Hasta la Vista, Arnie

Three Sacramento journalists reflect on the Golden State governor

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.

Myers: In general I would say no. But he is much more open than he used to be. He came into office with a very closed, hands-off approach to the press covering state politics. Very limited access to him, very limited question and answer periods, and very much a sense that they didn’t need us—that Schwarzenegger came into office as an international celebrity who could talk directly to the people. After 2005, he learned a lesson about politics from organized labor and others when his series of proposals fell apart at a statewide ballot. The administration became more accommodating and more open.

How does the press corps feel about him?

Miranda: I think the press corps generally likes him. He is very personable, and we appreciate the rare, off-the-record parties he’d throw for reporters and their families. We like how he sometimes injects his experiences in Hollywood and with his family into his speeches, appearances. But from a political perspective, I think most of us feel he was naïve in thinking he could come in and whip Sacramento into shape.

Walters: He is a bit more likable, probably, than his most immediate predecessors, and generally regarded as meaning well, even if the results fall well short of what he promised or would have liked, fundamentally because as an outsider and an amateur he completely misunderstood Capitol dynamics and believed that his celebrity would have more impact than it did.

Have you noticed a shrinkage in the Sacramento press corps?

Myers: There was this incredible peak of reporters who decided they were going to camp out in Sacramento at the beginning of his term. Then it fell off pretty dramatically in a couple of years. I think part of that is that covering the statehouse is hard work. It’s not as simple as covering the trials and tribulations of Arnold Schwarzenegger. It gets a lot more complicated, and it can be arcane, and it can be tough to tell in broadcast. There are probably some similarities in the way Schwarzenegger convinced the public that the fixes to California only required simple commonsense approaches, and the way outside news organizations approached Sacramento thinking it was going to be simple to cover.

Miranda: In 2003, his press office actually had a person that dealt solely with entertainment media. You certainly didn’t see Entertainment Tonight or Inside Edition calling when Gray Davis or Pete Wilson was in charge. Unfortunately, Schwarzenegger, the outsider, evolved into just another politician, an insider, and editors gradually lost interest. On top of that, the recession forced media companies to look at staffing and rethink the expense of a Capitol bureau. I know my position was considered at least once for elimination, but in the end, KABC-TV decided we are actually an example of how it should be done with stations within the same parent company pitching in to keep an important bureau open and sharing expenses.

What have been the governor’s biggest achievements?

Miranda: He’ll always tout AB 32 (Assembly Bill 32), the landmark global warming law he signed in 2006 that requires California businesses, residents, and governments to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2020. And this year, he made some strides in reforming the state’s pensions, which he thought was too generous and bankrupting our state.

Walters: He would say the anti-greenhouse gas emission law (AB 32), if it survives in November’s ballot measure vote, and perhaps reforming legislative redistricting (which also m
ust survive November ballot measure) and primary election process. But, as noted, two of the three are problematic and the third’s impact, if any, is unknown.

And his biggest blunders?

Miranda: Hands down it was the 2005 special election. Schwarzenegger had success in 2004 with two initiatives. He thought he could carry a lot of that political capital the following year. When lawmakers wouldn’t go along in 2005 with the various reforms he wanted, he declared a special election and went to the ballot box with four initiatives. One of those initiatives dealt with pension reform. Labor unions successfully portrayed that as taking benefits away from the widows and children of police officers and firefighters killed in the line of duty. The nurses union also got involved because Schwarzenegger months earlier said things they didn’t like either. All the public employees unions pretty much ganged up on the governor. His popularity started a downward spiral. He managed to get re-elected in 2006 for two reasons: the Democrats put up an unwinnable candidate, and the state enjoyed better than expected revenues that year.

Myers: Politically, there was a time right after the recall election when there was a complicated negotiation between the governor and the Democratic leadership in the legislature about how to solve the financial problem Schwarzenegger had inherited. The compromise was a proposal to borrow money to fill that debt—a series of deficit bonds that Schwarzenegger put on the ballot in March 2004. The decision to borrow money to finance part of the deficit fix and a ballot measure that, while Schwarzenegger could have pushed for a new cap or limit on state spending, was watered down to basically say the state must have a balanced budget. After six weeks of negotiations where the legislature saw him compromise on a lot of things and play the inside politics game, they quickly sensed that there was no reason to fear him anymore.

Nationally, he has assumed the profile of an independent. To what extent is this a truth or a press creation?

Miranda: I really do think he’s an independent. He’s angered quite a few Republicans along the way while in office. He railed quite a few times against the Bush administration for not getting it in terms of global warming. He tried to tell his fellow Republicans at one GOP convention “they were dying at the box office” for being too conservative for California.

Walters: I think it’s quite accurate. He is a genuine pragmatic centrist, tough on crime, business issues, spending, and taxes, and soft on the environment and social issues such as gay marriage and abortion. In fact, ideologically he’s exactly in the California middle, but as his equally centrist predecessors, especially Gray Davis, discovered, being in the middle makes you a friendless target in an ideologically polarized Capitol.

Is there an aspect of the governor that the national press misses when it is reporting on him?

Miranda: I always crack up when the national press injects Hollywood references into their stories about Schwarzenegger. After the first couple of years, we California-based reporters wouldn’t go there. We rarely reference his movies unless he does.

Walters: The national press never got out of celebrity mode. Schwarzenegger can be a buffoon at times, but he’s actually quite intelligent and perceptive about the larger world, much more so than other politicians in the Capitol, and very much his own man, not a tool of anyone.

Myers: I understand the points that the national press makes about Schwarzenegger. The trouble is for those of us who live in California, is that Schwarzenegger’s ability to communicate to the world feels like half of the story. Schwarzenegger was not elected for those reasons. He was elected to try and solve California’s immediate problems. There was a sense in the fall of 2003 that California was headed off a cliff. We still have problems— systemic budget problems, an electorate that feels like it’s going off the cliff. It feels like déjà vu.

What is your favorite Arnold Schwarzenegger movie?

Walters: I’ve seen only a couple of them since I rarely go to the movies. The original Terminator maybe.

Miranda: I enjoyed Eraser, but I went to see that because it starred Vanessa Williams and Schwarzenegger happen to be in it.

Myers: I’m going to pick the one that has scenes in it that are most telling about the job that I’ve watched him hold the last seven years—Kindergarten Cop.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.