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Restless Journalists Get Pumped Up

Even a colleague is interviewed as they wait for the candidate to speak at an L.A. hotel. Eventually, they get to question him.

August 21, 2003|James Rainey and Joe Mathews | Times Staff Writers

The morning that the campaign press corps had been waiting for began long before the 10 a.m. start time.

The lobby of the Westin hotel near Los Angeles International Airport seemed as quiet as a Wednesday morning might be. But around the corner, outside Grand Ballroom A, the corridor rumbled with the anticipation of about 160 journalists from around the world.

Twenty-nine television cameras, dozens of still photographers and scores of print journalists had arrived, all prepared to try to prod Arnold Schwarzenegger, the actor who would be governor, into answering questions about taxes, program cuts and the direction of the California economy.

By the time Schwarzenegger finally arrived, about 20 minutes late, he was facing more than four times the number of reporters who showed up later in the day to see Peter V. Ueberroth, the former commissioner of Major League Baseball who is also running.

Schwarzenegger beamed, nodded ever so slightly toward the cameras and then ushered his two "chief economic advisors" -- former Secretary of State George P. Shultz and billionaire investor Warren Buffett -- into the ballroom for his economic summit. In 20 seconds, the television moment was over, but the news crews had the "B-roll" they would need to talk about Schwarzenegger on the nightly news.

For the press corps, there was no time to dawdle. Too many of their colleagues were already rushing down the hallway to stake out the best positions in the conference room where Schwarzenegger had promised to emerge two hours later to answer questions.

Soon, the media had descended on Barbara Gasser, a reporter for Kleine Zeitung, the newspaper from Schwarzenegger's home province of Styria, Austria. Before long, she was doing stand-ups, telling radio and television reporters that her country is proud of the journey of the farm boy from the village of Thal.

"We are surprised and also very happy," Gasser said, "because he always says that he comes from Austria and from a small village.... He shows everybody that they can do it too, even when they have obstacles to overcome."

Some in the press corps disapproved. "Reporters interviewing other reporters. Give me a break!" hissed one.

As the economic conference stretched on behind closed doors, a few curious reporters noticed a colleague, a woman in neatly arranged pearls toting a tiny digital camera.

Teagan Clive said she had known Schwarzenegger from their days working out at the World Gym in Venice. The actor had persuaded her some years ago to get off steroids.

Now, Clive said, she was reporting for Ironman magazine and planned to track the "inside" details on the candidate, right down to his diet on the campaign trail.

"Arnold is the modern-day king," Clive said. "He is an outsider. He is strong. He is blunt and shoots from the hip." Those traits are to be admired, she said, in a politically correct society that has sapped many men of their true power.

Clive said she hoped to meet the other candidates to assess their credentials as well. "I might," she concluded with a grin, "want to take a tape measurer to that Cruz Bustamante's stomach."

Finally, after repeated delays, which set some members of the media to whistling the theme from "Jeopardy," Schwarzenegger entered, again grinning. He answered about 10 questions and made it amply clear that he was in charge: A radio reporter should hold her microphone closer to her mouth, he said; another journalist had to stop interrupting; Shultz and Buffett should move just so, for the shutterbugs on the far side of the room.

The journalists got some of what they wanted: Schwarzenegger does not like new taxes but would not rule them out entirely. He would cut programs but might not say which ones until later.

And the candidate seemed to get a lot of what he wanted too: Of course he could work with Democrats, because he and his wife, Maria Shriver, a Democrat, are a great team; yes, he would balance a budget, because he had even taught his 6-year-old how important that was; no, he wouldn't worry about anyone else's plans, because when he was in the gym pumping iron, he cared only about increasing his own strength.

When he mock-threatened Buffett with "500 sit-ups" if he spoke out again about Proposition 13, a TV producer laughed and clapped.

Then, Schwarzenegger aide Sean Walsh declared the time had come for one last question. The candidate responded by pivoting toward a reporter from "Entertainment Tonight."

What role, she wanted to know, would actor Rob Lowe play in the campaign?

As the other reporters moaned and hissed, Schwarzenegger began his response: "It's interesting," he said, "and a very good question."

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