The governor who needs no introduction is now in need of a sendoff. Seven years after the flukiest of political events put him in Sacramento as the state’s chief executive, Arnold Schwarzenegger, arguably one of California’s quirkiest Republicans, is handing the top job over to one of its quirkiest Democrats -- Jerry Brown. As befits a larger-than-life state, its over-the-top movie star governor has presided over immense budget deficits and scored some legislative triumphs, like the bill that mandates cuts in greenhouse gases. He has also, mirabile dictu, gotten Californians to use a word as long as his surname: “infrastructure.” As Schwarzenegger departs Sacramento’s 95814 and returns to the 90210, he leaves with approval ratings about as low as the man he booted from office, and with unflagging Schwarzeneggerian enthusiasm for whatever’s next. The big-picture matters of his legacy are under scrutiny elsewhere in this newspaper; this interview is about the details.
Is there one thing that as a former governor you’ll be so thrilled not to have to do or say, laugh at or kiss or eat again?
I think that when you represent yourself, you are much freer. You still can’t say everything that comes to your mind. But when you represent 38 million people, you’ve got to be a little bit more careful and considerate, even though I’m a loose cannon and I say sometimes things that I regret a little bit later on.
But I think that you do live under that pressure, there’s no two ways about that. But I learned how to be disciplined -- I only blew it a few times! Not many times. But I’m glad that I can start talking again exactly what comes to my mind.
What kind of change will this mean for your family? Your kids have grown up while you’ve been governor -- your elder daughter even published a self-help book.
When I got into this job, my wife didn’t like it; my kids didn’t like it. My wife didn’t like it because she comes from a political family and she felt that it always has terrible side effects on children. It had terrible side effects on her. And so she didn’t want me to get into it.
The kids felt very strongly that they wanted to continue visiting me on a set; they liked doing their homework on the set, in the trailer, and to watch me blow up buildings and do stunts and do all the things that they enjoyed watching.
Then as the years went by, they got interested in what I’m doing [as governor]. They started learning in school about government, about politics, the differences in the state, the federal government, the local, and all of a sudden they started coming home with questions: They have to write a paper about the election; they have to write a paper about this initiative. They’re getting into this.
Now they feel upset because I’m leaving Sacramento. They thought, “Gee, we finally got used to it, and enjoying the work you’re doing, and now you’re getting out of it. You’ve got to go to Europe and run for president of Europe!”
Was there a moment early on that made you realize, “I’m really the governor”?
There’s something very odd about all of this in the beginning, of course. You see that the laws that you signed have an immediate effect, a lot of them; and the legislative leaders come to your office and have meetings, and what you say has an effect on the outside world; that you have the power of making big changes, whether it’s environmental changes or education changes or economic changes.
The first hour you walk into this office, you get the feeling that this office comes with tremendous power but also at the same time with limited powers because it’s not a one-man show. For instance, when you say, I want to change the tax system, you still need the 120 legislators to agree with you, and they all have their own ideas of how it should be changed.
Democracy has its strengths and advantages but also some disadvantages -- that you have these 120 legislators, in our case. Imagine if you were writing a story and someone says, “Oh, before you write your first word, let’s talk about that.”
It’s more difficult but it’s doable. You just can’t get all the things done that you set out to do. I couldn’t get all the things done that I set out to do.
Is there a difference between political celebrity and movie celebrity, between people yelling at you at a Lakers game, as happened recently, and criticizing your films?
I’m pretty good at not taking it personally. If you have a movie critic writing [favorably] about your movie, you feel ecstatic. If a writer who covers politics writes [favorably] about your policy, some change you’ve created, you feel ecstatic. And if you get attacked, then you don’t feel so great about it. I’m not taking it personally, I just think, “Oh, that person doesn’t agree with me.”
But in the end you always keep your focus on your goal and your vision: Where do you want to take the state? There’ll always be half of the people who agree with you, the other half that will not agree with you. You can’t avoid that. There’s no such thing as 100% of people agreeing. Twenty percent of people hate their mothers -- how do you ever win with that? That’s just the way it is.
Can everyone spell your name now?
I don’t think everybody. I think people can pronounce it.
You didn’t take a salary as governor. Are you looking forward to making some money again?
Don’t forget that I’ve made a lot of money. I’m very fortunate. I’ve been very business minded, always turned every dollar I made into two. So many Hollywood celebrities are having a problem. They make a lot of money at one point and then they blow it all, not protecting themselves from the down years. Everyone has had a slowdown in their career, that’s just natural. You’ve got to protect yourself; you’ve got to invest your money wisely.
I’m financially protected for the rest of my life. But that makes it actually more fun to do things because I always believed, never do things just for the money; always do things because you’re passionate about it. The question is, would you do that if you didn’t get paid at all?
I started training to become Mr. Universe -- I didn’t ask how much money I was going to get paid. The same with acting. I wanted to be on the screen, and at the same time, let’s try to be on top of the ladder; I felt, OK, there’s Clint Eastwood up there, and Charles Bronson and Warren Beatty -- there’s a little room for me!
So I climbed up this ladder, but not because of the money necessarily, but because it was the vision I had. The same is with politics. I’m interested in giving something back to the state.
Why do you think California voters went Democratic in the November elections?
Two reasons. One is that California is a unique state, always very different from all of the other states. The kind of melting pot that we’ve created in California over decades -- imagine all those cultures from around the world, all the different religions, all the different languages, and they get along. Where else in the world do you have this? We have some battles about immigration, illegal immigration, but we don’t fight each other; we have discussions. But in the Middle East and in other places, there are these huge battles. So it’s a unique place. So that’s No. 1.
And No. 2, I think just simply the Republican Party did not have anything better to offer. I think if they would be a little bit more tolerant on environmental issues, if they would be a little more open-minded about healthcare issues and stuff like that, I think they could grab a lot of voters from the Democrats.
What about the optics of politics -- the smoking tent, the things that may not be the nuts and bolts of policy but are the things people talk about. How important are they?
You get into politics, you have to put on a blue blazer and wear a red tie? Let’s show a little bit of creativity!
Ronald Reagan, who is one of my heroes -- he was the best-dressed politician of all time, I think. He wore plaid, he wore brown, he wore beige, he wore white, he wore a black suit, he wore everything, and it was always with grace and style. And because he came from show business, he felt more comfortable with his clothes and didn’t feel like he should be constrained or tied down to one uniform.
Like the Japanese: You know when you go to Japan, everyone wears a gray suit. It’s like a uniform. I think the gray suit is beautiful -- I’m wearing one today -- but it’s not the only thing you should wear. So let’s be free. The same with cowboy boots; if I was all of a sudden to stop wearing cowboy boots [just] because I’m representing the people. Of course I continue to wear cowboy boots, three times a week on average.
The same with smoking stogies. Do I want to go and fake it and smoke secretly, to make people believe I have stopped smoking? I make it very clear: Yeah, it’s not the healthiest thing in town. I wouldn’t recommend anyone start smoking, but I smoke. People come down [to the smoking tent], take their jackets off, take their ties off, light up a stogie, talk a little bit about cigars, about their families, kick back, and then we get into policy, then we get into the discussions.
I kept some of that Arnold that was there before, and I toned down some of [that] Arnold.
For 150 years, California has talked about splitting the state in two, or three. Should we do it?
In the Special Olympics [in California], they did that. They took the organization that Rafer Johnson was in charge of and they split it in half because they always were fighting. I think it was a big mistake, and I’ve recommended to them many times that they should try to connect the two again. It would be much more powerful as one.
I was always against the idea of splitting the state. The fact that geographically it’s a long state, there’s always this argument, south versus north. But we stopped that argument. I was sick and tired [of it], because the Central Valley is one of the most important places in California. It feeds the world. The agriculture there is a $38-billion business. That has to be in the equation.
We have Northern California and Southern California and Central California -- it’s all one California. [It] has to stay together. That’s where the power is.
What point would you like to make that I didn’t ask you?
The important thing with my job that I’ve had for the last seven years is, you have to have passion, you have to have vision and you have to have the guts to go in there and do the things that you want to do. You can’t be afraid. You have to recognize very quickly that political risk-taking is not political suicide. You’ve got to serve the people, not the party. You’ve got to serve the people and not the special interests. You’ve got to keep that always in mind, no matter what you do.
Are you going to Gov.-elect Brown’s inauguration on Monday?
I will definitely be there, out of respect for the next governor. I want to show my support for the administration; I want to show to the people of California that I believe in continuity. For me, the state is the most important thing. I will do everything that I can to make sure the state goes in the right direction.