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Everything in Moderation

What two new books about Schwarzenegger miss.
Fantastic: The Life of Arnold Schwarzenegger By Laurence Leamer
(St. Martin's Press, 432 pp., $24.95)
Click here to buy this book

Schwarzenegger Syndrome: Politics and Celebrity in the Age of Contempt
By Gary Indiana
(New Press, 140 pp., $19.95)
Click here to buy this book

Last June, seven months into Arnold Schwarzenegger's term as governor of California, The New Yorker ran a profile of the former bodybuilder-cum-action star by Connie Bruck, flatteringly titled "Supermoderate." Schwarzenegger's approval ratings were then hovering around 65 percent, and the governator was racking up kudos for his rapid-fire reforms and his shrewd bipartisanship. "He has won from Democratic legislators concessions that they never made to Gray Davis, his Democratic predecessor," Bruck wrote. In fact, Arnold had so soothed the normally rancorous political scene in Sacramento that there was already talk of a presidential run--provided, of course, that the Constitution could be amended to allow a foreign-born candidate to serve. "It is a measure of Schwarzenegger's effectiveness and popularity in his early months as governor," Bruck effused, "that--but for the Constitution--[the presidency] now seems eminently plausible."

But like most political honeymoons, Schwarzenegger's came to a quick end. There came a time to stop basking in the spotlight and get back to cleaning and keeping house. And in the year since The New Yorker profile appeared, Schwarzenegger's housekeeping has not been good. He has been locked in bitter battles with state legislators, unions, and business groups. Last summer, he landed in the national news when he called political opponents "girlie men" for obstructing his state budget bill. One undeniable high point, his booming speech at last year's Republican National Convention, sunk a bit after a journalist fact-checked his assertion that he trembled before Communist tanks during his Austrian boyhood. (It turns out that it was the Allies who occupied Arnold's province after World War II.) Last week, the governor decided to bypass the legislature and called for a special ballot to take three of his initiatives directly to his adoring constituency. (It also turns out that, according to a recent poll by the Public Policy Institute, only 40 percent of Californians still adore him.)

Not that any of this worries Schwarzenegger. As Laurence Leamer's Fantastic and Gary Indiana's Schwarzenegger Syndrome, two very different new books about the one-time Terminator, agree, the man is aggressively optimistic. Introspection--indeed, interiority of any kind--only impedes his actions: Schwarzenegger is purely a man of action. Whether this kind of don't-look-back leadership is dynamic (as Leamer claims, sunnily) or disastrous (as Indiana screams, irately) is a bit beside the point. The real question is how a person of such extreme qualities in every other respect could sincerely espouse a set of moderate, deeply reasonable political beliefs. It's a question, alas, neither Leamer nor Indiana bothers to ask.

Both books recount Schwarzenegger's by now famous biography. He was born to humble circumstances in Austria in 1947. An indifferent student, he devoted himself to perfecting his physique and improving his strength. At 20 he won his first Mr. Universe title, which he followed up with other successes in similar contests. In 1968 a bodybuilding impresario arranged for him to come to America, where he has lived ever since. Schwarzenegger's acting career took off in the '80s when he began appearing in big-budget Hollywood films like The Terminator. During that time he wed Maria Shriver, a television journalist and member of the Kennedy family. He positioned himself for a possible future in politics by serving as the Chairman of the President's Council on Physical Fitness under the first President Bush. Finally, and just as his days as a box office draw were dwindling, he seized an opportunity to run as the Republican candidate for governor in a recall election in California. He won.

Of course, there is more to the Schwarzenegger saga than that spindly web of accomplishment. Indeed, there is a rather long list of offenses, though Leamer diligently works to convert each of these into a mere indelicacy. Schwarzenegger p?re's enthusiastic membership in the Nazi party and his participation in the infamous S.A. stand out as particularly troubling, but the biographer explains these away with Panglossian zeal. Nazism, Leamer tells us, "was one matter that was not discussed in the Schwarzenegger house." Somehow, though, young Arnold seems to have discovered it on his own, because 30 years later the film Pumping Iron captured him mumbling admiringly about Adolf Hitler. Again, Leamer snatches us from the precipice of misunderstanding. Schwarzenegger "used his fascination with Hitler as a way to startle people with humor." Because, you know, nothing gets them rolling in the aisles like a crack about genocide!

Schwarzenegger's sexual peccadilloes also provide Leamer many opportunities to ply his craft as an excuse-maker. Accusations of pinching and groping may well be true. But that's just because Schwarzenegger's "unpuritanical sexual attitudes ... [were] largely European." And woe be that repressed American woman who crosses his path. As Leamer sees it, though, at least one instance of sexual harassment actually validates the character of this macho youth. "Marion," Leamer notes of one unwilling object of Arnold's lust, "happened to be Jewish, and though that had nothing to do with Arnold's deep affection for her, it is further evidence that he is far from anti-Semitic." (Poor Maria Shriver. Not only does she have to suffer the indignities of having her husband's infidelities detailed and then laughed away, she also gets branded "chubby" and "zaftig.")

Setting aside Schwarzenegger's tabloid-ready antics, the real focus of Fantastic and Syndrome is Arnold the politician. Like Bruck, both Leamer and Indiana deem Governor Schwarzenegger a genuine moderate, fiscally conservative, socially liberal. The problem is that as much as Leamer loves Arnold and as much as Indiana hates him, neither knows quite how to spin the governor's political moderation. It's an embarrassing lacuna in a psychological portrait shaded by strokes of extremism. Indiana tries very awkwardly to toss Schwarzenegger's lot in with George W. Bush and the GOP machinery while still insisting that he is a "Rockefeller Republican" who "offered Californians the possibility of a mixed, secular bag of unimportant progressive reforms." (Indiana's book, it should be noted, often makes no sense. Here, for instance, is Indiana on opinion journalism: "This barbecue of something new into nothing new compares a current event of terrifying barbarism with an event, or series of events, that occurred in the era of barbarism that followed the era of savagery.") For his part, Leamer boasts that Schwarzenegger's political philosophy is simply an emanation of his fierce independence, a refusal to relinquish individual thought to party dogma.

The real secret of Arnold's moderation is, I think, neither intellectual emptiness nor personal integrity. It's complete and total demagoguery. The worst offenders in that category on the national stage--e.g., Tom DeLay--must make gestures of party loyalty, if only because they legislate and govern cooperatively. Schwarzenegger has no such obligation. California is so solidly Democratic that Arnold is not just a Republican, he is the Republican. And that's why he's almost certain to fail outside of state politics, where a party of one--even if you're a Big One--can't win. Enthusiasm and bile seem to have blinded Leamer and Indiana to this point. So much for supermoderate.

Keelin McDonell is a writer for The New Republic.