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Former governor gains fans abroad

Schwarzenegger is strikingly absent from California politics, but global climate-change activists laud him.

June 26, 2013|James Rainey and Mark Z. Barabak
  • Former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger embraces Jeffrey Bleich, U.S. ambassador to Australia, during a three-day visit to that country earlier this month. Schwarzenegger's drive to reinvent himself has had more success abroad than at home.
Former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger embraces Jeffrey Bleich,… (Rob Griffith, Associated…)

The vibe had to feel familiar to Arnold Schwarzenegger. Crowds flocked to his nationwide tour. A head of state staged a joint photo op, then sat for a little policy chitchat over breakfast. "Buff, bronzed and presidential" one news site declared of California's erstwhile governator, adding that he "has his sights set on the Oval Office."

There's no chance of that right now, owing to the constitutional ban on immigrants becoming president. Still, Schwarzenegger's recent environmental tour reanimated, in a small way, the elation of 2003, when he swept into the governor's office in an unprecedented recall election.

A lot of people back then embraced the idea that a political neophyte and movie action hero could straighten out the "girlie-men" in Sacramento he derided, and maybe, one day, remold the wastrels who labor along the Potomac as well.

But it was telling that, 10 years on, the adulation emanated far from home, during a three-day sojourn to Australia. In California, Schwarzenegger's rehabilitation remains a work in progress, as he faces the legacy of his volatile adventure in Sacramento -- which left a mountain of debt -- and an outsized personal failure that destroyed his high-profile marriage.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, June 27, 2013 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Arnold Schwarzenegger: In the June 26 Section A, an article about former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's support abroad on climate-change issues said that he was the first Republican to win statewide office since 1998. In fact, Republican Steve Poizner was elected Insurance Commissioner in 2006.

Two years after leaving office, Schwarzenegger is hailed by climate-change activists who praise the groundbreaking work he did to limit California's carbon emissions. Supporters say he set the standard for state and local governments to act when national leaders refuse. A group of U.N. correspondents last year named him "global advocate of the year."

But he is strikingly absent from the political action of his home state -- unlike the two previous GOP governors -- and is a pariah to his state's Republican Party. A move into academia -- via a $20-million pledge that created an institute in his name at USC -- has drawn praise but also skepticism and resentment on campus.

His divorce from Maria Shriver is expected to be finalized this summer. His last movie, which opened in January, limped to one of the worst openings ever for a Schwarzenegger vehicle.

At 65, the former governor is seeking to reinvent himself the way he has before, from bodybuilder to actor to governor: in a flurry of movement. He announced recently that he would again play the title role in the fifth "Terminator" movie, a franchise that has brought in more than $1 billion at the box office and, some in Hollywood believe, still packs a wallop.

He was in Brussels on Monday, where the European Union invited him to deliver a global warming speech to 1,500 European mayors. In Algeria on Tuesday, he signed an accord with the government to open an office of his nonprofit R20, which, among other things, hopes to shift the North African nation from trash burning to recycling.

"You look back at his life story, he's someone you can't ever count out," said Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and former White House advisor for President Bill Clinton, who staged the kind of comeback from personal scandal that Schwarzenegger hopes to emulate.

When he left office at the start of 2011, Schwarzenegger suffered among the lowest approval ratings ever recorded for a California governor. Confidence in his abilities had tanked as he and the state limped through a series of economic crises, triggered in part by the nationwide recession.

His reputation took a further drubbing after revelations that he had carried on an affair with his housekeeper -- which produced a son -- while living under the same roof as Shriver and their children. A Field Poll released in June 2011 found that three-quarters of registered voters had an unfavorable view of Schwarzenegger. Just 20% viewed him favorably.

A major component in Schwarzenegger's hoped-for resurgence is the USC Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy. Its namesake pledged to pay or raise the $20 million to fund the think tank. He spoke loftily at its September kickoff about advancing "post-partisanship" and pressing leaders to act courageously.

The institute hosted an April symposium on immigration reform -- drawing two U.S. senators and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, among others, to discuss the need to move a bill through Congress. Another conference brought in experts to discuss the implications of climate change.

Schwarzenegger's former senior advisor and secretary of education, Bonnie Reiss, runs the institute day to day. Schwarzenegger has dropped in on a handful of classes. At a recent course on post-partisan problem solving, he showed up when students presented their final projects.

Jack Knott, who oversees the institute as dean of the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy, said he has been "pleasantly surprised and pleased" by Schwarzenegger's level of engagement. Others have been less impressed.

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