"The retreat was fantastic! We got so much done!" he says.
The governor has just returned from Squaw Valley, another fantastic location where Schwarzenegger made fantastic decisions for the people of California. There's this big idea that came out of the retreat, to allow California soldiers in Iraq to call home for free. It's fantastic. Free phone minutes for soldiers.
On another day, Schwarzenegger positions himself inside an airplane hangar in Long Beach. Boeing workers hang off the wings of aircraft. Bachman-Turner Overdrive's "Takin' Care of Business" blares from speakers. Arnold comes out, and it's pandemonium. "I promised you action! And now you're going to see it!" he tells the crowd. Then he sits down at a table and signs a bill to reduce workers' compensation insurance premiums.
It's an important step, one that fulfills a campaign promise. But this is Schwarzenegger in a loud, muscular setting. He should kick a villain through a wall or blow people away with an assault weapon, not sign bills or champion free phone calls. Somehow those actions, worthy as they are, seem small coming from a figure who rocked the world nearly a year ago by becoming California governor.
At his inauguration Nov. 17, Schwarzenegger promised California a revolution. He was the revolution--by unseating a governor for only the second time in U.S. history. He talked about "blowing up the boxes" of government, about action, action, action. He rode to Sacramento on a wave of giddy goodwill and an outsized expectation that government needed to have its clock cleaned, and that it would take someone huge to do it.
In the year since, Schwarzenegger has shown himself to be huge, in every sense. His massive chest seems to arrive a few seconds before the rest of him. He can't find a mansion big enough for himself and his family in Sacramento, so he lives atop the Hyatt Regency Hotel and commutes to work about 100 yards in a three-car motorcade as hotel employees block the streets. He takes a private jet back to Brentwood as often as he can. His not-quite-dissolved cough drops are offered for sale to people wanting his DNA. He has persuaded Warren Buffett to do sit-ups for daring to contradict him. Sen. Edward Kennedy, Democrat and uncle-in-law, has faxed him jokes.
But after watching Schwarzenegger govern, it's apparent that his hugeness is being squeezed into something rather ordinary, something produced by committee and rolled over by the squeaking wheels of the system. Schwarzenegger, in short, often seems far bigger than his accomplishments as governor, which is another way of saying that the promised revolution hasn't yet arrived.
"I think he gave much more thought to running than he did about what he would do if he won," says outgoing Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco), who has become Schwarzenegger's closest contact in the Legislature.
Others give Schwarzenegger more credit. The revolution hasn't come because Schwarzenegger is driven, has always been driven, by a need to move forward, says Michael Blitz, an English professor at John Jay College who has co-authored a book called "Why Arnold Matters: The Rise of a Cultural Icon." In Sacramento, moving forward means making deals, not blowing up boxes. It means making compromises even if the final product ends up being something very Gray Davis: incremental.
So while the revolution waits, Schwarzenegger the governor remains overshadowed by Schwarzenegger the movie star--and that's all right too. Among other things, the action-oriented star still can play the outsider even though he's now very much inside. He can call Democrats "girlie men," hint that the Legislature should be part-time and mock legislators for "silly bills," including one regulating the height of motorcycle handlebars. "Is that what they spend their time on ... worrying about how high up a motorcycle handlebar is?" he asked in a radio interview.
He knew the answer. Two weeks earlier, he signed that bill into law. In fact, Schwarzenegger has signed 75% of the measures approved by the Legislature he ridicules. His veto rate nearly set a state record--but he still accepted the vast majority of their work.
"He lashes out at the system, even though it's the system that continues to build him," Blitz says. "He's quite brilliant at remaining outside. How does he continue to be the rebel when everything he has done has depended on mainstream elements of the culture--hero worship, the Republican Party? This is a guy who is a traditional politician."
In politics it's often not the things you know that kill you. It's what you don't know. As governor, there is no way for Schwarzenegger to keep track of it all. It's even tougher because the administration is divided into ideological camps. Some prominent Democrats are at the very top: EPA Secretary Terry Tamminen, advisor Bonnie Reiss and First Lady Maria Shriver. But the viscera of the administration are Republican. Veterans of Gov. Pete Wilson's administration are embedded throughout the bureaucracy, including several dozen on the governor's staff.
The dissonance has led to some blunders. Early on, fiscal conservatives in the administration decided it was a good idea to hasten the execution of cats and dogs at animal shelters to save cities and counties $14 million. And while they were at it, why not remove the requirement to check for microchips in animals and rescind a couple of cruelty laws?
Bad move, and perhaps his biggest public relations misstep. It drew a loud public outcry, but Schwarzenegger caught himself. He changed his mind, just as he did when he found out that cutting state money for people making $10 an hour caring for the disabled and infirm may actually hurt the disabled and infirm. The reversal on the pet issue was startling, and also refreshing. The governor showed that he was flexible. Former state Sen. Tom Hayden, who wrote the law protecting the animals, praised him for having the courage to change his mind.
He also gets credit for recognizing the difference between his old profession and the new one. "He's used to operating in a milieu where you say what you want and you get it," says state Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica), a former child actor. "You're just in power. And the example that he has is being in charge. There's really nobody to gainsay him. There's no balance of powers in the [entertainment] industry."
There is in Sacramento. There also is a stasis to the place, an innate resistance to real change. Amid the cocktails with lobbyists and fundraisers at posh restaurants, the handshakes and committee meetings and realities of governing in the face of multibillion-dollar shortfalls, ambitions have a way of shrinking. "Fundamental change rarely happens among individuals, states or nations," says Jerry Brown, who governed California in the '70s. "Yes, he's going to do his best to change things. But of course, the state has" --he pauses to find the phrase--"its patterns."
So in the face of this reality, Schwarzenegger's ideas and promises are being downsized or deferred. Sometimes compromise seems to be not the means, but the end.