Travels with Arnold  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   February/March 2005

Travels with Arnold   

Covering Arnold Schwarzenegger can be fascinating--and frustrating. The popular actor-turned-California-governor is a phenomenon, not simply a political figure. Critical stories that would cause big problems for most public officials are apt to find little traction outside the world of political insiders.

By Gary Delsohn & Margaret Talev
Gary Delsohn and Margaret Talev have covered Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger for the Sacramento Bee.           


At 4 o'clock one autumn afternoon in the throes of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's first bill-signing season, Gary Delsohn, a Sacramento Bee political reporter and coauthor of this article, answered his phone. The thick accent on the other end of the line was unmistakable.

It was Schwarzenegger, eager to chat at a time when he should have been too busy. Delsohn was working on a profile of Legislative Affairs Secretary Richard Costigan, Schwarzenegger's point man on the hundreds of bills the state Legislature was sending his way in a last-minute crush. The profile could go in any number of directions. Costigan's work ethic and intellect were respected across party lines, but Democrats were troubled by his background as a Chamber of Commerce lobbyist. The governor had decided the best way to influence the story's tone was to step in himself--and turn on his trademark Hollywood charm.

Delsohn asked Schwarzenegger how he was doing. "Fantastic, now that I hear your voice," Schwarzenegger said. "You really get me going." Giggles trickled across the other end of the line. The governor's staff was with him in the room.

"So tell me," Schwarzenegger said. "You guys know the slant you are going to take before you do any of the interviewing. Are you going to build him up or tear him down?" Delsohn played along. "Let's tear him down." "Well," said Schwarzenegger, "he's a total waste. I can tell you that." Then the governor spent another 15 minutes on the line, effusively praising Costigan.

At 57, still one of the most glamorous, recognizable men in the world, still fit from his regular workouts, Schwarzenegger doesn't so much interact with reporters as shadowbox with them. He flirts as easily with male reporters as with the women and revels in head games. We've been doing his dance since the summer of 2003, reading his books, watching his movies, studying lawsuits and financial disclosures and peeking into the parallel universe of bodybuilding. We've watched him with President Bush, interviewed his friends and business partners, his rivals and his admirers. We've also chased him across the globe (he does not take reporters with him on his private jets, so we fly commercial) on trips to Israel, Germany and Japan, and back and forth across the United States.

Each trip features the same phenomena: stampedes of autograph-seeking fans and packs of awestruck local media. Would any other politician be chased, as Schwarzenegger was during a trade mission to Tokyo, by more than 100 Japanese reporters shouting at him to flex his muscles and imploring him to yell out movie lines such as "I'll be back!" or "Hasta la vista, baby!"? And when the scrum of cameramen crowded in to record the start of a private meeting with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, Koizumi looked a bit overwhelmed, telling Schwarzenegger, "You're more popular than Bush."

That popularity, which transcends anything enjoyed by any other modern politician, makes Schwarzenegger both a fascinating and frustrating governor to cover. The hard-hitting reporting that would get a rise out of any other politician rarely elicits a reaction from the former actor, who is rich and famous enough not to care. So far, Schwarzenegger has done many of the things for which he criticized his bland predecessor, Democrat Gray Davis--taking millions of dollars in special-interest money and dodging tough budget choices--but stories about these contradictions have drawn little interest outside the state Capitol in Sacramento and California's small community of political aficionados.

During Schwarzenegger's first year in office, the California press corps and the national reporters who regularly write about him have developed a fuller picture of his political and ideological motivations. This immigrant from a small town in Austria, who came to the United States with only a physique and a dream, is one of politics' greatest showmen. A socially liberal capitalist and a serial exaggerator, he is an exceptional salesman with boundless energy who long ago traded in steroids for calcium supplements. He taps his persona with the moviegoing masses to leverage the fortunes of other politicians. But he hasn't, at least by the time this story went to press, risked that popularity for any major policy initiatives.

While he often keeps a distance from the California press corps, Schwarzenegger made clear his sense of his relationship with the media in a January 2004 speech to the Sacramento Press Club. "I wouldn't be here today if it weren't for the press," he told us. "I mean, think about it. When I first came over here, who the hell knew who Arnold Schwartzenschnitzel was, right? I mean, nobody."

His press coverage in the 1970s made bodybuilding a mainstream sport, he said. That attention turned him into the highest-paid actor in the business. "That doesn't mean I always got great reviews. As a matter of fact, I got horrible reviews many times," he said. "But that's OK... I got a lot of publicity." The same was true in his run for governor, he said. "It was really the press that helped me to get to the place where I am today."

As he spoke, reporters at the press luncheon fiddled with their rolls, faces flushed, wondering whether he was trying to humiliate them, or was he serious, or what? "Here's a big applause to all of you," he said.

Later, he took questions, starting with one from Mike Montgomery, a public radio reporter. "Let's start right here at the front, with this gentleman right here with the beautiful blue turtleneck sweater." Before Montgomery could begin, Schwarzenegger told the audience that a California state senator had given him some advice: "Always compliment the journalists. Always make them feel like they look good, they look sexy." Those who knew the state senator in question--a wry, somewhat shy conservative--also knew that Schwarzenegger had come up with that advice on his own.

Schwarzenegger is often compared to Ronald Reagan, another Hollywood actor who made it big in politics. But no previous politician, including Reagan, jumped into politics' highest ranks while his blockbuster film was still in theaters worldwide. "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines," showing during the 2003 California recall campaign, grossed $418.2 million at the box office, making it the 59th-biggest film of all time in terms of movie ticket sales, according to IMDb, an online movie database. That positioning is what makes Schwarzenegger such a powerhouse, so in demand from all corners of the journalism world, and such a challenge to cover day to day.

For California political reporters, particularly the print reporters, one of the central challenges has been satisfying readers' appetites for Schwarzenegger trivia (his love of Daniel Marshall cigars and his politically incorrect smoking tent at the Capitol; his claim that his wife, television journalist and Democrat Maria Shriver, froze him out of bed for two weeks as punishment for endorsing Bush) while monitoring his impact on national and international events and staying true to our mission of holding governors accountable for their decisions on state spending, public policy and ties to campaign donors.

California newspapers and wire services have compiled pieces about Schwarzenegger's failure to make a dent in the state's structural deficit, his fickle definition of bipartisanship, his historic levels of special-interest fundraising, potential conflicts of interest among his consultants and appointees and so on. So have some local television news stations, particularly those based in Sacramento.

But those stories draw little attention from the national media--both print and television. The sexy story with broad public appeal--the story of Schwarzenegger himself--trumps everything else.

"It's kind of like, you are all pointillists and we're impressionists," says CNN's Candy Crowley, who has interviewed Schwarzenegger twice. "While you're looking at what's going on with the budget, we're looking at this guy who found a way to make himself credible, no small job, to put himself on the national scene. Here's California, which has been relentlessly Democratic for so long, and here's this Republican, but he's married to a Democrat--and is he really a Republican? What does it say about the nature of politicians, about the nature of leadership? I just think he's a fascinating guy.

"There are certain personalities that can take over a story," Crowley says. "I guess I'm sounding like it's light fare--and I don't think that it is--but the reason the story exists in the way it exists is the power of Arnold. By the force of his presence, this sort of larger-than-life, can-you-believe-this-story kind of guy--that's what brings you to a story. That's a story that interests someone in Nebraska."

But because Schwarzenegger can fly over the heads of the local press via national outlets like CNN or Fox, not to mention Oprah Winfrey (one of Shriver's best pals), Californians' perceptions of his performance in office are often shaped by what they read in magazines, see on television and hear on the radio. When Schwarzenegger tells his friend late-night host Jay Leno, as he did last August, that he's fixed much of the mess in Sacramento, more Californians see that than a contrarian's piece in any of the state's major newspapers.

That may change the longer Schwarzenegger stays in politics, or if he should run at the national level, perhaps for a U.S. Senate seat. Certainly it will change if there's any development in what is now a purely speculative story about amending the Constitution, a move most Americans oppose, so that Schwarzenegger, as a naturalized citizen, can run for president.

But such a shift could be years away, says Ray Locker, who oversees the Associated Press' Sacramento bureau and California political coverage. While California news outlets regularly run his reporters' investigative and enterprise stories about the governor and his administration, Locker says, "it's a lot easier to get on the national wire with stories about bobblehead dolls and the general cult of celebrity that surrounds him. And that's not a negative reflection on our national editors. People outside California care about Schwarzenegger as a celebrity who became governor, not as someone making policy decisions involving 36 million Californians."

As for television coverage, Hollywood helped Schwarzenegger master the art of playing to the camera. "The rule in local TV news is you can't cover it if there aren't pictures," says Marty Kaplan, director of the University of Southern California's Norman Lear Center, which studies entertainment, the media and public policy. "A story about ideas, like the deficit, isn't a story you can cover. But dropping a big weight on a car [as Schwarzenegger did] to demolish the car tax? That's television!"

To ensure the images Schwarzenegger wants are the ones that make it on screen, his staff exerts "fanatical" control over television cameras, says Hank Plante, political editor at CBS5 TV in San Francisco. "I remember doing a one-on-one with him in Germany," Plante says. "We were waiting for him to enter the room, and our cameraman was pointed toward the door to get a shot of him walking in so that I could shake his hand, which is a nice shot for us to have. His press person went crazy, said, 'Absolutely not. No video of him walking in. It's not approved. The only video that's approved is just the interview.'"

Schwarzenegger, says Plante, is "a master at giving interviews. You can't throw him. He knows how to lobby, and he knows that if you've got only five minutes with him, he'll just talk for four minutes. He runs the clock out.

"Of course he doesn't do many interviews," Plante adds, "and that way we're forced to use the sound from the podium, so we're using his message."

Finding an audience to hear that message is hardly a challenge for Schwarzenegger. He can draw hundreds of fans on short notice--not just paid union members or business executives but an actual cross section of a community--to an airport, a fairground, a restaurant or a shopping mall to hear his take on subjects as wonkish as workers' compensation insurance or revenue- sharing agreements with Indian tribes.

Joe Mathews, a Los Angeles Times reporter on leave to write a book about Schwarzenegger and California political history, saw early on the emphasis the actor placed on staging such events--from using lighting outdoors in broad daylight to blocking out who should stand where.

"It was very clear he was in charge of the staging, that he knew more about it than any of his people did," Mathews says. At one campaign event, someone handed Schwarzenegger a boxed "Terminator" action figure doll to autograph. "I noticed he was signing it in this very awkward way, so he could get the pen and the box and his name and his face in the shot," Mathews says.

After Schwarzenegger took office, Mathews was covering a bill signing at which the governor noticed that one of the lawmakers sharing the stage was not standing where he'd been assigned. "He literally grabbed him, as if it was a handshake, and yanked up" until the lawmaker was maneuvered into the correct position. "Like a quarterback, he knows not just his assignment but where all the blockers and receivers should be," Mathews says. "He clearly thinks about this stuff and studies it. He understands light and sound. He's intensely aware of the pictures and of how things look."

Schwarzenegger sends presidential-style advance teams to scout out the best angles, locations and vantage points for working the adoring crowds. It's always dangerous not to cover one of these appearances, because even with all the planning and scripting, he's known to improvise, such as the time he called Democrats who were stalling his budget plan "girlie men" for not standing up to special interests. He knows he can command attention--and get out any message he wants to get out--just by being himself.

That's true both when he courts the conservative Republican base before an election or when he's trying to pressure lawmakers. Then he typically turns to local and nationally syndicated talk radio hosts, who almost always turn their typical bluster into vocal, gushing, pro-Arnold boosterism.

Even generally skeptical reporters aren't immune to Schwarzenegger's charisma. His summertime, off-the-record barbecue for the media, held in a Sacramento baseball stadium, was packed with reporters who rarely looked forward to events put on by Schwarzenegger's less-famous predecessors.

For Schwarzenegger's communications director, Rob Stutzman, it's a rare blessing. "We have any communications asset available to us that we want. We want a network prime time interview; we can get it. Exclusive interviews with the governor for any newspaper that will end up on page one, we have that. I say 'no' on a regular basis to requests any communications director would give an appendage" to get.

Periodically, Schwarzenegger's communications team has tried playing hardball with the press, then backed off. Furious about Los Angeles Times stories reporting that he had groped women--published during the last week of the recall campaign--the new governor's staff threatened Times reporters in Sacramento that they would be frozen out if there was any follow-up. (See "The Women," December 2003/January 2004.) But when an editor began taking notes on the encounter, the conversation ended abruptly and the threats were abandoned.

Later, the paper sent reporter Peter Nicholas to track down Schwarzenegger in Maui during a family vacation, and Nicholas scored an interview. But Stutzman, who had not staffed the event, was furious and instituted a policy that holds to this day. When Schwarzenegger leaves on private business, his staff no longer says where he's going--only that he's left the state.

The governor can often be cajoled into an unscheduled interview if he's caught without a crowd. But Schwarzenegger prefers to stay away from the reporters who cover him. "He gives the Capitol press corps just enough access that they can't say he's not accessible," says Barbara O'Connor, an expert on political communications at California State University, Sacramento.

"It's usually big press events, and the entertainment media tends to be invited, and it makes it very hard to spotlight issues and ask follow-up questions. And he knows how to work the press," she adds. "He puts them off guard. He's not the least bit afraid of them... If he gets a negative story, so what? He probably gets 10 positive ones for every negative one."

California's first couple--Schwarzenegger and Shriver--enjoy an enviable collection of media friends, including network reporters and anchors and hosts of television shows that reach tens of millions of Americans. To announce his candidacy for governor, Schwarzenegger appeared on "The Tonight Show" with Leno. To assuage women's concerns about his randy and allegedly predatory past, the couple appeared together on "Oprah." Friend Dennis Miller has a TV show. So does Tom Arnold, one of Schwarzenegger's best buddies, with whom he rides motorcycles on weekends.

For the inevitable flurry of pieces the California media planned to mark Schwarzenegger's year anniversary in office, the Republican governor took 18 questions at a Sacramento press conference one day after the presidential election. Despite mixed success at the polls--his campaigns for and against nonpartisan ballot initiatives influenced voters but his support for individual candidates failed to increase Republican representation in the Legislature--Schwarzenegger characteristically declared victory and glossed over his shortcomings.

His only face-to-face, sit-down interview for his anniversary in office was with CNN's Larry King, arguably one of the safest interviews for a politician.

Between commercial breaks, King cut away to video clips from some of the most flattering highlights of the year for Schwarzenegger--his swearing-in, his speech at the Republican National Convention, his missions to foreign lands where adoring fans swarmed him, and his campaigning with President Bush in Ohio, the state that clinched Bush's reelection. "Before we take the next call," King told his friend, "I saw Maria last night. We honored Barbara Walters and Ray Romano at a big dinner." King did not mention another noteworthy connection: His show's former political producer, Margita Thompson, is now Schwarzenegger's press secretary.

"You want to communicate," Stutzman says, "and summing up one year in office, do you sit down with eight or nine newspapers or do you sit down for an hour with Larry King? You sit down with Larry King in a medium that's better suited to this governor, and if he makes news, the California press corps is going to cover it anyway. I'm not making decisions based on any bias or criticism about the print media in California. I'm making decisions based on what is best for my boss."

On the morning of the anniversary, NBC--the network that used to employ Shriver--aired a segment on "Today" about whether the Constitution should be changed to allow Schwarzenegger, who became an American citizen in 1983, to run for president. The segment was dubbed "The Arnold Amendment."

Stutzman says the administration hasn't ducked tough television formats and points to an appearance by Schwarzenegger on NBC's "Meet the Press." That encounter caused the governor's press office to spend several days clarifying some of Schwarzenegger's more bizarre comments. After telling host Tim Russert, "I love you, Tim," Schwarzenegger also asserted that gay marriage ceremonies in San Francisco were fueling riots (not true) and could lead other cities to issue licenses for selling illegal drugs and assault weapons. But Schwarzenegger, his aides and those who cover him regularly have seen time and time again that voters seem to care little about his gaffes.

While many of his interactions with reporters are about manipulating coverage, the governor does have another side. Barbara Gasser, a Los Angeles-based Austrian journalist, experienced firsthand what she found to be genuine compassion from the governor after a heart attack killed her fiancé, photographer Bruce Murphy, in October. Murphy was 44.

Murphy and Schwarzenegger knew each other casually prior to the recall election because Murphy sometimes frequented a Santa Monica restaurant where Schwarzenegger and his friends liked to smoke cigars. Gasser and Schwarzenegger also had something in common--they both hailed from the same town in Austria, Graz. But Gasser says that never translated into special access to Schwarzenegger and that she and Murphy considered their relationships to the governor purely professional.

So Gasser was caught off guard when Schwarzenegger telephoned her the day after Murphy's death. This was the weekend before the November election, and the governor was embarking on a statewide tour to campaign for ballot measures and Republican candidates. "He was very much comforting me," Gasser says. "He said he was also in deep shock. He was really like a friend who would catch you if you would fall. It was a very private, personal conversation. It was more of talking to a friend, not like talking to a politician.

"He has this very serious and private and genuine side to him," she says. "And he has never forgotten where he comes from."

With the press corps, though, this is not typical Schwarzenegger. More often, he is toying, testing, as was the case last summer, when the Bee sent political reporter Margaret Talev--coauthor of this article--to Santa Fe, where Schwarzenegger was attending a conference of governors from states on the U.S.-Mexico border. The L.A. Times sent Nicholas, and the AP assigned a New Mexico reporter, Deborah Baker.

The journalists spent the better part of two days pacing outside closed meetings and sipping sodas in the hotel lounge, waiting for Schwarzenegger to emerge and agree to an interview. His staff kept dangling the carrot--maybe later this morning, maybe this afternoon, maybe tomorrow morning. On the afternoon of the second day, the reporters were rushed upstairs to the governor's Southwestern suite with textured walls, rich colors, bold tapestries and a cozy corner seating arrangement.

Despite the warm setting, Schwarzenegger had built a fire in the fireplace and was stoking it. He turned to the reporters, wiped his hands and grinned. Despite the no-smoking sign on his front door, he placed a cigar in his mouth, lit it, sucked on it until its tip glowed orange, and exhaled. Relief washed over his face. He'd been coveting a stogie for hours.

The reporters, facing imminent deadlines and airplanes to catch in Albuquerque, were eager to get started. But Schwarzenegger had something else in mind. He summoned an official photographer. Then he rested his cigar on the coffee table, stood up and walked across the room to a bench in front of the fireplace, motioning for the reporters to join him. "Let's take some single shots first. Come over here, bring your tape recorder here, you put it right here."

Talev: "What are these pictures for?"

Schwarzenegger: "Well, it is for you. We give them to you so you have it."

The three reporters exchanged bewildered looks. Should they refuse on ethical grounds, or just do it so they could start the interview? Did he think he'd get better coverage because of this? Or was he simply trying to rattle them?

Nicholas embraced the moment, grabbing the governor's cigar for a prop. Schwarzenegger instructed Baker in his off-syntax English: "You are only doing the interview--as if you were interviewing me. So pretend now. This is like the movie business."

"He's directing," the astonished AP reporter said aloud.

"Exactly, exactly," Schwarzenegger said. "Now, here is the important thing, is that you have to always gesture with the hands."

Talev admired Schwarzenegger's cowboy boots. The governor looked disapprovingly at her drab mules. "I need some boots for my shot," she said. "Yeah, we should go shopping right away," Schwarzenegger said. Then he sized up her legs. "Maybe you should just expose the calves," he said.

The photo session over, the governor joined the reporters at the coffee table. "So anyway," he said, ready to discuss policies involving his state and its neighbors along the border. "Here we are in New Mexico."

He stood, puffed out his chest and peeled off his jacket, revealing a short- sleeved shirt, an incongruous pairing with his designer suit (he favors Armani and Prada). Was the shirt a deliberate touch, a Homer Simpson sort of affectation to show Schwarzenegger was at one with "the people"? Or was this a glimpse of Schwarzenegger unscripted, at his core still a farm boy from rural Austria? Not exactly gubernatorial questions, and no one asked.

For all the quirks of Schwarzenegger's relationship with the media, one thing is indisputable: He's been good for our business. Capitol bureaus have expanded. TV reporters who left Sacramento after the Jerry Brown era have returned. And everyone knows it's not the public's fascination with state government that has made the difference.

"We don't like it," says Los Angeles Times columnist George Skelton, who has covered the past seven California governors. "But we gladly go along with it because the guy's so interesting that editors put our stories on the front page and people read them and suddenly we have an exciting guy to write about." Minnesota reporters experienced a similar situation when pro wrestler Jesse Ventura became that state's governor (see "Ventura Highway," September 1999).

Bruce Cain, director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, says the reporters who cover the governor daily have held Schwarzenegger accountable for his performance in office. But Cain says he's concerned about how closely they'll continue to hold his feet to the fire.

"I do think his celebrity status creates an odd incentive, which is that having Arnold around makes California political reporters a lot more important than they otherwise would be, to people outside the state and to the world," Cain says. "I worry a bit about how that, in the long run, is going to play with the objectivity of the press, that it could cause people to pull their punches because they wouldn't want the act to close. You want to tousle him around for entertainment's sake, but you don't want to give him the hook. Because then the spotlights get turned off for everybody."

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