The Arnold Schwarzenegger I Knew

Gabriel Olsen/FilmMagic

“I am the living, breathing incarnation of the American dream.” – Arnold Schwarzenegger

Reading some of the recent press on Arnold Schwarzenegger, both during his gubernatorial campaign in California and after his victory there, I have had cause to remember a crisp, blue-skied morning in New York City in September 1973, five years after Arnold first arrived in this country. I was in New York with photographer-filmmaker George Butler to watch the Austrian Oak win his fourth consecutive Mr. Olympia contest and to write the first article published about him in an American general interest magazine. George and I also had plans for a book on bodybuilding (then about as murky and disdained a subculture in America as midget wrestling), and we had known with stone certainty from the moment we first met Arnold a year earlier not only that he would be the star of that book (published as ‘Pumping Iron‘) but that he was destined for much greater stardom beyond it.

We had arranged for Arnold and a group of other bodybuilders to stay while they were in New York at that bastion of the delicately sensible life, the Algonquin Hotel, in whose small, exquisite lobby they were studied like metaphors in some obscure language. On this September morning a literary agent and I turned the corner onto

West 44th Street off Sixth Avenue, and there was Arnold, walking like a wave breaking toward the hotel from the other end of the block, followed by a retinue of bodybuilders and their vivid girlfriends. He was wearing emerald green shorts. His centaur legs were a bright copper color from a new coat of Tan-in-a-Minute. A car full of his buddies turned onto 44th and slowed beside him, and suddenly the whole street was alive with bodybuilders, driving up in cars, coming out of the hotel. The doorman and the taxi drivers gaped: These huge, outrageous people seemed conjured from the sparkling air. There was laughter from one of the cars and a shout as it pulled off. Out in the street Arnold whooped mightily and kicked at the departing fender. There were maybe two dozen pairs of eyes in front of the Algonquin, and all of them watched his ornately carved leg wink outward in a high, floating punt that seemed to catch the New York morning smack in the bustle. It was a perfectly intuited, perfectly original fusion of moment with motion, and it cracked the instant open like an egg on a pan. Possibility ran in the street.

But then, as now, not everyone saw it. “This is what you want to write a book about?” said my agent friend after Arnold and his troupe had disappeared inside the hotel, leaving the morning once again quotidian. “That guy’s a joke.”

The snitty editorial writers and television talking heads who have recently found Arnold’s gubernatorial run and victory so risible are just the latest in a long line of people who have shared that agent’s opinion throughout Arnold’s astonishing trajectory, at every step expecting him to pratfall back into obscurity. The director Bob Rafelson thought I was the joke when I insisted that Arnold had to play bodybuilder Joe Santo in the film adaptation of my novel ‘Stay Hungry,’ Arnold’s first real movie role and one for which he would win a Golden Globe for best new actor. And a couple of years later, at the glamorati watering holes of New York, Arnold was greeted with delighted smirks as the campy joke of the year following the successes of both the book ‘Pumping Iron’ and the documentary film adapted from the book. Establishment Hollywood thought he was a joke in a fur loincloth until ‘The Terminator.’ No doubt countless California businessmen thought so too until he cleaned their clocks in real estate deals. A member of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports once told me she thought the first President Bush’s appointment of Arnold as head of the council a joke. I never got to ask her if she was still laughing after – by general consensus – he used that position more selflessly, more imaginatively, and to greater effect than anyone in its history.

The fact is, Arnold’s career has been a joke – a quintessentially American one, of his own careful devising, about the way things are and are expected to remain. Ever since he got to this country he has been kicking various status quos in the butt, breaking them open with his uniqueness and determination, and causing Horatio Alger possibilities to run in the streets.

Arnold’s first career success was as a bodybuilder (he won the sport’s top professional title, Mr. Olympia, an unprecedented seven times), and it is a shapely irony that bodybuilding was both the reason his ambitions outside it were at first so derided and, at the same time, precisely the right training for realizing those ambitions. It has often been said that Arnold came to this country with a master plan of achievement: to become and remain for a record time the world’s top bodybuilder; to become a movie star, a multimillionaire, a best-selling author; to marry an American princess; to win high political office. Though there is no question that he brought the first three of those ambitions across the Atlantic with him in his gym bag, Arnold was even then too shrewd an opportunist and too thoroughgoing an existentialist to have imagined his future any further. What, without question, he did plan to do in this country, in accordance with the American dream, was to make himself into the biggest, the most, and the best he could possibly be, and for that he was very well equipped, with a fine assessing and strategic intelligence, a blotting paper curiosity and appetite for life, and a virtually limitless capacity for planned growth.

Bodybuilders are the ultimate self-made men. The very good ones, when they begin, will stand in front of a mirror, observing in it basically the same inchoateness you and I do but seeing there a huge perfection. All they have to work with is themselves, and daily they will and train that complaining asset toward a vision of its completeness. Like artists they are in the business of making order out of chaos, of cooking raw potential. And, like artists, the very best ones dream big. Where most of us are happy if our physical selves are well-run, moderately successful family businesses, top bodybuilders want to be nothing less than Microsoft.

If you are as gifted a student as Arnold was, bodybuilding will teach you a muscular self-honesty and how to maximize your strengths and improve your weaknesses. It will teach you to prioritize and to set both long-term and short-term goals for yourself. But it will also teach you to concentrate only and fully on what you are doing at a particular moment. Not least important, it will teach you to push yourself well beyond normal human work and pain thresholds – quite literally to work until you puke.

“I know that if you can change your diet and exercise program to give yourself a different body, you can apply the same principles to anything else,” Arnold wrote in his 1977 autobiography, ‘The Education of a Bodybuilder.’ “The secret is contained in a three-part formula I learned in the gym: self-confidence, a positive mental attitude, and honest hard work. Many people are aware of these principles, but very few can put them into practice.” Particularly that last. When I was writing ‘Pumping Iron’ I asked Arnold what single characteristic most contributed to his phenomenal ongoing domination of bodybuilding. He said, “I work harder at it. The others think they work hard, but they don’t really push themselves to their limits.”

His three-part formula and a ruthlessly self-critical eye made Arnold, before he was out of his twenties, into a wizard of his own growth. I have seen him study one of his flexed forearms in a mirror and decide it needed to be a half inch thicker, then seen him at the same mirror two weeks later with precisely that half inch there. When he looked into a mirror a few years later and saw Conan, I would suggest that he was better enabled than most of us would be to see what had to be done to grow into one of America’s highest-paid movie stars, and far better empowered to do it.

“Endeavor to live the life which you have imagined,” Henry David Thoreau advises. Like Thoreau, Muhammad Ali, and Bill Gates, Arnold belongs to that breed of American originals who imagine a particular uniqueness for themselves and then attain it. During his 35 years in America he has looked into the mirror over and over, imagining where he would grow next and then becoming exactly that enlargement and refinement of himself: from Mr. Europe to seven-time Mr. Olympia, from bricklayer to business and real estate tycoon, from Hercules in New York to Danny DeVito’s twin, from immigrant iron-pumper to governor of California. Arnold’s story in this country is arguably the most complete and articulate achievement of the American dream in our time. Like Gatsby’s, it is a story – as Arnold is acutely aware – that could only have happened in America, the one place that remains commensurate with our capacity for wonder. And it is most purely an American story not because of its payoff of riches and fame, but because it says unequivocally what we all want most to believe about ourselves: that we can be our own Pygmalions.

What the dupes who are forever taking Arnold’s newest growth plans for himself, his newest attack on the status quo, as a joke don’t realize is that he never “makes the move” (one of his pet phrases) until he knows how to make it work. He does not imagine another half inch on the forearm until he knows exactly how to put it there. His growth into American politics has behind it a long study of, and a deep respect for, that highly complex extreme sport. Being, as it is, largely inspired by a profound desire to give back something of what has been given to him in this country, it has behind it the remarkable woman he is married to, Maria Shriver, and her remarkable family. It has behind it his work with the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, and with the Inner-City Games, and with Proposition 49. And it has behind it years of thinking about how he would be governor – how that forearm should look – and a large, first-rate team of advisers to help him with that visualization.

Unlike so many cynical and insular celebrities in and out of politics, Arnold fervently believes in America and in its best dreams for itself, and he has no doubt – why would he? – that he can help actualize those dreams. At this paradoxical juncture in his life, the Austrian Oak’s outsize self-interest has carried him into interest in kids, the disadvantaged, these old-short, the butts of jokes, and into the thankless, almost no-win labor of governing the country’s most populous state. I happen to know that for quite a while he has seen himself there. Now – for as long as the job takes – he is finished looking in the mirror and has commenced the work. Again he will do more of it than anyone else does, and with clearer intent. We’ll see who’s laughing at the end of his term.

Charles Gaines, a ‘Men’s Journal’ contributing editor, is the author of numerous books, including ‘Pumping Iron,’ the first book about Arnold Schwarzenegger.

A conversation with the governor:

You’ve got money, fame, a great young family. Why take on governing the state of California? What drives you to constantly reinvent yourself, even at this stage in your life?
It’s not even really a matter of my choosing to make the big changes in my life. It’s like I get this vision, without me controlling it, of what I’m supposed to do next, and then that vision consumes me. It becomes me. And from the beginning I absolutely believe that I can do it, you know? It’s almost like you have faith that you can do this thing, and then you can’t wait to get started on what you have to do to get there.

What is your main goal as governor?
To save the state. Everyone in Sacramento knows what is the right thing to do, but they don’t do it. I will. I don’t have to care about special interests, or being in anyone’s pocket. I’m in the position of being able to do exactly and only what is right for the state.

What is your feeling toward all the people who have underestimated you throughout your various careers?
Gratitude. Being underestimated has always been a huge advantage to me. I remember back in ’74 or ’75 I was on the ‘Merv Griffin Show,’ and Shecky Green was the guest host. He asked me a question and I answered it. Shecky gives this gasp and nearly falls out of his chair, and he says, “You can talk!” So, because the expectations have been so low for me, as a bodybuilder and all that, I seem always to be overachieving.

What was the funniest moment during the campaign?
When the egg was thrown at me. I was giving a speech in Long Beach, and there were over 5,000 students there. So when I’m walking out to the microphone this egg hits me in the shoulder. I never stopped my walk. I just took my jacket and wiped the egg off my shirt and got to the mike and gave my speech. After the speech I was answering questions from the press, and one of them says, “What about the egg that was thrown at you?” I told him, “The guy owes me bacon!” I gained, I think, seven points in the polls after that.

What do you see as the biggest single challenge facing you as governor?
Getting everyone to work together. The problems we have in California can only be solved if everyone works together: Republicans, Democrats, business, labor… I will do whatever I have to do to make that happen. All the Democratic leaders say they want to work with me. I have gone to see, and am going to see, every one of them. And I go to their offices; I don’t ask them to come to mine.

Do you have any political plans beyond your first term as governor?
I’m not thinking that far ahead. But I’ll tell you… Do you know who Cincinnatus was? Well, I think this guy was the ultimate for cool. He goes in as Roman emperor and gets the job done, then he gives back the ring and goes on to something else.

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