The Governator II: At first it seemed like a bad joke

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A bodybuilder turned Hollywood hulk running the world’s seventh largest economy. But one year on Arnie is riding high. So how far can he go?

The Guardian (London)

The show goes on… Schwarzenegger arriving with his wife and children for his inauguration on November 17; giving a thumbs up to the crowd at a Recovery Plan Rally; with George Bush and Gray Davis; addressing the Republican national convention in New York in August

The candidate roars into the rally in a giant articulated truck, all gleaming chrome and tinted windows. The face plastered along the side of the lorry, muscles bulging beneath a taut white T-shirt, is the same as that just visible through the windscreen of the truck.

The lorry pulls to a halt, the door swings open and a cowboy boot daintily points down to the running board, followed by the rest of the candidate. The hair! The eyebrows! The tan! The sports jacket! The slacks! It is a thrilling composite, a psephologist’s wet dream.

He stands, poised in the door of the cab, waving to the cheering crowds, his face fixed in a grin, one hand outstretched with a thumb poking up like a fingerpuppet. He doesn’t speak; he merely gazes into the distance, scanning the crowd, as if waiting for the director to shout, “Cut!”

But there is no director and there is no crowd – unless you count the gaggle of journalists summoned for the occasion, the police, the staff and the half-dozen curiosity seekers, the only real people present at this factory on the outskirts of the outskirts of Los Angeles. Actually, there’s no campaign either, though much of Arnold Schwarzenegger‘s first year in office as governor of California has born a distinct resemblance to one.

By now the governor is getting tired of standing on the steps of the giant truck. You can see questions starting to arise in his eyes: should I stop waving now? Do I grin or adopt my serious expression at this point? How will this play on TV?

Schwarzenegger eases himself down from the step and with obvious relief starts to talk to the 20 or so people gathered behind a line of police barriers. “Very nice,” he says, grinning and nodding and proferring his thumb.

He makes a nice little speech about bringing business back to California – he is here to highlight his efforts to reverse the migration of small businesses to states where labour costs are lower – and gets on with the main business of the day, the photo op.

Like so much of his political life, the photo op gently plays on Schwarzenegger’s previous lives as movie star and bodybuilder. He lumbers with his strange, steroid-laden gait along the side of the truck to help two workers – they look too real to be actors – unbolt its rear doors. The truck, like the workers, is emblazoned with the slogan, “Arnold says: California wants your business.” (Actually, he says “Kah-li-fornia”.) It’s knowing and funny, mocking his Austrian origin and his comic mittel-European accent, unexpected in a holder of one of the most powerful political offices in the land.

The back doors of the truck swing open to reveal a pile of cardboard boxes bearing the slogan, “Arnold’s Moving Co”.

“This is a really heavy box,” he says, grunting, as one of the workers passes him a box to place on a trolley. Schwarzenegger likes to play. He mugs for the cameras, staggering under the impossible weight of the boxes, before handing one to the slight owner of the company who, being less of an actor than the politician, places it with no apparent effort on the trolley. Everyone
laughs. This is fun. This doesn’t matter. This is politics: it’s just like showbusiness.

This is a typical Schwarzenegger event, a standard ingredient in a day in the life of the man who a year ago today was voted in as governor of the state with the seventh-largest economy in the world. Back then, everybody took it for a bit of a joke. Sure, there had been an actor before as governor of California, one who even went on to become president, but he at least had served his political apprenticeship, having worked his way through the smoke-filled rooms of the Golden State. What would, or could, Schwarzenegger do?

A year on, Schwarzenegger has been hailed as the great healer, derided as the great divider, garlanded for bringing a new spirit of bipartisanship to Californian politics, attacked for merely telling people what they want to hear.

The contradictions are endless and confusing. To his detractors they show the tactical naivety of a political novice, the crass approach of a Hollywood star accustomed to a chorus of yes-men. To his cheerleaders, they are all part of his master strategy to disorientate the opposition, break the mould of politics as usual (sound familiar?), crack heads together and focus minds.

Arnold Schwarzenegger is a scoundrel,” says Californian Democratic party strategist Bob Mulholland. “He’s not a man who keeps his word. He’ll look you in the face, make a pledge and then an hour later will say the opposite. His tenure has been all sizzle, no steak. He’s acting as if he’s still on stage. Truth or lies, it’s of no concern: he’s lied all his life to promote his career.”

Taken on its own, his record in office is distinctly underwhelming. He was elected on two populist promises: to resolve California’s budget crisis and to reform the political culture in the state capital of Sacramento. Today, the budget crisis is as bad as it was a year ago. Schwarzenegger was eventually able to push through a budget, but it was late and merely rolled over the $ 12bn debt into the coming years. And despite his populist rhetoric, the political culture in Sacramento runs along pretty much as before, with Democrats and Republicans sparring, doing deals and being swayed by lobbyists. But Schwarzenegger’s poll ratings remain in rude good health, with 65% saying that they think he’s doing a good job.

“He’s more of a politician than anybody expected,” says Marc Cooper of the LA Weekly. “He’s certainly more of a politician than your average politician. To be an effective politician, you probably have to be a good actor.”

“He wears risers in his boots,” counters Mulholland. “He’s a 5ft 10in citizen of Austria who believes his real place in history is to be president of the United States. You’ve got to be distrustful of a politician who has a makeup artist with him 24/7.”

“His real gift is to let people see him as the Terminator and see the characters he’s played,” says Jamie Court, founder of, a website devoted to cataloguing the governor’s relationship with big business. “And they don’t pay much attention to what he’s done. What he’s proving is that all politics is showbusiness. He’s a brand.”

Even half a minute spent listening to a Governor Schwarzenegger speech bears out much of what Court says. He doesn’t let a speech go without saying, “I’ll be back”, or making liberal use of the verb “to terminate”. His everyday speeches are littered with verbal plays on bodybuilding and the terminology of action heroes.

But it goes beyond image. In a move borrowed from the control freakery of Hollywood, the governor’s staff have to sign confidentiality agreements, pledging not to disclose anything about Schwarzenegger. And he has also entered into an unholy alliance with the tabloid press.

Political writer Ann Louise Bardach documented Arnold’s tabloid dealings for Los Angeles magazine, disclosing how he entered into a business agreement with the biggest tabloid group in the market, publisher of the National Enquirer, among others. “There was a series of meetings,” she says, “which put the tabloids out of running stories about Arnold Schwarzenegger‘s past and they became cheerleaders. They totally flipped the coin. It became Arnold the great family man. He basically delivered a knock-out punch.”

Perhaps Schwarzenegger’s most enduring contribution to the evolution of political discourse during his first year in office will be the rebirth of the phrase “girlie men”. It first appeared in an old TV skit on Saturday Night Live, where two pumped-up bodybuilders with funny accents threatened to kick sand in the face of all and sundry. Everyone laughed, including the butt of the joke, Schwarzenegger. After all, it was just a sketch.

And then, demonstrating self-awareness and a facility with his own history, Schwarzenegger used the phrase this July to describe his political opponents in the midst of a fraught attempt to pass the state’s budget. Less than two months later, he used the phrase again, this time at what was billed as the crowning moment of his debut year in politics, a prime-time speech at the Republican party national convention in New York. “The girlie men flap”, as one Republican national official referred to it, gives an insight into Schwarzenegger’s approach. The remark was far from spontaneous: it referenced Schwarzenegger’s past life, it showed the governor to be both human and tough, and it confirmed the notion that the old political system was somehow to blame.

It also represented a turning point, the point at which nice conciliatory, bipartisan Arnie – the one being cute with the kids in Kindergarten Cop – gave way to the bullying, scheming, hard-assed Arnie, not so much the one in the Terminator films as the Arnie glimpsed in his breakthrough movie, Pumping Iron, the documentary where he plays mind games on his opponents and psychs himself to a sixth Mr Universe title.

“A Democratic staffer early on called him a wuss,” says Dan Walters, veteran political columnist for the Sacramento Bee. “In the early confrontation’s he blinked. Once that happened, the Democrats started to lose their fear of this dominating figure. It appears that he was taken aback that his gestures to the Democrats were not reciprocated and you’ve seen him try to get tough. But it’s harder to get tough when you’ve been soft.”

So Schwarzenegger learned the hard way that being nice to people in politics doesn’t necessarily win you friends.

“In Hollywood it doesn’t matter how good you are, it depends on how popular you are. In politics, popularity is great but it doesn’t do any good if you don’t use it, it just goes away. To have some impact, he can’t say yes to everybody.”

The past few weeks have seen a hardening of the Schwarzenegger stance on many issues. He has been busy wielding his veto on a long list of bills that many liberals hoped he might support, from the granting of driver’s licences for undocumented immigrants to allowing prescription drugs to be purchased more cheaply in Canada and increasing the minimum wage. His arguments in favour of veto are almost always economic, taking the view that regulation will hinder job creation: he might be quoting his close economic adviser, Milton Friedman, the man who brought monetarism to Britain in the 1980s.

Has Schwarzenegger been a success as a politician? In many ways, it really doesn’t matter. Schwarzenegger is an illusionist. Like that other pre-eminent Republican, George Bush, what he believes, goes. What he sees, and chooses to see, is what is real. If Schwarzenegger does not see it, it does not exist. If Schwarzenegger does not promote it, it is dead. All can be swept away by the power of positive thinking.

Does his positive thinking take him so far as to dream of occupying the White House? This week, for the first time since the 1870s, a senate committee considered an amendment to article 2 of the US constitution, which requires that a president be a “natural born” citizen of the country. The amendment, sponsored by Schwarzenegger’s old friend, Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, would make citizens of 20 years eligible. Schwarzenegger, who has dual Austrian-US citizenship, took
the oath in 1983. Another friend of the governor’s has set up a website to lobby for the amendment.

In New York during the Republican convention much of the chatter centred on the possibility that the way might be eased for Schwarzenegger to take a shot at the presidency. The succession to Bush was the subtext to the September jamboree, with Vietnam veteran John McCain and former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani the names most talked about. But many senior Republicans reason that the appeal of Schwarzenegger might be too strong to resist.

“He has his eye on the presidency, no question,” says Bardach. “The big figures in the party said that he’s pushing very hard, and these other guys look at him as a competitor.”

In public, the candidate himself is mute on the subject, talking instead about the task at hand when asked about his ultimate ambition. And the pundits – citing everything from the constitution to Schwarzenegger’s sleazy past – and even some of the facts, point against the Austrian-born governor becoming US president.

“This guy is George Bush with a personality and big biceps,” says ArnoldWatch’s Jamie Court. “If we change the constitution and allow him to become president, you’d better watch it.”

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