Hasta la Vista, Arnold

How Schwarzenegger could have liberated U.S. politics


Arnold Schwarzenegger's political dithering over the past few weeks may have seemed like unaccustomed behavior, but this was not the first time the usually decisive Terminator star played Hamlet. None of the dozens of people who actually bought tickets for Last Action Hero can forget a particular movie-within-a-movie sequence in that under-appreciated 1993 mega-flop. At one point, Arnold ironically portrays the melancholy Dane, holds Claudius off the ground with one hand, and paraphrases Shakespeare thus: "Hey Claudius! You killed my father! Big mistake!"

Now the "Austrian Oak"—as he's been known to bodybuilding aficionados since before his star turn in the great 1977 documentary Pumping Iron—has finally put the kibosh on a run for governor of California, even though Terminator 3's box office proved that Arnold can still put asses in the seats.

As another muscle man—the Fantastic Four's orange, rock-like Thing—was wont to say, "Wotta revolting development!." There were some very good reasons to hope that Schwarzenegger was as serious about a future in politics as he was in helping screen villains in Commando "let off some steam." And that wasn't just the prospect that a grueling campaign schedule would leave the star less time to make movies like, well, Commando, Last Action Hero, and the all-time favorite among hardcore Arnold fans, Hercules in New York).

A successful run for major office by Arnold had the potential to seriously alter the American political landscape. Interestingly, the reasons for this were not particularly tied to his policy positions, which can most accurately be described as mainstream and centrist. As the Wall Street Journal's John Fund recently detailed, the officially Republican Arnold is generally for less government spending and regulation, as are most Americans. In introducing a 1991 video reissue of Milton and Rose Friedman's TV series Free to Choose, Arnold delivered the following libertarian encomium to the American Dream: "I come from Austria, a socialistic country. There you can hear 18-year-olds talking about their pension. But me, I wanted more. I wanted to be the best… Individualism like that is incompatible with socialism. I felt I had to come to America, where the government wasn't always breathing down your neck or standing on your shoes."

Such statements surely warm the cockles of cold conservative hearts. Yet A number of Arnold's positions—for instance, he supports gun control, abortion rights, and gay adoption— alienate conservatives. So did his leading role in passing last year's popular California ballot initiative Prop. 49, which committed as much as $550 million a year in public funds to before- and after-school programs. Yet like his views on taxes and regulation, these positions also keep Arnold smack dab in the middle of the American (and Californian) political spectrum. In short, he mirrors a contemporary consensus that generally wants a slightly smaller, more efficient government that nonetheless delivers a large number of public services.

Given those conventional positions, how might a successful run by Arnold have brought something new and meaningful to American politics? By example. If he had managed to win a major office, he would almost certainly have removed certain lifestyle topics from the political arena. That would have been a major victory for those of us who think politics covers too broad a territory in contemporary America, injecting majoritarian values into areas, such as lifestyle choice and drug use, that should be left to individuals.

Unsurprisingly for a top-flight athlete and major movie star, Arnold has led the kind of life that had Democratic campaign consultants salivating. As one told the LA Weekly, "We'll have the tabloids go after him." Fifteen years ago, Arnold himself told Playboy that said he'd never enter politics because "you have to clean up your act."

As Nigel Andrews' very sympathetic 1996 biography, True Myths: The Life and Times of Arnold Schwarzenegger, amply documents, Arnold's life is filled with pecadilloes, some of his own making (e.g., openly using steroids and recreational drugs) and some not (e.g., his father joined the Nazis even before it was legal to do so in 1930s Austria). One of his mentors in the bodybuilding business, Joe Weider, told Andrews stories of Arnold giving women autographs in exchange for fondling their breasts. Spy magazine ran a full-frontal nude shot of the man, who is seen getting stoned onscreen in the documentary Pumping Iron.

Indeed, Arnold's bravura performance in Pumping Iron alone would have been enough to sink most candidates in terms of embarrassing personal revelations. Not only does he toke up, he propounds at length the theory that "getting pumped" is akin to sex and that he is therefore "coming" all the time in the gym—a soundbite that has already received as much airplay as did Ronald Reagan's pillow talk with Bonzo the chimp. His masterful psych-out treatment of his Mr. Olympia rival, the hearing-impaired Lou Ferrigno, is so viciously and cruelly effective that Arnold's generous, decades-long devotion to the Special Olympics barely starts to even the score when it comes to helping the handicapped. Elsewhere in Pumping Iron, Arnold claims that he skipped his own father's funeral because he was too busy training for a bodybuilding contest.

That story's coldness is undercut by the fact that Pumping Iron's director, George Butler, has stated that Arnold in fact "borrowed" the story from a boxer. Which of course creates a different sort of credibility issue, as do explanatory statements by Arnold such as this one quoted by Andrews: "To sell something on TV and stand out, I knew I'd have to do something spectacular, so I came up with comments like pumping up the muscles is much better than having sex… If you tell people that pumping up feels as good as sex…that you can eat all the cake you want, get stoned, have a good time, and everybody will love you—well, those are 'sell' statements." (Arnold's penchant for fabulism is why Andrews calls his bio True Myths.)

Had Arnold entered and won the California governor's race, voters would have essentially sent the message: We don't care about a politician's past unless he is intent on legislating morality in a way that is hypocritical or deceptive. That was one of the major reasons why politicians as different as Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, and phone-sex addict Bob Livingston were despicable and why they ended up disgraced. It wasn't simply because they had many failings in their personal lives but because they insisted on trying to force their vision of proper morality on the rest of us, whether the topic was drug use, sexual relations, or what sort of television our kids should be allowed to watch. Such do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do paternalism is alive and well with President George W. Bush, who coyly refuses to answer questions about personal drug use even as he presides over a law enforcement system that punishes people for smoking dope, and who proclaims "we're all sinners" while attempting to deny same-sex couples rights equal to heterosexual couples. Such hypocrisy is certainly one of the most tedious and invasive elements of politics.

There would have been little possibility of a Gov. Schwarzenegger spending much time on such topics. The Wall Street Journal's Fund has called Arnold a "compassionate libertarian." That may or may not be an accurate or useful description. But in the brief shining moment when Arnold was a possible candidate, what seemed clear was that unlike most mainstream politicians, he would have spent little time focusing government attention on lifestyle issues. Consider what he told The New York Times in 1976 regarding gay issues: "When it comes to sex, I don't give a shit what anyone's trip is." And, as Andrews points out, he followed that statement with this one in Cosmopolitan, "I have no sexual standards in my head that say this is good or this is bad. 'Homosexual'—that only means to me that he enjoys sex with a man and I enjoy sex with a woman… it's all legitimate to me."

Such candor and tolerance—such benign neglect—from a major officeholder would have had a hugely salutary effect on American politics. Sadly, that happy possibility has now passed from the scene and, like Arnold's 1992 directorial effort, Christmas in Connecticut, is rapidly fading from memory.