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THE RECALL CAMPAIGN

Schwarzenegger's Risky Defense: He Stretched Truth

September 22, 2003|Joe Mathews | Times Staff Writer

The campaign seems to have internalized this philosophy in dealing with a variety of stories from his past. When confronted with a 1977 interview in which Schwarzenegger described sex involving several body builders and one woman at a gym, the candidate first said he didn't remember the specific interview. Then he said he had made the story up.

More recently, a 1981 Schwarzenegger appearance on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson surfaced. Schwarzenegger, who had gone on the show to promote "Conan the Barbarian," described a business scheme he said he had engaged in when he was working as a bricklayer after the 1971 San Fernando earthquake.

He and a bodybuilding friend would visit potential customers, he said, and while he was talking to them, the friend would go up on the roof and surreptitiously lean on chimneys to break them. The two would then get the contract to do the repairs.

When the story resurfaced, Rob Stutzman, a campaign spokesman, dismissed Schwarzenegger's account as "shtick" -- a view borne out by friends who suggest the actor's bricklaying business was more useful as a source of lore than a real concern.

Schwarzenegger's campaign touts his experience as a bricklayer in a Spanish-language advertisement. "Arnold Schwarzenegger, like so many of us, came to this country with a dream. He began working in construction, laying bricks," the advertisement says.

But until he became a permanent U.S. resident in 1974, Schwarzenegger was in the United States on visas that allowed him to work as an athlete -- a bodybuilder -- not a bricklayer. Asked this week by reporters from the San Jose Mercury News if Schwarzenegger's bricklaying work violated his visa status, campaign officials defended his actions, but also said that at least some of the candidate's previous accounts of his work experience had been exaggerated.

That marked the second time the campaign had denied some of Schwarzenegger's autobiographical statements relating to his visa status.

Last week, Democrats criticized Schwarzenegger for saying in his 1977 autobiography that, when he first came to the United States in 1968, he took a "salary" from Joe Weider, a bodybuilding promoter. At the time, Schwarzenegger held a B-1 visa, which prohibits its holder from collecting a salary from an American company.

The legal point is a fine one. Schwarzenegger never ran afoul of immigration authorities, and Los Angeles immigration attorney Alan Diamante points out that B-1 visa holders can work and receive money for their expenses -- just not salaries.

But rather than basing their defense entirely on that argument, campaign officials also dismissed the autobiography, "Arnold: The Education of a Bodybuilder," as another example of Schwarzenegger's promotional efforts that can't be taken at face value.

There are some parallels in political history for Schwarzenegger's strategy, said Arnold Steinberg, a Republican strategist who does not work for a candidate in the recall election.

Lawyers-turned-candidates have had to disavow the views of past clients, and onetime political aides have distanced themselves from their bosses when they themselves run for office.

Actors have gotten the benefit of the doubt on issues before. When Nelson Rockefeller ran for president in 1964, his divorce was an issue; when Ronald Reagan ran for governor of California two years later, his divorce never came up, in part "because Reagan was an actor, and it was a totally different standard," Steinberg says.

"In a normal campaign, I think this approach might be dangerous ground," Steinberg said. "But in this campaign, where you have a short election window and the media coverage is so surface, it's an ingenious approach."

GOP strategist Dan Schnur said he expects "voters are going to give him more of a pass than other candidates because intuitively they understand that this career switch puts different demands on him."

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