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Gov.'s `voice' is a word watcher

Schwarzenegger spokesman Adam Mendelsohn takes no chances as the custodian of his boss' public image.

February 05, 2007|Peter Nicholas | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Forty seconds into an interview, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's official spokesman decides it is too risky to speak -- at least for publication.

The topic seems safe enough: Adam Mendelsohn's boyhood interest in politics. But some hyper-cautious instinct asserts itself, warning that an answer might prove embarrassing to him, his boss or the administration.

So it goes with the 32-year-old political operative who is now the public face of the Schwarzenegger administration, the aide with custody of the governor's image.

After an hour and a half, Mendelsohn has insisted on anonymity 47 times. Among the few points he deems suitable for public consumption: His wife is "a saint," the governor a man with "a command of ideas."

In the battle to present Schwarzenegger in the most advantageous light possible, Mendelsohn takes no chances. A stray bit of candor could undermine the vetted sound bites and images meant to communicate the governor's positions precisely and minimize any chance of political backlash.

With Schwarzenegger beginning a new term, Mendelsohn is going beyond an insistence on rhetorical discipline, assembling perhaps the most aggressive communications shop the California governor's office has ever seen.

He has assigned an aide and several interns to a new office in the Capitol devoted to monitoring everything being written, spoken, televised and blogged about the governor. Open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., the room is equipped with four TVs and the same number of computers. Mendelsohn calls it the Newsroom, though around the governor's office it is known as something else: the War Room.

The aim is a "rapid response" capability -- something First Lady Maria Shriver had privately complained was lacking in her husband's administration. It was Shriver who recruited Mendelsohn, luring him from a consulting firm in Washington on the recommendation of the governor's 2006 campaign manager, Steve Schmidt.

Schwarzenegger is making a big bet on Mendelsohn, who has brought campaign tactics to the everyday business of pushing the governor's policy agenda.

The spokesman came to the job with a resume thin on political triumphs. Beginning as a UCLA student, he worked for a string of Republican candidates for legislative, congressional or statewide office, all of whom lost.

His first boss was former state Assemblyman Paul Horcher, a Republican who was recalled from office after backing Willie Brown, a Democrat, in the 1994 vote for speaker.

Last month Schwarzenegger, who occasionally smokes cigars with Mendelsohn, rewarded him with a $75,000 bonus -- paid out of campaign donations -- for political work Mendelsohn said he did in his off hours in last year's race. He was one of four state aides to get such a bonus.

Communications "is 80% of the whole game," said Mendelsohn's direct boss, chief of staff Susan Kennedy. "You can be as competent, you can be as good and focused as you want to be on policy issues. If you're not communicating your message, it doesn't matter."

Plenty of forces threaten to undermine Schwarzenegger's message, as Mendelsohn sees it.

One is Schwarzenegger. Left unchaperoned, the governor tends to be blunt and off-the-cuff -- a habit that Mendelsohn concedes worries him.

At 6 feet 2, freckle-faced and balding, Mendelsohn is an unmistakable presence at Schwarzenegger's news conferences, often standing to one side with a slightly queasy look suggesting that -- like virtually everyone else in the room -- he has no idea what the impulsive governor is about to uncork.

When fistfights broke out two months ago at the inauguration of Mexico's president, Schwarzenegger, a guest at the ceremony, told reporters it was "good action."

Schwarzenegger's press office later made an unsolicited call to reporters to explain what the governor meant. Though reports from the scene described politicians hurling chairs at one another, the press aide said Schwarzenegger was applauding people "who passionately believe in democracy."

Another threat comes from the Internet. A rising band of bloggers devoted to the Sacramento political scene are now chewing over the governor's every move, posting information and opinion in real time.

"I work for a governor who is very much in the public eye, who is constantly a source of intrigue for people," Mendelsohn said in an interview in his office, where a baseball bat rests against his desk; his wife asked him to remove it from their home to avoid a "college dorm feel," he says. "You have a lot of different people blogging and speculating about this governor."

Every day, Schwarzenegger aides working at Mendelsohn's direction scan the Internet and TV news for mentions of the administration, then e-mail their findings to the senior staff. If Mendelsohn sees something he doesn't like, he pushes back hard.

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