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So Familiar Yet So Unknown

October 08, 2003|Joe Mathews | Times Staff Writer

Californians have never known more about a new governor. We've seen him naked on screen. We know about the Nazi father, the celebrity journalist wife, the bodybuilding titles and the crude behavior toward women. We have seen him in theaters, fallen asleep to his voice on television and imitated his accent.

Californians have never known less about a new governor. We've never seen him hold office. We don't know what programs he'll cut, how he'll balance the budget, how he'll negotiate with recalcitrant legislators or how he'll manage the state's bureaucracy.

Lawyers, business people, doctors, even actors leave behind their professions for politics. Arnold Schwarzenegger -- at various times the most physically developed man in the world, Hollywood's most famous actor and soon the 38th governor of California -- has made the switch too, with one critical difference. He is bringing his lifetime of personas, real and fictional, with him to office.

Schwarzenegger, who built his career on changing shape, could claim during his campaign to be just about anything. When talking about his strength in handling a challenge, he was the seven-time world champion in bodybuilding; on the Oprah Winfrey and Howard Stern television shows, an entertainer; to Central Valley alfalfa growers, a farm boy from Austria; to the California Chamber of Commerce, a businessman and investor; in East Los Angeles, a fellow hard-working immigrant.

"He really is six different personalities," said his friend, the fitness entrepreneur Augie Nieto.

Schwarzenegger has never considered his true profession to be muscleman or actor or entrepreneur. Ask the new governor, and he'll tell you we've elected a salesman. His life, as he has told it in interviews and books over the last 25 years, is the story of a man who could sell anything -- and has.

He has sold T-shirts, tank tops, weightlifting belts, gym bags, exercise videos, weights, bricklaying services, bodybuilding for women, magazines, bicycles, motorcycles, Hummers, books, seminars, movies, German food, cigars, restaurants, real estate, malls, sports for inner-city children, after-school programs, Milton Friedman, Austria, the English language, the United States -- and above all, self-improvement. Politics, Schwarzenegger told The Times in his only campaign interview with the paper, "is challenging, it's refreshing, it's a learning experience. It enriches me."

Schwarzenegger is the first politician in American history to use the selling of a movie -- a worldwide promotional tour for "Terminator 3" -- as the warmup for a political campaign.

The details of bills and budgets are not of interest to him or voters, Schwarzenegger said. Being governor, he says, is another sales job. The product is California.

"I'm good at selling," he said. "I've always done it in my whole life, and I will do it again in this campaign and as governor."

Schwarzenegger's campaign strategists have offered him up almost as the personification of California, an icon, postcard ready. "Imagine having this guy as a personal magnet, drawing people and investment to California," said Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas), who is expected to head Schwarzenegger's transition team.

But what kind of a leader does a salesman make?

His campaign has offered few clues. And his multiple personas compound the difficulty of discerning his intentions. When he talks about "terminating" the budget deficit or pledges to "kick some butt" in Sacramento, what does he mean? Is he playing the "Terminator" or is he himself?

It hasn't helped that Schwarzenegger, ever tuned to the public's wishes, seems deaf to contradiction. Lastly, he sees himself less as a fixed character than as a piece of clay that he can work into nearly any form.

"That's the way I always see my life. It's a big play," he told Esquire magazine earlier this year.

In one of his films, Schwarzenegger plays a man whose name, life and even memories appear not to be entirely his own, a sort of sci-fi existential crisis. "If I'm not me," he asks in the film, "who the hell am I?"

The movie's name?

"Total Recall."

Grow Big First

In the 1890s, a Prussian strongman named Eugen Sandow immigrated to Britain. Promoted by Florenz Ziegfeld, he traveled the world, got rich, dated starlets and, proud of his mind as well, was named professor of scientific physical culture to King Edward VII. Sandow helped revive the Greek ideal and among those who followed in his footsteps was Arnold Schwarzenegger.

In his "New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding," Schwarzenegger writes that we have muscles because of gravity. With big muscles, he said, a man can do anything.

As a bodybuilder, his strategy was "to build the mass first" -- he swelled up to more than 240 pounds -- become as big as possible and later use exercises to "chisel it down to get the quality."

That philosophy was born of his admiration for strength and has guided him since: Grow big first, then refine your image.

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