Have you ever been to Sacramento?

August Kleinzahler · Farewell, Schwarzenegger

A few years ago a masseur I visited from time to time, a very able, very gay old German hippie said to me as I made ready to leave: ‘Don’t vait so long unless next time you come Schwarzenegger will be president and there’ll be tanks in zuh streets.’ Wolf, the masseur, has since retired and, as of the other day, so has Schwarzenegger, at least in his role as governor of California.

I’m of at least two minds about his going, but I suspect I’ll miss him. He brought a particular glamour to the drab corridors of Sacramento, the sleepy capitol he commuted to by jet from Los Angeles as seldom as possible. I don’t blame him, really. Sacramento is a bit of a dump and the former governor is very LA: swept-back ’do, swept-back face, with that peculiar sheen the flesh gets when tugged in that direction; the big cigars and the shiny suits with the shoulders bloused out to accommodate his outsized pecs and lats and assorted ’ceps; the fleet of Humvees; the A-list social set, the Sunday Harley runs up the coast with James Cameron and the lads... Have you ever been to Sacramento?

The man is easy, too easy, to caricature. In fact, he takes sport in caricaturing himself. On the evidence of the 1976 documentary Pumping Iron, directed by George Butler, the 28-year-old Schwarzenegger was a monster – if an amusing, hypnotically engaging one. Apart from his outsize ego, there is a real cruelty to the man, and an appetite for that cruelty. It’s a terrific film, which suddenly became almost impossible to find during the truncated campaign that brought Schwarzenegger to power after the gubernatorial recall election in 2003. Schwarzenegger is a bully, in the movie and in life. His boorishness towards women and the well-documented serial gropings seem extreme even by Tyrolean laddish standards, or so I’d hope. He seems to take as much pleasure in demeaning men. The controversial out-takes from the documentary where he reportedly expresses a certain admiration for Hitler are unfortunate. He was a great kidder, was Arnold.

He’s always been up for whatever’s on. He enjoys power, money, celebrity, and knows how to get it. He’s made a quarter of a billion dollars in a town and industry (actually, several industries) full of ruthless, clever monsters. I feel almost certain that if everything were taken away from him he would accumulate it all over again from scratch. His intelligence is much underestimated. His verbal parries and sallies with Arianna Huffington (where does one begin...) were the great treat of the 2003 election campaign. Schwarzenegger, more than once, made Huffington come off as the desperate fool.

A man who has succeeded at everything else he has taken on, Schwarzenegger was not a success as governor, though he was by no means the worst of the recent lot. There is no succeeding as governor of a state under the burden of Proposition 13 which, among other things, keeps property taxes capped at under 1 per cent and requires a two-thirds majority in the legislature to raise tax revenue. A 1999 law gave long-serving state employees the right to retire at the age of 50 on 90 per cent of their salaries, which is very nice and perhaps as it should be, but is also credited with raising California’s unfunded pension obligation to as much as $500 billion. The deficit ballooned to $28 billion on Schwarzenegger’s watch and the state’s General Fund has lost more than $15 billion over the past three years. But then, California took a bigger beating than most with the housing collapse and financial meltdown.

There was a moment around 2005 when Wolf the masseur’s prediction seemed as if it just might, in part, become plausible. Had he been able to get past the constitutional proscription against the foreign-born becoming president, surely no one, Democrat or Republican, could have stopped Schwarzenegger. He came on as a social progressive and fiscal conservative and was wonderful on his feet, Austrian accent und all. Name recognition? No problem. But he got carried away and called a special election in 2005 to take on the unions – over pension schemes, teacher seniority, in-house nursing care – with four ballot initiatives, all of which failed. The Nurses’ Association alone would have given any sensible man pause.

The experience appeared to chasten Schwarzenegger. He quickly tacked leftwards towards the centre and softened his rhetoric – no more talk of ‘girly men’. He took up the cause of the environment more aggressively. Then came the financial meltdown. Schwarzenegger leaves office with a 22 per cent approval rating. I wish the Governator happy trails. The sanctimonious prig and tireless operator who’s replaced him is no improvement, trust me. And I hope Schwarzenegger, over time, winds up doing as much for the environmental cause as he has done for steroids and, of course, himself.


  • 5 January 2011 at 8:12pm
    moofler says:
    Schwarzenegger was not a great governor by any standard but California's problems go beyond the powers of the governor. What Arnold did right - support for gay marriage, marijuana decriminalization, green energy/environmental regulation, and above all, redistricting reform, are all investments in the future of the state for decades to come. Arnold has always been the easy butt of jokes but the ad hominem attacks themselves come across as cruel - what evidence can you muster that the young bodybuilder from Pumping Iron 30 years ago is anything like the cigar-smoking governor, father married to a Kennedy, today?

    The real problems in California are structural, as you pointed out - propositions that hamstring the legislature, the 2/3 majority requirement for levying new taxes, and gerrymandered voting districts.

  • 6 January 2011 at 10:14am
    Geoff Roberts says:
    Don't steroids affect the personality? There's a whiff of the romantic in this piece, as if A.K. prefers a big fat charisma to a dull, hardworking governor for the glamour, the pizzazz that the governor brought to Californian politics. Was he th eone who brought in that odious 'three strikes' rule?

  • 6 January 2011 at 11:15am
    philip proust says:
    This is an amusing article that cleverly mirrors the Schwarzenegger phenomenon. The Governator is amoral in many ways but still possesses charisma; the same goes for Kleinzahler's writing.

    What gets lost however is the question of Schwarzenegger's alleged cruelty. Where did it go when he ruled California? Did he manifest his strength of will by putting it to bed for the duration of his term? Or, perhaps being a Republican with real power would adequately sublimate - or allow the expression of - anyone's wish to hurt others.

  • 6 January 2011 at 2:24pm
    Geoff Roberts says:
    This makes me wonder why anybody takes American politicians seriously. Apart from the material damage they do, they all seem to leave their state/country in a worse condition than it was before they got started on the issues and challenges that lay ahead. Obama is the prize exhibit, but Bush needs a lot of beating for the shambles he left behind. Can a country the size of the USA actually be governed in a rational, sensible way? Remember the euphoria that the liberals fell into when Obama spoke? Many of them seemed to swoon with joy as he promised change. You got change, now what do you want? Schwarzenegger promised lean government and what did you get? A bankrupt state, and he has the nerve to claim credit for this?

  • 6 January 2011 at 2:48pm
    Fred Dobbs says:
    I am not sure whether Mr. Schwarzenegger is actually a monstrosity, as that would require rather more familiarity with the man. However, what is important is that the public regarded him as something of a monstrosity -- and voted for him. They wanted a Terminator (the "Governator"), and elected one. Or rather what they thought was one. That was the frightening thing in this political equation. That he turned out to be less that that what he seemed was perhaps fortunate.

    • 11 January 2011 at 2:47pm
      Mike Killingworth says: @ Fred Dobbs
      Didn't the voters of California know he was a pretend monstrosity?

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