The Magazine

Arnold Uber Alles

From the October 20, 2003 issue: The wild, final days of the Schwarzenegger campaign.

Oct 20, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 06 • By MATT LABASH
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San Diego, Calif.

IT SEEMS LIKE ONLY YESTERDAY that I was jetting around California with Arnold Schwarzenegger, enjoying one-on-one access, eating Arnold's food, laughing at Arnold's jokes, choking on Arnold's cigar smoke. In fact, it was a year ago, when Arnold was campaigning for his ballot initiative promoting after-school activities. Back then, he was running a modest little jobs program for former Pete Wilson aides. Now, five days before the 2003 recall election, at the kickoff of his home-stretch bus tour at the San Diego Convention Center, it's apparent that Schwarzenegger has gone Hollywood. There are so many staffers on the ground that it's hard to know who to suck up to.

I start with a woman standing by a velvet rope, behind which sit 200 journalists' suitcases. It's a bad call. "I'm just the luggage lady," she says. "I'm a hanger-on. I used to be with [former candidate] Bill Simon." I have better luck with Rob Gluck, a Troy Aikman doppelgänger who describes Schwarzenegger's warp-speed, two-month campaign for governor of California as having to "lay track full speed ahead as fast as we can, trying to get to the Pacific before the train does." Gluck is part of a small but all-powerful clique within the campaign known as the "Murphy Mafia." It's a reference to their leader, Mike Murphy, the evil genius behind John McCain's presidential bid. Three years ago, Murphy launched McCain's Straight Talk Express, the rolling cocktail party in which journalists engaged in back-slapping, glad-handing, and finally tearful goodbyes with the candidate. Now, Murphy has launched what will be nicknamed the No Talk Express--in which he invites hundreds of access-starved journos along for the ride, then essentially tells them to buzz off.

It's not a dumb strategy, considering the circumstances. There are some days in the campaign business when it would be easiest for an aide to wake up, put on her best dress, then step in front of a bus. Today in Arnold World is one of those days. The morning sees charges that Schwarzenegger is an ass-grabbing lout. By evening, he'll stand accused of loving Adolf Hitler. As one colleague puts it, "Any day spent on the trail talking about Adolf Hitler is not a good day."

The Los Angeles Times kicks things off with a morning story in which six different women allege Arnold's non-consensual touching. While four of the six remain unnamed, and none has filed legal action, the Times claims that even if their story smells like a ninth-inning political black-bag job, none of Schwarzenegger's opponents helped the paper find the women. The charges involve several breast-grabs, a hand-under-the-skirt buttock clinch, an elevator groping, a simulated sex act, and several mature-language propositions too clinical to replicate here. These charges, and some that follow them, are enough to convince me--someone who likes Arnold, thinks he's utterly charming, deceptively smart, and a charismatic leader--to rethink my drink. Now, I'm quite prepared to believe that despite his good qualities, he's additionally a big creep, to borrow a coinage.

But critical thinking isn't in evidence at the convention center during Schwarzenegger's final-swing kickoff rally. Outside the building, Christian schoolgirls who say they're slightly troubled that Arnold is "pro-abortion," still squeal like he's the lost Backstreet Boy and wear pro-Arnold bumper stickers on the perky derrieres of their jeans (not a visual the campaign desires today). When I charge into a cluster of stageside Arnold supporters, some of whom are holding "Remarkable Women Join Arnold" signs, and ask them about the charges, they are uniformly dismissive: "It's just the usual dirt they dredge up before an election. . . . It's a bunch of hooey. . . . You got to do something while you're in an elevator. . . . The Hollywood agenda is just different than what we're used to."

Schwarzenegger takes the stage to raucous applause. Even at his age (56), his face and body look chiseled from sheet-rock, never mind that the hair and overly taut skin are a tint not found in nature, the color of an apricot Fruit Roll-up. He sounds all his usual campaign themes about rescinding the car tax, reforming workers' compensation. He delivers his money lines: "Gray Davis has terminated jobs! Gray Davis has terminated opportunities! Now it is time that we terminate him!" And he delivers the money lines of others: "We are mad as hell and we're not going to take it anymore!" Of the morning papers, he says that "the people of Cal-eee-for-nee-ah can see through this trash politics."