10/05/2012 10:11 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Recalling Total Recall : Schwarzenegger's Comeback Proceeds With A Big (Naturally) Book

I sometimes think that Arnold Schwarzenegger should have been a Russian. That's a country where big equals better, and sometimes best. If it's the biggest. The normal scale? Not so much.

Schwarzenegger set out early on to be an out-size figure. Literally. Many years ago, he told me about what had been his plan for his life. First, he would devote himself to bodybuilding and become Mr. Universe, a world bodybuilding champion. Then he would move to America -- a land of freedom and opportunity where big is also, well, big -- break through into Hollywood and become a movie star. Then, well, you get the gist. Most of us would balk at the "first I become Mr. Universe" part.

Former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger appeared September 30th on 60 Minutes.

He became the world's top bodybuilder, and a world champion in powerlifting, mainstreaming bodybuilding in the process. He became the biggest action movie star in the world. He became the governor of America's mega-state California, the nation's most populous. He became a global figure advocating on renewable energy and climate change.

He had his ups and downs, especially in politics, a field in which the assertion of will is frequently not the dominant factor, even for a governor who has won two landslide elections to the office and several initiative campaigns besides. Through it all, with his generally ebullient attitude, always smoking big cigars, he has reveled in big achievements while learning in politics how to cope with disappointment, creating big projects, big events, big celebrations, even big statues of himself for the Schwarzenegger Museum in Austria and the sports complex in Ohio which hosts his annual Arnold Sports Festival.

Now he has a big book out, his autobiography, amusingly called Total Recall, which comes in the aftermath of arguably his biggest crisis, an illicit affair with his housekeeper which resulted in a son and may have shattered something he has long reveled in, his marriage to the estimable Maria Shriver. Schwarzenegger's book has been planned for many years to follow his governorship. Now it follows his greatest crisis, too.

As we all know now, in a major and rather shocking violation of his marriage to Maria Shriver, Schwarzenegger had an affair with the family housekeeper in the mid-'90s which resulted in a son. The final realization of this led Shriver to leave Schwarzenegger not long after he left the governorship.

In the book, the controversy only occupies a handful of the roughly 650 pages.

Naturally, given the odd relationship our society has with sex -- constantly using it to titillate and sell while cracking down in viciously censorious junior high school fashion on many who actually have it -- the sex scandal dominated coverage, looming over Schwarzenegger as it has since it was rather mysteriously divulged in a leak to the Los Angeles Times in May 2011.

Some felt there wasn't enough groveling by Schwarzenegger in his appearance on 60 Minutes and elsewhere. "I think it was the stupidest thing I've done in the whole relationship," said Schwarzenegger. "It was terrible. I inflicted tremendous pain on Maria and unbelievable pain on the kids." That sounds pretty definitive. For some, however, Schwarzenegger wasn't emotive enough in his contrition. Had he seemed more emotional, the rather stoic Teuton would have been accused of being an actor. Which of course he is, albeit not of Oscar caliber as he frequently notes himself.

Others felt that Schwarzenegger shouldn't even be addressing the scandal.

Of course, if he did not address the scandal, he would not be able to move forward as a public figure and would be hamstrung even in entertainment. Which it's probably safe to say would make most such critics, who are really more in the line of opponents, rather happy indeed.

The reality is that Schwarzenegger getting into the particulars around last year's controversy is why he will recover in a way that my old friend Gary Hart, who refused to engage, refused to discuss the particulars of the rather quaint-in-retrospect sex scandal that ended his front-running candidacy for the presidency in 1987, never did. Hart has maintained a sense of grievance, which is not unjustified given the invasions of his privacy and the media myths around the scandal.

There was no enterprise journalism involved, as is often claimed, as the media outlets which drove the scandal, the Miami Herald and Washington Post, were carefully fed intelligence about Hart's activities. The notorious "Follow me around, you'll be bored" line? Delivered in exasperation to only one writer (then New York Times chief political writer E.J. Dionne), and published after the Miami Herald -- whose ace investigative reporters managed to lose a recent Miss South Carolina in Washington National Airport after being given her travel itinerary and flying on the same plane with her -- had already been led by the nose to staking out Hart's Washington townhouse. It was two days after that that Dionne's months-in-the-works New York Times Magazine cover story on Hart, which was quite positive about the senator as a future president of the United States, was published. But all that is another story.

When Hart appeared with Ted Koppel on Nightline to address the scandal a few months after he withdrew from the presidential race, he mostly did not. I know why he didn't and respect his reasons, but it was a mistake. Hart's Nightline appearance was something of a clinic in how not to deal with such a scandal.

More recently, then President Bill Clinton sparked a constitutional crisis by vehemently denying his sexual relationship in the White House with his young intern Monica Lewinsky. Clinton managed to survive being impeached, but the country's politics were convulsed as a result of his denial. Ultimately, he acknowledged the obvious. He has since moved on to an impressive post-presidency.

Schwarzenegger, in contrast, admitted his inappropriate behavior and apologized immediately. But, though he made a number of public appearances -- including two with his Democratic successor, Governor Jerry Brown, and speeches at United Nations conferences -- and resumed a very active career making movies and promoting his sports festivals in the US and Europe, he didn't engage on the scandal until now. How is Schwarzenegger's stance playing this week? Relatively well so far.

And it may play even better when people realize that his book is not just an intriguing and entertaining adventure story about the most unlikely successes of a kid from the middle of nowhere -- tiny Thal, Austria, lovely though it is, is decidedly not Vienna -- but a serious love story as well.

Shriver is a crucial friend and partner throughout most of the adventure, which makes their separation all the more sad and poignant.

The book is a veritable festival of Arnoldness. If you're interested in Schwarzenegger, you'll find a lot of information in it. You won't find so much psychoanalysis, but he's not that kind of guy -- Schwarzenegger is more of a forward lean type than a backward looking type -- so it's not that kind of book.

He does admit major mistakes. However, it's not always clear why he made them, perhaps not even to him, though he does say that his secretiveness has gone too far.

For me to do a deep review of Schwarzenegger's book would practically require me to write a book of my own. Much of which I'm sure he would like and some of which I'm sure he would not.

I knew him and liked him before he ran for governor of California. In fact, as an opinion journalist and an individual, I encouraged Schwarzenegger to run for governor. In my columns and articles for the LA Weekly, I predicted that he would run for governor and predicted that he would win in the recall. I even predicted, in 2002, that he would be the next governor, well before he had decided to run and a time when the recall had not even been conceived.

It wasn't easy to support Schwarzenegger in the recall. After all, I'd known and liked then Governor Gray Davis since 1980. But as the calendar moved into 2003, it was increasingly clear that Davis -- who had won a surprisingly narrow re-election over right-wing Republican Bill Simon -- would not be able to govern. His negative re-election campaign had poisoned the well of good feeling that any governor needs to keep refreshed. He was tarnished by the electric power crisis of 2000 and 2001 which was spurred by merchant power generators manipulating the deregulation scheme enacted by Davis's predecessor, Governor Pete Wilson. And worse, he was whipsawed between the right and the left, with the former seeking to shrink government, forever pushing an anti-tax agenda, and the latter always looking to expand government, resisting the need for cuts when revenues did not emerge.

If Davis continued in office, the grinding gridlock would also continue. So why not an outrageous action movie star with a high IQ? Things could certainly be worse, and a lot less entertaining. Since they were.

Of course, gridlock has a way of hanging around California's extraordinarily dysfunctional Capitol culture, as Schwarzenegger, despite a number of accomplishments, would find out the hard way. And as Jerry Brown now knows all too well, as well.

With due respect to his famous careers as an athlete and movie star, it's the fact that Schwarzenegger ALSO served two terms as governor of California that makes his story especially compelling.

"Just say the _______ line, Arnold!" While making The Terminator, Schwarzenegger tried to talk James Cameron out of the line "I'll be back."

The origins of it all, which includes the scandal chase, are telling.

On August 6th, 2003, anniversary of history's first nuclear bombing, Senator Dianne Feinstein was set to announce whether or not she would run in the replacement election to try to secure the governorship for Democrats in the event that Davis lost the recall election. And Schwarzenegger was scheduled to tape his appearance on The Tonight Show in Burbank.

The day before this, I learned that Feinstein would announce that she was not running. This was no real surprise, as Feinstein lost her appetite for risky races in uncontrolled settings when she barely held off free-spending Republican Congressman Michael Huffington, then husband of Arianna, in her 1994 re-election campaign.

I spoke with three interested parties the night before California's political landscape changed dramatically: Schwarzenegger, Arianna Huffington, with whom I'd worked on several projects and who was planning to run herself, and then Oakland Mayor and former Governor Jerry Brown, who was in the odd position of having his former chief of staff Davis the subject of the recall and of being urged by some to run himself as the most combat-ready Democrat in the state.

Schwarzenegger had made it clear to me in several conversations that he intended to run for governor if he could make it work. The news that Feinstein would not run made his course clearer, though he did not say "I am definitely, absolutely, positively running." He did note that it would be best for me to forego a San Francisco excursion with my fiancee, which I had mentioned again was scheduled for the day of his Tonight Show appearance.

I suggested to Arianna that she delay her own announcement of candidacy, which she had planned for the same day as Schwarzenegger's Tonight Show appearance, as whatever he announced would be the dominant news story. Arianna's candidacy made the most sense if, as she and others expected, neither the celebrity Schwarzenegger nor a name Democrat ran but her social friend LA's moderate former Republican Mayor Richard Riordan did. But the reverse happened, which closed off her opportunity to win a big vote. She chose to go ahead with her announcement, which was greatly overshadowed by Schwarzenegger's "surprise" move. In the end, she withdrew before the election and campaigned with Davis against the recall.

Brown said, as I expected, that he would not run in the recall even though Feinstein wasn't running, either.

The path was clearing for Schwarzenegger's election.

But before he was elected, Schwarzenegger would have actually run, of course, as well as survive a gauntlet of scandal and opposition erected by his home town Los Angeles Times.

The Times was relatively hostile from the beginning, referring to Schwarzenegger as "Actor" in the headlines. Because Schwarzenegger is such a long word, you know.

The Times, which had studiously ignored the recall as its dynamics gathered force -- which pleased me as it made it even easier to break stories about what was coming -- proceeded to publish polls showing Schwarzenegger's candidacy and the recall itself doing markedly less well than in other polls, including private Democratic polls.

More importantly, then Times editor John Carroll established a special Schwarzenegger investigative unit to rummage through every aspect of his life.

In the end, the Times investigations yielded little more than a rebooting of a Premiere Magazine story of two years earlier of Schwarzenegger behaving boorishly with some women, a story survivable on both occasions.

The notion that a macho jock-turned-action movie superstar would have extramarital affairs and at times grope women who did not want to be groped was mostly baked in to public expectations. It would only be a major problem if Schwarzenegger pretended innocence. Or if Maria Shriver reacted with surprise and shock at the recycled revelations rather than support for her movie star husband.

What happened wouldn't surprise anyone who's followed the history of the Kennedy family, whose male members' peccadilloes were routinely seized on for political purposes by their opponents. Just imagine her uncle, John F. Kennedy, in today's media culture. Would he have ever been elected president? Shriver, naturally, backed Schwarzenegger's play and his already strong lead increased as he swept to victory with a 17-point landslide margin, 48.6% to Democratic Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante's 31.5%, in a field of more than a hundred potential replacements for Governor Gray Davis, including another major Republican candidate in now Congressman Tom McClintock, hero of the Golden State far right. And the recall itself passed with a hefty 11-point margin of victory and more than 55% of the vote.

The Times did not scrutinize Schwarzenegger's chief adversaries with anywhere near the same level of zeal. Which was interesting.

As an old opposition research guy, I'm always reminded of the telling line delivered by Willie Stark in Robert Penn Warren's classic novel of American politics, All the King's Men: "From the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud, there is always something."

In fact, the Times was very protective of politicians it was involved with. Just a year earlier, for example, Riordan, about whom I had been hearing stories of very erratic behavior, blew up in a screaming fit at a Times reporter who had been quietly questioning him on his campaign bus, in full view of not only that reporter but another Times reporter, as well as myself.

Riordan ordered the reporter off the bus immediately, a difficult maneuver at best as the vehicle was then traveling down the highway at 65 miles per hour. Still steaming, Riordan was led gently away by staffers. After huddling endlessly together and over the phone with Times editors, neither Times reporter reported the incident.

Naturally, I acted as though nothing unusual had happened. And naturally I broke the story. Only after that did the Times report the bizarre incident.

Two years after I reported his public gasket-blowing, Riordan, whom Schwarzenegger appointed California secretary of education, blew it big time in public again. Appearing at a Santa Barbara library, Riordan fielded a question from a 6-year old girl named Isis who asked him if he knew what her name meant. His reply: "It means stupid, dirty girl." He then tried to turn the strange line into a joke by asking her what her name meant. Schwarzenegger accepted Riordan's public apology, but let him drift off, finally resigning the following year.

Ironically, the reporter who was the target of Riordan's bizarre outburst , and who sat on the story until I reported it, attacked Schwarzenegger this week for failing to be convincingly contrite.

Sufficiently contrite or not, Schwarzenegger continues to be, as Jerry Brown noted on CNN right after the "surprise" announcement of candidacy in 2003, "a very interesting character."

Along with his book, Schwarzenegger has a new think tank, the USC Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy, boasting a bipartisan board with notable international figures, as I reported in early August on my New West Notes blog, with his longtime friend and associate, former California Secretary of Education Bonnie Reiss, as overall director and USC Law Professor Nancy Staudt as the institute's academic director. The institute had a kick-off event last week, which I reported on here, featuring well-known Democrats and Republicans discussing the opportunities and pitfalls of what Schwarzenegger likes to call "post-partisanship."

It would be a mistake to bet that Schwarzenegger doesn't keep moving forward.

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