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Mr. California

Arnold Schwarzenegger, showing only a hint of movie-star swagger, headed toward the podium at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. He had traveled up and down the state to talk to the poor and the powerful about Proposition 49, the after-school programs initiative voters overwhelmingly approved this month. The average skeptic would not have expected his level of polish and sophistication, given his bodybuilding and action-movie background.

”You have had some great people speak to you here,“ he said. ”Presidents, prime ministers, senators, business tycoons, humanitarian leaders. I was a little nervous about this. Then I thought, ’But how many have been Mr. Universe? Or been Danny DeVito‘s twin? Or acted with Sharon Stone?’“

The audience at Commonwealth loved this, just as they had at formal addresses around the state before famous forums, including the Orange County Forum in Irvine and Town Hall in Los Angeles. From then on, Schwarzenegger had most, if not all, eating out of his palm. Among those in attendance at Town Hall L.A. were two major Democratic fund-raising mavens, legendary left-liberal financier Stanley Sheinbaum and the more mainstream investor Steve Moses, an early backer of Al Gore. Both said they were quite impressed by Schwarzenegger, though not exactly endorsing any future campaign of the man most expect to seek the Governor‘s Office in 2006.

The most famous immigrant in America overcame a thick Austrian accent and transcended the unlikely background of bodybuilding to become the biggest movie star in the world in the 1990s. In the process, he established a varied business empire and married into the Kennedy family. Wife Maria Shriver is a prominent TV journalist. Mother-in-law Eunice Kennedy Shriver, sister of John and Robert Kennedy, founded the Special Olympics. Father-in-law Sargent Shriver founded the Peace Corps and Job Corps. Uncle Ted is the senior senator from Massachusetts.

If he runs, as appears likely, S will be the first movie superstar to seek high public office in America. Ronald Reagan was a star, but never a box-office idol. Recently, only Warren Beatty has come relatively close to running, when he seriously explored a race for the 2000 Democratic presidential nomination.

And Schwarzenegger isn’t just a big star, he is a global movie icon, his trademark persona shining through in every role. He doesn‘t have a movie franchise like James Bond; Schwarzenegger is a movie franchise. Though his supernova as an action hero has cooled at 55, he is one of the highest-paid actors in the world, with a $30 million fee for the forthcoming Terminator 3. Some are troubled by the violence implicit in S’s screen persona, especially in megahits such as the Terminator films, Total Recall, True Lies, Predator and Conan the Barbarian. But Schwarzenegger began adjusting his screen image as a relentless killing machine in the late ‘80s, when he began doing comedies like Twins and Kindergarten Cop, in which he showed a surprisingly deft touch.

A run for the Governor’s Office is never far from his mind. Early on, I broke the ice with S by reminding him of a story I wrote that revealed his poll asking voters whether he should run this year as a write-in candidate. ”You!“ he exclaimed. A brief vision of being cinematically tossed through a plate-glass window flashed through my mind, but of course he was kidding. How did he fare in his poll? ”Very well,“ said S. How well? Only the trademark crocodile grin in reply.

The topic of a 2002 run came up again at a private reception at the Fairmont Hotel with San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, the legendary former California Assembly speaker and longtime backer of Governor Davis. It was late October, and Bill Simon had just made another devastating gaffe, this time producing a photo he claimed showed Gray Davis illegally accepting a check in his Capitol office, prompting the governor to call on Simon to drop out of the race. ”I called Gray,“ said the former Assembly speaker, one of Davis‘ earliest backers for governor, ”and told him to stop telling Simon to drop out. Because if he did Arnold would be a write-in and he’d win.“ While noncommittal, Schwarzenegger averred as how the race for governor was ”boring“ and ”pitiful.“

Later, at a favored Willie Brown hangout, the venerable French restaurant Le Central, lunching with the mayor, his clothier crony Wilkes Bashford, and San Francisco Chronicle executive editor Phil Bronstein (whose wife, Sharon Stone, co-starred with Schwarzenegger in Total Recall), Schwarzenegger‘s sometimes-edgy humor flashed. A male lobbyist friend of Brown’s came up to their table to show off his new jacket. (Brown is a longtime fashion aficionado.) ”Very nice,“ said Schwarzenegger. ”Does it come in a men‘s?“

So who is this guy who we know as a relentless, wisecracking action hero in the movies who is now the front-runner for governor of California? He grew up in a small town in Austria, watching newsreels and reading magazines.

 

”My big dream always was to get to America. That was from the time I was 10 years old, from when I saw the first newsreels about America. And I saw the skyscrapers, and the bridges, and the highways, and the cars with the fins sticking out, and all this stuff. Hollywood. I said, ’What am I doing here on the farm? Oh, God, I‘ve got to move on. How do I move on?’ So when this bodybuilding came along I felt like, ‘This is my ticket to America, of course.’ Because all the magazines made it clear bodybuilding was an American thing. So I said to myself, ‘I’m sure I can go to America if I win Mr. Universe.‘

“As with everything,” says S, “you have those visions and those goals, and the closer you get the more you feel like, ’Oh, it is within reach.‘ I had this guy, Reg Park, who was my idol. And I remember the things that I saw in the magazines, him as a family man with all his children and his beautiful wife, and I thought, ’Well, that‘s cool,’ that‘s where this whole thing goes. He had this gymnasium empire in South Africa, which in those days was 10 gymnasiums. Nowadays you would franchise 500 or something like this. He gave lectures at universities, and I read that as a kid at the age of 14 and thought, ’Wow, this is unbelievable.‘ And he won Mr. Universe. And he made movies, where he took the money and then built the gymnasiums. So that whole thing was like . . . I said to myself, ’So this is all from working out? And becoming Mr. Universe? I‘m in. This is it.’ It was not just Mr. Universe, it was the package. ‘If I could copy that, I will be home free.’ I was 13, 14 years old, you know. So I went after that. So of course I knew the steppingstones that he took: Mr. Universe. Then getting into movies. Then investing in business.

Starting in 1969, S based himself in Santa Monica, which remains the center of his movie, business and philanthropic empire today. While training and competing constantly as a world champion bodybuilder and power lifter, he took many college courses, at Santa Monica College, West L.A. University, UCLA Extension, and the University of Wisconsin, where he received his bachelor‘s degree in business. He also became, somewhat surprisingly, an avid collector of contemporary art.

”I became very good friends with Andy Warhol, used to hang out at the Studio in the ’70s, because he was a big believer in bodybuilding and [like other hip celebrities Schwarzenegger befriended] helped get bodybuilding out of the dungeon to make it a hip activity to do.“ He also loves sculptures, especially Western bronzes by Charles Russell and Frederic Remington.

And then there were movies. ”I was very fortunate that six months after I was in America, some little company cast me in a movie called Hercules in New York or Hercules Goes Bananas, two titles. So I felt like: ‘Wait a minute. Are we talking about that I have, now, arrived?’ I had no idea what levels there are in motion pictures, you know, like the guy off the boat!“

Schwarzenegger‘s patron of the time, muscle-magazine publisher Joe Weider, had told the producers that he was actually a Shakespearean actor from Germany. S laughs. ”They thought, ’It‘s incredible that we find a guy with a body like this who is a Shakespearean actor.’ You know, little did they know. Literally, I couldn‘t even speak the English language well enough to say my lines. I had to study day and night to just say the lines so someone can loop over the lines. But that really was the moment when I saw it really could happen, that I could be a movie star. So I went after it even more strongly.“ a

With help from Jack Nicholson, who linked him with acting and dialogue coaches and recommended him to Bob Rafelson, who directed S in his first serious feature film, Stay Hungry, S avidly pursued movie stardom even as he reigned over the world of bodybuilding.

Ironically, though, it was a documentary film about bodybuilding, Pumping Iron, that first established S’s cinematic charisma in his first and ultimately greatest role, that of Arnold S. Pumping Iron showed him to be a natural politician, able to charm potential supporters and manipulate opponents. Indeed, the joke then in that movie was that he and Jane Fonda (two Santa Monicans at the time) should run against each other for president.

 

While all this was going on, S was pursuing various business ventures, buying real estate in Santa Monica, Denver and other locales, running a bricklaying company with longtime compadre and fellow bodybuilding champ Franco Columbu. And he became involved in philanthropic activities with the Special Olympics.

”It was such a pleasure coming from Europe because no one here said ‘You can’t.‘ Over there, there were 5,000 regulations and you couldn’t make a move. It was so simple here, it was like spectacular. Even though there were obstacles, like I couldn‘t go to one college and get all the credits because I was here on a working permit and I couldn’t apply for a student visa simultaneously.“

Philanthropy and politics emerged from the mix. ”Politics was not my goal,“ says S, ”but I married into a political family. You get together with them and you hear about policy, about reaching out to help people. But I was working with Special Olympics before I met Maria, and her mother, who created Special Olympics. I was exposed to the idea of being a public servant, and Eunice and Sargent Shriver became my heroes. Not that we agreed on everything politically, but we totally agreed on using your talent to reach out and influence people. So I became really heavily involved in Special Olympics, took over the President‘s Council on Physical Fitness for President Bush. You know, one thing leads to the next, so I got involved with the after-school programs.“

With the Republican wipeout in California, Schwarzenegger is being talked up by desperately eager Republicans not just for governor in 2006 but for U.S. senator in 2004, when the usually vulnerable Barbara Boxer plans to seek a third term. But the governorship may be a better fit for S than being one of 100 senators, and in any event, the movie business may get in the way. S finished principal photography on Terminator 3 in September; it’s slated for Fourth of July release next year. And he is working on several other projects, notably a sequel to the 1994 smash True Lies -- in which he played a seemingly boring computer salesman whose family is clueless to the fact that he is really a sort of James Bond (S is a huge Bond fan) saving America from Islamic terrorists -- and a remake of Michael Crichton‘s Westworld, a ’70s sci-fi flick about an out-of-control futuristic amusement park.

S studied stars like Clint Eastwood and Warren Beatty (a liberal who thinks highly of him) and learned how to be involved in every aspect of his movies‘ production and marketing. But beyond that, he really enjoys his films. He grows very animated in discussing the in-the-works True Lies sequel, delayed because too much of the original James Cameron script sounded like 911, describing one spectacular scene with what can only be described as the glee of a true fan.

Asked to comment when told that pollsters Mark Di Camillo, of the Field Institute, and Mark Baldassare, of the Public Policy Institute of California, said that he would be an extremely formidable gubernatorial candidate, S shoots back: ”Well, I know what I think, tell me more what they think.“

The pollsters note that after years of mostly uninteresting governors since Ronald Reagan and Jerry Brown, Californians are probably ready for some excitement. (”Right, right,“ says S.) And S is potentially better-positioned, consciously or not, than any Republican has been for some time to pick up needed votes among Democrats, independents, Latinos and women that elude right-wingers like Simon and 1998 nominee Dan Lungren.

S isn’t really talking about all his political views at this point, but he is pro-choice, pro--gay rights, pro--gun control, pro--immigrant rights, and speaks of his concern for the environment. Davis consigliere Garry South says S can be beaten in the Republican primary, noting that he is ”more liberal than Dick Riordan.“ But unlike this year, when his attack ads defeated Riordan, Davis won‘t be spending $10 million in the next Republican primary. The Democrats have strong conventional candidates in Attorney General Bill Lockyer, Treasurer Phil Angelides, and Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante, among others, but the certainty of a divided primary makes it likely that the winner would emerge bloodied and broke to face the superrich Terminator.

S has been extremely circumspect about his views on the governorship, but now grows very animated thinking about California politics. ”Leadership is the most needed thing in California politics, not wimps! Look where we have gone with this whole thing, it’s pitiful.

“Too many things have to be done by initiative in California. It‘s like, ’Hello, where are the guys that are supposed to lead?‘ I think this [initiative] naturally will set me up, and this is why people say this could be the move. And on top of that, it is so boring here.”

 

As the man himself says repeatedly about his life, it is a package, one thing leads to another. Republicans reeling from the Democrats’ historic sweep of all statewide offices, their once mighty party consumed in a conflagration of internal divisiveness, can only hope that, as in the opening credits of Terminator 2, a certain Austro-American name superimposes itself over the flames as a harbinger of future victory. They have no one else.


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