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Schwarzenegger, party of one

September 03, 2006|Joe Mathews | JOE MATHEWS, a Times staff writer, is the author of "The People's Machine: Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Rise of Blockbuster Democracy."

IN THE AUSTRIA of Arnold Schwarzenegger's youth, small institutions such as clubs, pubs and even gyms often affiliated with one of the leading political parties -- the Social Democrats, commonly called the reds, or the conservative Austrian People's Party, known as the blacks. With little money in private hands, groups needed the parties for funds.

In his hometown of Thal, a teenage Schwarzenegger seemed to hold opinions in line with the Social Democrats. His longtime schoolmate Peter Urdl, now the mayor, recalls listening to Schwarzenegger express admiration for Bruno Kreisky, the Social Democrat foreign minister who had traveled to the United States, talked politics with the Kennedys and would become chancellor.

Whatever his real sympathies were, Schwarzenegger began working out in a gym funded by the blacks. As a gym regular, he was officially a member of the youth weightlifting team of the Austrian People's Party. He pumped iron for Austria's version of the Republicans. He has been, at least nominally, a Republican ever since.

But is California's governor really a closet Democrat? The question has been raised by journalists and conservative critics, who never tire of taking note of Schwarzenegger's politically assertive wife, his hiring of Democratic aides, his liberal social values, his championing of public works projects and, of late, his compromises with the Legislature's Democratic leadership on a minimum-wage hike, mandatory prescription drug discounts and a measure to fight global warming.

To attempt to answer that question is not to end a conversation but to begin it. Schwarzenegger routinely sides with business and asserts quasi-libertarian views on individual freedom. But the governor, reflecting something inherent in his nature, has always gravitated to people with whom he disagrees. Time and again, he has crossed borders and associated with groups whose experiences seem foreign to his own. In the process, he has made a virtue of not belonging.

Schwarzenegger prospered by coming to a country where he did not speak the language, by appearing in motion pictures despite the obstacles of accent and limited acting skills, and by switching mid-career from action roles to comedic ones that drew laughs in part because they didn't naturally suit him. He won the governorship in large part because he could present himself as an outsider to politics. Square pegs may not fit in round holes, but to his way of thinking, being a square peg puts you ahead of the game. Everyone notices you when you don't fit.

So, it fits that Schwarzenegger doesn't fit politically. Publicly and privately, he revels in the difficulty that pundits and political journalists have in describing him. When I pressed him on his philosophy, he said the man whose views have had the most lasting influence on him was Helmut Knaur, an anarchist who hung out with young bodybuilders around Thal. Knaur liked to say outrageous things and tried to teach English to Schwarzenegger by having him read copies of Playboy.

"He was a very important influence to inspire me to learn, to speak languages, to be more worldly," Schwarzenegger recalled. "He said, 'Think big.' "

When the governor attempts to describes his politics, he invariably turns to his giant life story, and with good reason. He is a Republican not by ideology but by biography. The oft-told story of how he heard Richard Nixon during the 1968 presidential campaign and declared himself a Republican often misses the point. Schwarzenegger was not primarily attracted to Nixon but to the Republican message of individual freedom, which sounded completely different from anything he'd heard in Austria. The Republicans did not sound like the kind of party that would make you join before they let you use their gym.

Austrian social democracy, he believed, limited the horizons of many of his friends. By age 18, in Schwarzenegger's telling, his classmates were seeking to line up government jobs with pensions. A key mentor lined up Schwarzenegger for the job of head lifeguard at the biggest swimming pool in the city of Graz. "I didn't want a safety net," Schwarzenegger said.

His own life has taught him again and again that personal connections trump ideological commitment. His most persistent political booster has been his mother-in-law, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, a Democratic icon and sister of President Kennedy. She persuaded President George H.W. Bush to appoint Schwarzenegger as the nation's fitness czar despite misgivings about elevating a movie star who had used steroids and loved cigars.

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