True Lies

Illustration by Juan Alvarado

The strongest challenger was definitely not going to compete. It was obvious. Nearly everyone knew it. So the other players made their preparations accordingly. Then, just before the start of the contest, Arnold Schwarzenegger stunned nearly everyone by announcing that he was in after all.

Sounds like the 2003 California governor’s race. It also happened in the 1980 Mr. Olympia contest. Schwarzenegger had been retired from competitive bodybuilding for five years before coming back to win his seventh Mr. Olympia title, a record that still stands. (The canny Schwarzenegger always emphasizes his five Mr. Universe titles now but the most prestigious world championship is Mr. Olympia, a rather, well, Aryan-sounding name.) Scheduled to be a commentator at the event, Schwarzenegger surprised the field by showing up in Australia as a competitor instead.

Now, 23 years later, it’s Monday, two days before Arnold Schwarzenegger shocked the media and political worlds by announcing his candidacy for governor on The Tonight Show on Wednesday, August 6, which happens to be Hiroshima Day. I call him up to check in and see if he has any nuclear events in mind. He quickly comes on the line and we discuss the lay of the land. Unlike every other political writer in California, in fact the entire country, I know that Schwarzenegger really does want to run for governor, is trying to make it work, and have reported that. I have more than an inkling that he will not wait until 2006.

He is still weighing a few factors, Schwarzenegger says. Will Senator Dianne Feinstein run, he wonders? I tell him again that I think not, a wild free-for-all campaign is simply not her cup of tea. She is 70 years old, doesn’t enjoy campaigning, does enjoy a well-ordered life, and is a settled-in fixture in the chic salons and chat shows of Washington, D.C.

“You should definitely come down to the show,” says Schwarzenegger. “It will be fun.” I tell him I’m not sure I can make it; I have long-standing plans the next day in San Francisco with my friend Viktoria. After a pause — I know well that people very seldom tell Arnold Schwarzenegger they aren’t sure they can fit him into their schedules — he says, “No, you should come down. It will be great.”

I switch off the phone, thinking that if the stars are in alignment — that is, if his reluctant wife, TV journalist Maria Shriver, has come around to his way of thinking, and if Feinstein follows her pattern of behavior — California may be close to having a bodybuilding Austrian-American governor. Those, however, are large stars with big gravitational fields of their own. As reported here last week, Shriver had joined her husband in a session with former Governor Pete Wilson on California’s crisis of governance, which could have been read as growing support or as a shrewd spouse seemingly taking herself out of the way of a move that will not be made. And many powerful Democrats, panicking about the prospects of Governor Gray Davis in the recall, are pressuring Feinstein to run.

Schwarzenegger’s political consultants, all top-level veterans of Wilson’s political campaigns, are convinced that he is out. (I have a long history with the Wilsonites, mostly antagonistic, having won a state journalism award as political columnist in large part for work criticizing Wilson, then working to defeat Wilson as senior adviser to the Democratic Party and Kathleen Brown, writing his political obituary in a scathing Los Angeles Times op-ed piece when his presidential campaign ended, and more recently attacking him repeatedly for championing the electric-power deregulation scheme. Despite all that, we still talk.) Team Arnold/Wilson is mostly quite depressed. And mostly quite insistent he will not run. Some remain convinced Feinstein will run. The L.A. Times and other outlets have reported they are moving over to work for Schwarzenegger’s friend and ally, Dick Riordan. But that is wrong. Media consultant Don Sipple and communications strategist Sean Walsh will not. Campaign manager George Gorton might, but sounds pessimistic.

The hard truth is there is no Riordan operation. Riordan had detailed his former aide Noelia Rodriguez, now first lady Laura Bush’s press secretary, to set up a campaign team. Told by the White House she would have to resign to work for Riordan, she returned to Washington with the task undone. Everything is up in the air, remarkably so for a politician everyone else in the media and politics believes is running just days from the filing deadline. Since being knocked out in the 2002 Republican primary by Davis’ unprecedented intervention of $10 million in negative ads, Riordan, now out of office, flirted endlessly with the recall movement, traveled to Cuba and Latin America in search of business opportunities, and announced plans to start a weekly L.A. newspaper, which seems illusory. Says one longtime adviser cited in the press: “I have no idea what he is doing.”



Wednesday morning rolls around and, sure enough, Feinstein announces she is out. As I walk into NBC’s Burbank studio that afternoon, Schwarzenegger consultant Sean Walsh asks if I think he will run. (He and Gorton had been dead certain Tuesday night that Schwarzenegger was out, with Gorton in particular wracked by missed opportunities. Sipple, intrigued by the Mr. Olympia story, which he later recounts to ‰ Schwarzenegger as the action superstar pulls his candidate filing papers in a wild media event, was not.) Assured that Walsh is not kidding, I give him a thumbs-down, then slowly raise the thumb to a horizontal position before moving it in front of my body as I walk away.

As the world knows now, Schwarzenegger turns politics on its ear, stunning a room full of reporters who — trusting too much in longtime background sources, not used to movie stars, had grown disconsolate at the twists and turns of the decision — had reported day after day that he was out. So did Schwarzenegger “mug” his friend Riordan, who had already endorsed him on Fox News in late June, by not telling him he had decided to run after all, as claimed by yet another unnamed source? Only those two know for sure what was said. But consider the logic of the situation. Riordan is notoriously garrulous. He is an old friend of Feinstein. They have many mutual friends. Would you trust him to keep arguably the biggest secret of your life?

His Tonight Show bombshell dropped, and two press conferences conducted, one indoors for print and one outdoors for cameras — on what the NBC publicist called, indecorously with regard to a Kennedy family member, “the grassy knoll” — Schwarzenegger roared off into the late afternoon light, leaving his stunned consultants in his wake. “Well,” said one, “maybe we should meet up back at Arnold’s office (in Santa Monica).” Assuming that was where he had gone. Walsh went back inside to brief the press, asking me if Schwarzenegger had told Jay Leno that he would go down to the county registrar to pull his filing papers on Thursday. Assured that he had said just that, Walsh went on to inform a gaggle of still stunned reporters. The campaign, to paraphrase a ’60s line about the revolution, is where Arnold Schwarzenegger’s boot strikes.

Indeed his interest in the governorship is long-standing. After I revealed last fall that Schwarzenegger had conducted a poll to judge his prospects as a write-in candidate for governor, which his consultants unconvincingly denied eight hours after being asked, Schwarzenegger acknowledged he had done just that. There is even a 1991 cover story in a now defunct magazine asking if the cigar-smoking, Armani-clad Terminator would be the next governor of California.


Yet, even now, the ducks are not all in a row for the campaign. His appeal is obvious. But the absence of the trademark meticulous preparation evident in Schwarzenegger’s bodybuilding, business, and movie ventures is apparent. He had, after all, planned to run in 2006; this was to be a big movie and business year, with the massive Terminator 3 now projected to take in $400 to $450 million in global box office. The candidate wisely avoided being drawn off his central themes of cleaning up Sacramento, reviving the economy and fixing the budget mess, and bringing people together by not answering more tangential questions on gay marriage and paid family leave, issues which Davis “studied” for months before announcing positions. It’s best to say only what one knows for sure; small miscues are better than big mistakes. But his evasions were not artful and raised questions about the neophyte candidate’s grasp of specifics. And his consultants were in communications gridlock. Only this week do they get BlackBerry wireless handhelds to enable them to skip past cell-phone tag and overflowing voice mail.

Schwarzenegger is knowledgeable on education, crime, and childhood development, issues he has long been involved with, but mostly defers discussion on other issues. “You know there is a time and a place for all of this,” he says. “You will know.”

His politics are what might be described as fusion Republican. Indeed, for all the Wilsonites around him now, Schwarzenegger seems most attuned to the one who is no longer with us. Otto Bos, a former San Diego journalist and Sierra Club member, was Wilson’s kinder and gentler face. He and Gorton ran Wilson’s 1990 gubernatorial campaign against Feinstein and Bos became the new governor’s communications director, working closely with chief of staff Bob White, also a Schwarzenegger adviser.


Bos spoke repeatedly of his vision of a New Republican Party: moderate to liberal on social and environmental issues, fiscally conservative but focused on intervening to help people at critical stages in their lives (say childhood development, basic education, opportunities for higher education, job training).

But Bos, an All-American soccer player at San Francisco State, dropped dead of a heart attack during a weekend pickup soccer game early in Wilson’s term. The long hours and obsessive nature of the political lifestyle hadn’t left time for regular workouts, and Bos made the classic mistake of the middle-aged male in attempting to make up for declining physical prowess by overdoing it as a weekend warrior.

With the loss of Bos and his constant projection of who he could be as a political leader, Wilson became more of a default Republican, promoting initiatives to cut welfare and to deny schooling and other benefits to illegal immigrants, which had the effect of deflecting blame for the state’s economic and budget crises of the early ‘90s.

Today Schwarzenegger says: “I despise all this partisanship, I despise division. We need to find ways to work together, to move forward, like we did with the great guys of the past like Earl Warren and Pat Brown and Hiram Johnson. Yes, we have differences, and sometimes we have to fight over them to work toward a solution. But getting to the solution has to be the goal, not just the fighting. You and I, we may not agree on something, but if you argue with the eye to moving forward, that is what is positive.

“Gray Davis, he is a smart man like you say, but he doesn’t talk to the people, he doesn’t even talk to the people in politics. The joke of it is he has isolated himself much more than most movie stars. Why are we surprised that he is such a failure as the governor?”

So Arnold Schwarzenegger is embarked on the next mind-boggling journey of an extraordinary life, the starry-eyed small-town Austrian boy now the front-runner for governor of California, just as predicted here last year. (Okay, I was talking about 2006.) At each stage of his plan — “One thing leads to another,” he always says — he has been at times quite awkward and encountered a lot of turbulence: becoming the world’s greatest bodybuilder, rising to riches in business, becoming the biggest action movie star in the world. Unlike those long-haul situations, this is a short campaign in which a few mistakes can be fatal. But consider this. For him to win, the arguably most unpopular governor in history must lose the recall vote.

And Arnold Schwarzenegger must defeat a lieutenant governor, viewed by few as a distinguished figure, and last year’s hapless Republican nominee. Care to bet against that? It was a sucker bet at the 1980 Mr. Olympia.

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