walking into World Gym in Santa Monica as a chubby teenager and transforming himself. That was three decades ago.
Over the last few weeks, Schwarzenegger has perhaps become more “accessible and endearing to people,” said Marty Kaplan, director of the Normal Lear Center at the USC Annenberg School for Communication.
“There is a way in which the governor’s previous perfection, though awesome, was always a little bit unapproachable and a little threatening maybe,” Kaplan said, “and it’s kind of reassuring for us regular folks and fellow boomers to see that he has the same mortal coil as the rest of us.”
About those photos from Maui, Kaplan said: “A lot of us looked at those and said, ‘What a relief,’ because if it can happen to him, it cuts the rest of us a little slack.”
Long before Schwarzenegger’s form began to reveal its flaws, Robert Mapplethorpe photographed him stunningly in dark tones and Annie Leibovitz portrayed him practically god-like atop a white stallion. Early photographs by George Butler, the documentary filmmaker who made “Pumping Iron” and catapulted Schwarzenegger to success, are signature images of youth and determination, a man dedicated to muscle and skin.
Schwarzenegger wrote the “Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding,” still the bible of Gold’s Gym, which he helped make famous. And in “Arnold: The Education of a Bodybuilder,” he said that as a teenager he told his father: “I want to be the best-built man in the world.”
In his autobiography, he wrote about seeing magazine photos of Reg Park, a famous Mr. Universe and eventual friend: “The man was an animal. That’s the way I wanted to be ultimately: big. I wanted to be a big guy. I didn’t want to be delicate.”
Schwarzenegger eventually won more bodybuilding prizes than anyone in history. He became the undisputed king of proportion. And he is responsible for the modern fetish of the steroid-pumped body; he took it out of the shadows of dingy gyms. He was President George H.W. Bush’s ambassador of fitness, and his annual bodybuilding convention in Ohio attracts a worldwide following.
The skiing accident was not his first injury. He fell through a stage during a posing competition in South Africa in the 1970s and broke a leg. While riding a motorcycle last year, he ripped up his lip in a collision with a car.
“Athletes who use their body always suffer injuries, so there is nothing new about this at all,” said Butler, the filmmaker, who has known Schwarzenegger for decades. “The only question is how far and how fast Arnold goes down the pipe.”
Butler said that the governor is getting the best medical care and that he expects Schwarzenegger to remain vibrantly healthy. He nevertheless noted that bodybuilders sometimes fight the passage of time and can be vain.
One aging specimen was known to superimpose his head on the torso of other bodybuilders in photographs, he said.
Dr. Kevin Ehrhart, Schwarzenegger’s doctor, told The Times that the governor is in excellent health, “has fantastic muscle tone, excellent bone health and is in great cardiovascular condition. The governor’s health is in the top 5% for people his age.”
Dr. Catherine Sarkisian, a geriatric specialist at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine, said Schwarzenegger’s fitness habits will pay off in the long run.
“My guess is he’ll be a successful ager, in terms of being physically active,” she said. “There are a huge number of older adults who believe that if you get older, you should stop exercising.”
The governor told the Sacramento Press Club last week that his work helped keep his mind off his leg. But he added, “I am full of excitement and full of energy. Injury or no injury, I work through that. It makes no difference.”
A few hours after his inauguration at a luncheon under a tent on the west steps of the Capitol, Schwarzenegger pointed out his 85-year-old mother-in-law, Eunice Kennedy Shriver. “Look at her, doesn’t she look fabulous?” he said. “She doesn’t look a day over 90.”
It was the kind of biting personal joke Schwarzenegger frequently makes in private; he also makes fat jokes about another in-law, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass). But even as he mocked Shriver’s age, he may have been unwittingly acknowledging his own.
Schwarzenegger, who has always wanted to be an example to other people, is looking more like a fragile human than the hardened, gap-toothed young man whose body was his life and whose life was his body.
To read Robert Salladay’s blog, Political Muscle, and other exclusive Times Web features, go to latimes.com/calpolitics.