Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is the most media savvy of men. When he announced his decision Monday to go ahead with a dramatic initiative election in November, he did so in a three-minute speech at precisely the time to lead the five pm television news. In Los Angeles, the stations led with continuing coverage of the Michael Jackson not guilty verdict.
When things are going south for you, they do so in matters large and small. And it was just another day of misfortune for the governor whose polls have dropped from 65% to 40 in four months.
As his biographer, I find the roots to Schwarzenegger’s troubles not so much in the exigencies of California politics as much as in the character of the governor himself, and in the very qualities that have advanced him. The key to his personality is an awesomely joyous sense of life. This is what draws people to him and largely why Californians elected him overwhelmingly in October 2003. That buoyant spirit served him well in his first year in office, but it sounds hollow now as he confronts a series of divisive, difficult issues.
Schwarzenegger made his way through life willfully courting controversy. When he was still without any top bodybuilding titles, he called American competitors “cowards.” As a young actor, he mocked Sylvester Stallone, then the biggest star in the world. Controversy was the most efficient way to garner publicity, and Arnold considered publicity the great engine of his advance. When the governor was confronted by a group of protesters in a December speech, it was natural for him to shout that they were nothing but a special interest infuriated because "I kick their butt." The butts he was kicking belonged to 60,000 California nurses opposed to his plans to expand mandated nurse-patient ratios in the state’s hospitals. And with the support of their increasingly militant union, they began protesting at almost all his public appearances.
People are the books that Schwarzenegger learns from, and although the governor has a dedicated, hard working staff, he has no Ted Sorenson, Karen Hughes, or Karl Rove. They were the ones responsible for the January 2005 State of the State speech that was supposed to set the agenda for a dramatic year of reform that would make California a national model for governance.
Schwarzenegger is the most secretive of men. Witness the way he announced for governor on the Tonight Show, without even his campaign manager realizing he was entering the race. This crucial speech was not vetted by a wide range of political insiders, and it was full of measures that had to be rescinded or revised.
The worst mistake occurred after the speech in the sloppy drafting of an initiative to change state employee pension plans from defined benefit to 401 Ks. As written it probably meant that the widows of cops of firefighters wouldn’t get pensions. Realizing this the Democrats waited to alert the governor to his mistake until it was too late for any changes. Cops and firefighters joined the protesters, their presences amply supported by the state’s public employees unions.
Schwarzenegger is a man who does not apologize because he believes he has nothing for which he deserves to apologize. After the Bay of Pigs, President Kennedy took full responsibility and his polls shot up. Schwarzenegger said what had happened was terrific. Backing off support for the flawed initiative in a press conference, the governor said what had happened was “terrific,” and his polls continued to drop.
Schwarzenegger’s other problem is the California media. As a champion bodybuilder and the biggest star in the world, he manipulated the media to create a mythic heroic image. During his race for governor and in Sacramento, Arnold largely stiffed the uncontrollable political press, and depended on a malleable entertainment media and local television ready to engorge his always provocative sound bites. Now when the governor needs empathetic coverage, reporters who had not been allowed close enough to write intimately of the triumphs of Arnold’s first year in office are more than happy to chronicle the troubles of his second year.
Schwarzenegger has largely brought on these troubled times, and he alone has the capacity and will to pull himself out of these doldrums. The success and failure of his entire tenure as governor rests on the initiative election this fall. I have learned not ever to count Schwarzenegger out, but this gregarious extrovert is as alone as he has ever been.
Laurence Leamer is the author of "Fantastic : The Life of Arnold Schwarzenegger" (St. Martin's Press)