Total Recall: My Unbelievably True Life Story”
By Arnold Schwarzenegger
Simon & Schuster 2012
By A.G. Block
Say, kids, I recently spent a fantastic week in the company of Arnold Schwarzenegger, a former tank driver in the Austrian Army. Schwarzenegger, who some time ago moved from the Alps to Brentwood, published an “unbelievably true life story” this fall, and it was my responsibility to worry through it on behalf of Capitol Weekly.
First, critics dismissed the book as “light.” Beg to differ. A 646-page hardback is not light. In fact, FedEx used a forklift to dump it on the porch, and it took a team of Clydesdales to drag it through the front door. That said, it is ironic that a celebrity whose fame grew from bulk and muscle should produce a memoir so lacking bulk and muscle. The images sprayed into it amount to autobiographical graffiti; “profound” was not a priority.
To be sure, Schwarzenegger traveled an extraordinary road, lined with multiple triumphs, any one of which might have satisfied a more modest appetite. As an athlete, he was named “Mr. Olympia” a record six times, his charisma both tonic and toxin to bodybuilding as serious competitive sport. As an actor, he won a Golden Globe in his first film and later became an internationally recognized action hero who created one of the most memorable characters in film history – “The Terminator.” As a businessman, he combined instinct, risk-taking, and relentless salesmanship to accumulate a financial portfolio that rivals the Nabob of Hyderabad. As a politician, he was twice elected governor of California. You do not put this assortment of plaques on your wall unless you are smart, flexible, seriously focused and manically driven.
So, he probably thought it natural that the only scribe capable of doing justice to the Schwarzenegger epic was – well – Schwarzenegger. As a chronicler of self, he shares his relatively simple formula for success: choose a goal, work your fanny off, and allow nothing to distract you. Throughout the book, he exposes the circuits and wiring of moviemaking, bodybuilding and business investment, describing in chapter after chapter how each of his careers evolved and revealing the genius that led to his success. He revels in detail to explain how he climbed each mountaintop, even digressing at one point to describe the method for rolling a fine Cuban cigar.
There is one lapse in this attention to detail: He provides little insight about his career as a politician. Here, as other reviewers have noted, he breezes along the surface of his term as “The Governator,” offering nothing of value at precisely the point when he might help us appreciate how government works and why it sometimes fails. As a result, he squanders a chance to serve the broader public interest.
In the end, the monument he chisels to himself is less than flattering.
Start with people – you know, the rest of humanity. For Schwarzenegger, they seem to fall into three categories: goals, assets and props. Sometimes, a person is all three at once; most notably, his wife, Maria Shriver. He can be generous in praise of those who helped him along the way but also ruthlessly pragmatic. Soon after “Conan the Barbarian” made him a star, for instance, he dumped his agent, Larry Kubik, because he wasn’t “big enough.”
In the end, the adjectives that sketch his personality and approach to life are “self-absorbed,” “rash,” “reactive,” “cunning,” “secretive,” “deceitful,” “cowardly,” “indifferent,” and “reckless.” On the other hand, he also can be generous, hard-working, fun-loving, enthusiastic, curious, self-deprecating, optimistic, confident, and willing to honor business commitments if not personal ones. It’s a complex stew, which he concedes.
Although a jumble of contradictions, Schwarzenegger’s behavior is consistent on one point: He is dependably thoughtless when it comes to people. He is impulsive, careening from “oops” to “oops” as though life is a game of bumper cars. The consequences are fraught with collateral damage and, throughout the book, he applies the phrase “in hindsight” like an herbalist might smear aloe on an oven burn. Supreme among the carnage is the wreckage of his marriage to Shriver, to which he devotes the penultimate chapter, “The Secret.” That oft-reported misfortune need not be related here.
Focus, instead, on another episode that underscores the same “it’s about me” mind-set: the 1980 Mr. Olympia contest in Sydney, Australia. At the time, he had retired from the sport to devote himself to movies, but a pre-production delay for “Conan” gave him the chance to vie for his sixth title. To prepare himself, he accelerated his training regimen under the noses of other competitors, deceiving them with the ruse that he was staying in shape for “Conan.” When he arrived in Sydney, it was under the guise that he had been hired as a commentator for CBS Sports. Instead, he ripped off his blazer and jumped into the fray, pressuring officials to bend the rules to allow him to compete and infuriating other contenders – many of whom were longtime friends. He won the title but at a price. “In hindsight,” he confesses, his ego-driven quest nearly destroyed competitive bodybuilding. A few friends didn’t speak to him for years.
One cannot deny that Schwarzenegger enjoyed remarkable success in nearly every arena he sought to master, and it is no surprise that the exception is politics and public affairs. In politics, fame is not a cudgel to get your way; impulsive behavior is not an asset but a liability. Bodybuilding, movies, even real estate ventures are escapades that bring personal gratification, fame and/or wealth. Politics is a team sport and, based on the thin gruel in this book, Schwarzenegger doesn’t seem wired to be a team player.
Schwarzenegger’s growing interest in politics was motivated, he writes, by his living the American dream as an immigrant in the late 1960s and by his professed frustration with government’s inability to solve persistent problems. Since he thinks of himself as the take-charge action hero, what better way to fix politics than to take charge? After all, a well-placed blast from a flamethrower can make even the most pigheaded foe more pliable.
Schwarzenegger’s entry into politics was made easier by fame, novelty, romance, and wealth from his business ventures. They allowed elbow-rubbing with, among others, Milton Friedman, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush. A capitalist, entrepreneur and investor, he naturally gravitated to the Republican Party, even though he found himself at odds with significant chunks of its agenda (environment, tolerance for gays, immigration, abortion). His ambitions also were fueled and encouraged by his wife’s decidedly Democratic family, especially Eunice and Sargent Shriver and Ted Kennedy who embodied the principle of giving back through public service.
The future governor’s route to Sacramento began in Washington, D.C., where Bush One named him “fitness czar,” providing a national platform and invitations to Camp David.
The leap from appointee to politician burst fully formed in his mind, much like Venus rising from the shell. Nor was he modest about his ambitions; he was no Clint Eastwood, elected mayor of tiny Carmel. Schwarzenegger shot for the top: governor of California, and he toyed with the notion of running in 2002 – plans derailed by a commitment to “Terminator 3.” Instead in 2002, he roiled the political cauldron with a statewide initiative, Proposition 49. The measure funded after-school programs and was the kind of ballot-box budgeting that later would haunt him as governor. At the time, however, organizing the Prop 49 effort put him in touch with political pros associated with former Governor Pete Wilson, and they tutored him in statewide campaigns. When Prop 49 passed, he took home a goody bag stuffed with political dreams.
The ideal opportunity to run for governor hove into view much sooner than Schwarzenegger anticipated and in a way that avoided the rat’s nest of a Republican primary – which he may not have won given his less-than-gospely outlook on social issues. The break was the 2003 recall against Democratic Governor Gray Davis. Schwarzenegger grabbed at the ring over the very heated objections of his wife. Eventually, he writes, Maria came around, although Schwarzenegger doesn’t say why she gave in other than her mother told her not to hold him back. Apparently, that was enough for Maria, who nonetheless remained conflicted about his candidacy. Her inner turmoil ran deep, and while Schwarzenegger acknowledges it, he was too enchanted with the notion to bow out.
Once he entered the race – famously, on the “Jay Leno Show” – two inevitable conclusions emerged from the chaos of that campaign: Davis was going down and Schwarzenegger would succeed him.
So, Schwarzenegger added governor of California to his list of accomplishments. And here, the book fades as a useful narrative, mostly because the author no longer offers much substance and raises the suspicion that Schwarzenegger as governor was the center of attention but not always the center of action. Three notable examples: workers’ compensation reform of 2004, the 2005 special election, and negotiations over the 2009-2010 state budget. In each case, Schwarzenegger and the Democratic-controlled Legislature butted heads, but the book only casts light on workers’ comp.
Schwarzenegger came into office with heavy backing from the business community, especially the California Chamber of Commerce, and he wielded this ally like a nightstick when tackling workers’ compensation reform in 2004. According to Schwarzenegger, he had his business buddies draft an initiative to overhaul the workers’ comp system, and then used the threat of that initiative to bully Democrats into negotiating reform more or less on his terms. He recalls how, when discussions bogged down, he toured the state, using his fame to drum up signatures for the initiative – as though it was the next “Terminator” movie.
The threat of an initiative was nothing new in California politics, but this time the guy wielding the club was not a typical politician but an infinitely popular novelty act with an enormous reservoir of energy. The ploy softened up Democrats who preferred a negotiated deal with the governor to an initiative crammed down their throats by the business community. After the compromise was done, the initiative itself was abandoned. Not so the threat of an initiative, a weapon now firmly embedded in Schwarzenegger’s political arsenal.
With the recall and workers’ comp in his trophy case, Schwarzenegger’s approval ratings soared. So, too, did his hubris.
In politics, the fusion of popularity and undisciplined self-esteem is a formula for disaster, and so it was with “Ahnold.” The trip-wire was the 2004 budget, with its multi-billion gap between revenue and expenditures. Schwarzenegger wanted to seal that gap by imposing permanent spending cuts rather than raise taxes, but legislative Democrats sought to protect programs that served their constituencies, notably labor and the poor. In the ensuing melee, the governor’s swagger increased and his criticism of lawmakers intensified. In a TV interview, he complained that Democrats were too much in the thrall of greedy special interests.
Warming to his subject, he called them “girlie men.”
“In hindsight,” he regretted the remark, admitting that “it was stupid to antagonize the legislators.”
But battle lines had been gouged in the sand. Emboldened by his success over workers’ comp, Schwarzenegger rolled the initiative dice again in 2005 in an effort to impose his will on a variety of reforms. This time Democrats stiffened, forcing Schwarzenegger to carry through with his threat. He and his business allies put five initiatives before voters in a special election he called for November 2005. In the process, he took on – “enraged” might be the more accurate word – some of the most powerful interests in Sacramento: teachers, nurses, firefighters, and public employee unions.
Still, Schwarzenegger writes, he tried hard to avoid a ballot confrontation, working “behind the scenes” with then-Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) to hammer out a deal that might avoid the special election. Those negotiations, he insisted, almost succeeded, but he and Nunez ran out of time. In this case, “time” meant the deadline for placing initiatives on the ballot.
“Fabian and I were close to a deal,” he writes. “But two things stood in the way.” One of those “things” – labor – was reluctant, “even though I was willing to meet them more than halfway.” The other “thing” was his staff, which didn’t trust labor.
Those words would be the place to start – not to finish – writing about the special election. What, for instance, does Schwarzenegger mean by “more than halfway?” What advice was he given, and by whom? Did a voice of sanity cry from inside his circle of his close advisors? How close did he and Nunez get to a compromise? What was each side giving up? In the book, he expresses surprise that opponents – whose political power he sought to cripple – spent $150 million to defeat all five. Why was he surprised?
Schwarzenegger leaves us groping for answers because – at this point – the book is nothing more than a frail skeleton, insight having withered away. This is especially significant because every one of his initiatives lost at the polls, shredding his political stature. Although humbled, he subsequently rebuilt enough political cache to be re-elected in 2006, but his reputation – and his clout – never recovered.
The same lack of insight “informs” passages devoted to the 2009-2010 budget. The ultimate result of this quarrel was a compromise acceptable to no one. Yet, he writes:
“In fact, the financial crisis made necessary the biggest and most difficult deal of my political career. After months of grueling negotiations, late one night in February 2009, we finally agreed on a budget.” Both Republicans and Democrats, he continues, had to make concessions – welfare reform, union furloughs, tax increases. “I coaxed legislative leaders of both parties to go along with me, and they all paid a price.”
That’s it, kids. At this point, readers know more about rolling Cuban cigars than about a significant chapter in California history. Schwarzenegger could guide us through this difficult confrontation but instead wastes an opportunity to be more revealing. Where did legislative Republicans begin these negotiations? Where did Democrats begin? How did they inch toward a compromise, and what was his role in that process? He “coaxed … leaders.” How did that work? The political careers of Republican leaders Dave Cogdill (Senate) and Mike Villines (Assembly) were on the line. After the deal was announced, both were ousted by ideological grumps in their respective caucuses. Schwarzenegger brings this up but offers no specifics about the “coaxing” that persuaded Cogdill and Villines to fall on their swords. He doesn’t even mention that their courage earned the two Republicans (along with their Democratic counterparts, Darrell Steinberg and Karen Bass) the 2010 “Profile in Courage” Award from the John F. Kennedy Library. (Conspicuously, Schwarzenegger himself did not share the award.)
As governor, Schwarzenegger was full of big ideas, big reforms. During the recall, he campaigned on the notion of “blowing up boxes” in Sacramento, of ending business as usual, and one paragraph toward the end summarizes his big ideas – climate change, budget and tax reform, pension reform, workers’ comp reform, health care reform. But he doesn’t define them or explain how to bring them to life. It’s as though the mere mention of climate change lends gravitas to his legacy, like his friendship with Mikhail Gorbachev.
Skilled public servants master nuance. Yet when he writes about politics, Schwarzenegger ignores the “small” maneuvers that often nudge a negotiation in a particular direction. The Kennedys understood this level of politics, especially his beloved Teddy. So, too, did his political mentor, Pete Wilson. Just after the recall, Schwarzenegger, too, seemed to appreciate it. When, for example, then-Speaker Herb Wesson held a small, farewell reception for reporters, Schwarzenegger dropped in unannounced to thank Wesson for his help during the early days of his governorship. It is not an incident Schwarzenegger felt important enough to mention, even as an illustration. Perhaps, over time, Schwarzenegger lost interest in the humdrum of politics, where success is measured in small steps and big schemes often are whittled down to stubs. Again, he doesn’t write about it.
Of course, not every minor gesture works to your advantage. There was, for instance, the action that branded an unsightly blotch onto his hide – commuting a prison sentence for the son of political ally Fabian Nunez. Esteban Nunez had been convicted as an accomplice in the stabbing death of a San Diego college student and given 16 years in state prison. The day before he left office, Schwarzenegger reduced that sentence to seven years. Unfortunately, he failed to inform prosecutors or the victim’s family. The governor was universally flogged over this “gesture,” but the book doesn’t mention it. Despite its significance, the commutation does not rise to the level where, “in hindsight,” he might explain it.
Although Schwarzenegger drops kudos on many people spread across his varied activities, there are a few Capitol-related oversights:
- John Burton, Democratic leader of the state Senate and the most powerful legislator in California during Schwarzenegger’s first tenuous months in office, is mentioned only in passing. Yet without Burton’s early help, Schwarzenegger would have foundered.
- Mike Genest, director of the Department of Finance throughout most of Schwarzenegger’s tenure, does not even rate a footnote. Genest, a nuts-and-bolts guy, was the governor’s point person on the budget.
- Allan Zaremberg, president of the California Chamber of Commerce, was one of the most influential voices in the early days of Schwarzenegger’s administration. Nicht.
The Schwarzenegger epic is not over. He has returned to movies, beating to a pulp a new generation of punks and poltroons. He also has established the Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy at the University of Southern California. It’s another big idea with a big agenda, offering him a voice on the international stage. The challenge will be to attract an audience that takes him seriously.
“Total Recall” highlights an extraordinary life. Admire him or not, Schwarzenegger has accomplished much in his 65 years. But overall, his memoir is too much like one of his action movies – an amusement that promotes the star and entertains in the here-and-now. In the broader scheme of things, it can be dismissed because it highlights frivolous aspects of Schwarzenegger’s career while skimming over his public service.
Perhaps, as a colleague suggested, it should have been called “Selective Recall: Most of My Unbelievably True Story.” — Ed’s Note: A.G. Block is associate director of the University of California Center Sacramento. From 1983 to 2005, he was an editor at California Journal magazine.