California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s term ends in January 2011. As the national and local press fixates on who will replace him, we asked three reporters charged with covering the governor for the last seven years to reflect on his time in the State House. Here, Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters, NPR-affiliate KQED’s Sacramento bureau chief John Myers, and TV reporter Nannette Miranda (bureau chief for ABC affiliates in L.A., Fresno, and San Francisco) share their thoughts on Schwarzenegger’s legacy and his relationship with the press. CJR assistant editor Joel Meares spoke to each separately. Their edited answers are below.
What’s the most memorable moment from covering Schwarzenegger?
Myers: My most memorable was a sit-down in 2007 on one of those days where we had scheduled multiple capitol reporters. I was the last one, and while the audio equipment was being set up, I said something to the effect of, “I know you’ve talked about these things a lot today, and you’re probably tired of talking about them, so I will try to get right to it.” He looked at me and he said, “No, no, when I used to do junkets for movies, I’d have to sit and talk about the same thing five hundred times in a row. So I have no problem with doing that.” I thought that was a telling anecdote because much of what the Schwarzenegger era has been about is salesmanship. Modern politics is about messaging, it’s about spin, and it’s about selling. Those are things Arnold Schwarzenegger perfectly learned in his time in the movies.
Walters: My second private conversation occurred in May 2005, after I had written several columns that were highly skeptical of his chances of persuading voters to approve a series of what he characterized as key governmental reforms. “You must be confused,” Schwarzenegger, sitting in his throne-like chair in his “smoking tent” outside the governor’s office, said as I walked in. “I don’t think so,” I replied. He proceeded to tell me how he would win the election, scheduled for the following November. I proceeded to tell him why I thought he had blown it. We parted company without convincing the other. He was clobbered in November.
Miranda: Governor Schwarzenegger took a lot of Hollywood with him to Sacramento. I remember the time he was trying to get the message out that Sacramento was spending more money than it takes in. He called a press conference at the State Fairgrounds, not far from the Capitol. A “mini State Capitol” replica set up with a big spigot. After his speech, he walked over to the spigot and feigned how difficult it was to turn, like he was using his bodybuilding muscles. Then red ink came spewing out. Get it? I did do a story about his hokey stunts afterwards. According to one of his campaign aides, the governor dreamed all this up himself.
Is there a profile of Schwarzenegger you’ve seen that you think really gets it right?
Myers: Former Los Angeles Times reporter Joe Mathews’s book, The People’s Machine: Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Rise of Blockbuster Democracy, from 2006. I think that there’s a lot of rich detail in that about who Schwarzenegger is, why he did what he did, and the way he operates that I think is still true today.
Walters: A couple of books were written about his governorship, one by former Bee columnist Dan Weintraub, the other by Joe Mathews, but both, as I have written and/or told the authors, missed the boat. Schwarzenegger changes political personalities every year (much like assuming a new movie role) and by the time a book comes out, it’s outdated. The real story of his governorship must await the fullness of time because he has sowed seeds that will, or won’t, bear fruit in the years ahead.
Is the governor open to the press?
Miranda: In the beginning, governor Schwarzenegger was not accessible at all. I believe his team of strategists was afraid of foot-in mouth syndrome, where he’d say things that he wasn’t supposed to. As time went on, he was more comfortable and accessible at his own events. But only to a certain point. We reporters had to resort to shouting out questions and hoping he came to the rope that marks the point we couldn’t go beyond.
Walters: He’s fairly accessible because he makes many public appearances and news conferences and is not afraid to mix it up with reporters. His team is well disciplined and quickly respond to inquiries about policy on whatever the issue may be.