Friday, May 20, 2011

Arnold Is Who We Thought He Was

First, there were whispers on the campaign trail.  Then came the murmurs and phone calls, from operatives for rival candidates.  Finally, a full-throated news conference led by the Mother of All Media Moths, Gloria Allred.  The word was out: Arnold Schwarzenegger was a serial groper, a philanderer, the Gropinator - he cheats on his wife and there may even be an out-of-wedlock child or two or three out there.

And the voters couldn't have cared less.

Wife Maria stood by her man, told California she trusted her husband, and that was good enough for the starry-eyed voters.  Never mind that she didn't exactly deny the rumors and allegations; her love and loyalty clinched things for any voters who were wavering, and there didn't even seem to be that many of them.  A Field Poll taken just before the recall election found only 19% less inclined to vote for Schwarzenegger because of the rumored extramarital affairs, while 77% said it mattered not one whit.  In fact, more (26%) were given pause by the fact that he was a "Hollywood actor" than that he might be unfaithful to his wife.

The rabid leaders of the Total Recall of Gray Davis, blinded by ego and zeal, shrugged off the nascent scandal and plunged ahead with their misguided mistake.

Allred's involvement probably hurt, rather than helped, those trying to derail the Arnold Express.  Many voters I talked to in the closing days of that 2003 campaign dismissed the tawdry talk as last-second dirty politics, Democratic desperation made even more suspect by Allred's media-baiting involvement.  Quite simply, the electorate had already bought the image of Arnold as savior, the tentpole blockbuster action hero come to rescue California from its tired money-wasting ways.  He was going to blow up the boxes, give them back their hard-earned cash and deliver action, action, action!

As it turned out, of course, Schwarzenegger governed much as the man he deposed did.  The budget kept listing badly out of balance; few of the promised reforms materialized; the boxes are still there.   The recall zealots soon felt betrayed.  They played little to no role in governing the state, and the Governator quickly abandoned their core principles, if he ever shared them at all.  They'd been snookered by a power lifter turned movie star, who let them lift him into power and then cast them aside like undersized dumbbells.

It's hard to feel sorry for the people who conned California into tossing out the governor they'd just re-elected the year before.  But maybe we didn't do a good enough job explaining to the voters what we suspected during that brief circus of a campaign: that Arnold wasn't the breath of fresh air they sought, but just another hot air-spewing office-seeker, a musclebound political naif who had big dreams but lacked the skills to realize them.

Arnold seemed to rein in his libido once he became governor.  There were no new rumors, no more scandalous whispers.  Either his wife or the weight of his office, or maybe both, persuaded him to keep his hands to himself and his lust in check.  Or so we thought.  I had many opportunities to observe him up close and never saw the slightest hint of any impropriety, beyond his usual egomania and boorish, politically incorrect vocabulary. 

But this week's bombshell announcement - and perhaps others to come, now that Schwarzenegger's been exposed - reveals that the governor simply fed his voracious appetite closer to home - in fact, right inside his home.

It's a sad affair, especially for Maria Shriver and the couple's four children, not to mention the son Schwarzenegger fathered with another woman.  But it should hardly come as a surprise.

Arnold Schwarzenegger is a man with an ego that's even more overdeveloped than his pectoral muscles used to be.  It's coupled with an intense desire for power and control, the costs be damned.  I'm not playing armchair psychologist: I'm simply reporting direct observations.  I've seen him marvel wistfully at the political power of others, and muse, only half-joking, about how great it would be to be a dictator instead of a governor.

On a trade mission to China in 2005, a cigar-savoring Schwarzenegger held court with those of us covering the trip, in a revealing, free-wheeling, half-hour conversation.  He refused to let me record it for radio use, promising to give me a one-on-one interview a little later.  When I pointed out it would save him time to simply let me tape the group chat, he blew some (Cuban, I might add) cigar smoke in my face and said "Don't worry about my time."  Later, when it was time for our interview, he decided to go talk to some waiting TV reporters first instead.  I feared he wouldn't return for our private sitdown.  He insisted he would.  "You promise?" I asked, and then, in my best imitation of his world-famous accent, I asked again, "You promise - you'll be back?"

He fixed me with a steely Terminator gaze and put his hand on my shoulder.  I could feel his skull ring digging through my shirt.  "I tell you what," he finally said.  "I promise not to have you killed."

Sounded fair enough to me.  I wasn't sure he was kidding.  OK, so I was a smart aleck and probably deserved it.  I sat down and waited.  Eventually, he did return, as promised, and we did our radio interview, which went on much longer than scheduled.  He even had to light a second Montecristo.  He was gracious and charming while still being frustratingly vague and evasive.  But it all happened on his terms, with Schwarzenegger firmly in control, while I fought off fleeting images of him snapping me in half and throwing me in the hotel pool.

Arnold Schwarzenegger is not one to spend much time worrying about the consequences of his actions, or their impact on other people, even those he professes to love.  That should have been clear to the people of California a long, long time ago, and if it wasn't, it's certainly painfully so now.