The American Dream
As California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger stood at the podium of the Republican National Convention in August 2004, scanning the vast assemblage, everything was fantastic. Arnold’s favorite word was fantastic. Of course, his wife, Maria Shriver, was “fantastic,” but so was working with his predecessor and archrival, former Governor Gray Davis, during the transition. Now that Arnold was in office, every Californian would have a “fantastic job.” When a judge ruled that he had violated campaign laws and would have to repay $4.5 million out of his own pocket, that was “fantastic,” too.
Arnold was washed in waves of applause that began directly in front of him in the Ohio delegation. They knew him as the greatest bodybuilding champion in history, who had come to Columbus each spring since his retirement to put on a bodybuilding and sports competition. Behind the Midwesterners stood his own California delegation, many wearing T-shirts reading i’m with arnold. Beyond them were other delegations that considered him the most exciting new political figure in their party. And back up in the upper reaches of Madison Square Garden were many to whom he was primarily a movie star celebrated almost everywhere.
Arnold looked out beatifically on the huge hall. This was his first public test as a national political figure and the most important speech of his life. He had been given a key slot, Tuesday evening at ten o’clock, the first speaker on prime-time network television. He had been governor of California for nine and a half months, elected in a controversial recall election. As far as he was concerned, he had done a fantastic job. He was wildly popular and had made Californians feel good about their state once again. It was all about competition, and standing there was like moving up from the California title to the national championship or the Olympics. He was shining. Everyone was looking at him. Everyone was wondering, could he hack it? Could he make it on this great stage?
Arnold’s enormous head on the great television screens in the Garden looked like a giant icon. His head was so large that it was a visual signature that could be seen from afar. His hair, already turning gray a quarter-century ago, was dyed the most peculiar shade of brown. The six-foot, two-inch-tall politician had orange-brown skin, a color that was also a shade unknown to nature. He had a tucked face that was the work of either a master plastic surgeon or a generous God who had decided to bestow eternal youth on one mortal. However bizarre these elements might have seemed individually, they came together in an immensely powerful image.
Fifty-seven-year-old Arnold Schwarzenegger was a man of the most extraordinary public discipline. The look of youthful exuberance and energy was, in part, an act of pure will. He had a slow, purposeful walk. He almost never hurried. He held his stomach in tight to promote the lean look of youth. His discipline set him apart—surely from most men his own age, many of whom were already counting the days to retirement.
Arnold’s first starring role in Hollywood had been in 1982 as Conan the Barbarian. In his action/adventure films, Arnold had slain his enemies by the hundreds. To his audiences who had seen him as the world’s greatest action star, he seemed immortal, impervious to pain, attack, flame, bullet, or natural disaster. His most famous character, the Terminator, was a robot, but Arnold projected himself onto the world like a Terminator with a heart, a suprahuman, constantly reinventing himself, regrowing his aging parts so he seemed eternally young.
Arnold waved to Maria and their four children, all impeccably dressed for their father’s great moment. They were seated next to former President George Herbert Walker Bush, a man Arnold admired as much as any living figure in American politics, and the governor waved to him, too.
Maria was here this evening to honor her husband, but she was a Kennedy/Shriver, member of a family with two great faiths, the Catholic Church and the Democratic Party, and she would not give up either. The Republicans were no more comfortable with her than she with them, and not once this evening was her image shown on the in-house television screens. Maria had shoved a microphone in Senator John McCain’s face after his defeat in the Super Tuesday primaries four years earlier and asked him, “How do you feel?” Many among the delegates remembered that the Arizona politician had snarled at her to get out of the way, and she was escorted out, actions that were applauded by some of the Republican faithful.
Arnold knew there were those out there among the 2,509 delegates, the thousands of others in attendance, and the 30 million watching on television who expected him to falter, to expose himself as a celebrity playing in a league where he did not belong and in a game he barely understood. Arnold took that as just another challenge. He became the greatest bodybuilder of the modern era by the most meticulous preparation, including working out more each day than any of his opponents. He became the biggest movie star in the world by the same kind of concern over every last detail of his films, from the script to the marketing to the publicity. He entered politics the same way, scoping it out over a number of years, planning his attack, and when opportunity opened up, going for it.
To prepare for this evening, Arnold probably devoted more hours than any of the other politicians who spoke at the convention. For weeks he had spent hours with his speechwriter and staff, tinkering with phrases, debating concepts. Longtime Reagan speechwriter Landon Parvin had been brought in to write the speech, but Maria was dissatisfied with the original draft, and the speech went through many revisions. Parvin wanted to begin the address with a joke about Maria’s uncle, Senator Edward Kennedy. “People ask me if I still lift weights,” Arnold was to say. “Absolutely. Just the other day, I lifted two hundred and eighty-five pounds. I lifted Ted Kennedy out of his chair.” The joke would have brought the house down, but Maria would not allow her uncle to be mocked.
The week before the convention, in Sacramento and Los Angeles, Arnold practiced the speech again and again, working over the nuances of his delivery. Monday night he arrived at the convention in downtown Manhattan at midnight with his entourage and walked into the eerily empty Garden. In the belly of the arena, where a stray journalist could not possibly find him, he worked with the technician handling the TelePrompTer and ran through the address once again. Then he walked into the arena itself and up to the podium and stood there. He saw in his mind’s eye what it would be like as the crowd exploded with cheers.
As he stood there, warmed by the ovation, it was just as he imagined it would be. He was bathed in adulation. There were even hundreds of blue signs emblazoned with the name Arnold. Wherever he looked out upon the immense gathering, he saw his name. As his eyes fell for an instant on the glass TelePrompTer, he was startled. The blue background from the hundreds of signs showed through the screen, and he could not see the words. He knew his speech, but he had not memorized it. He did not panic or turn in a frantic gesture to an aide. He was in the moment. He would find a way.
“Thank you, thank you,” he said. He had a consummate awareness of his image, and he turned slowly so that everyone would see his profile, capturing him in their minds. “Thank you . . . What a greeting!”
“This is like winning an Oscar!” Arnold said as the applause died down. “As if I would know!” Arnold believed that “modest” was the appellation that the mediocre gave themselves to hide their mediocrity. This moment of self-deprecation was totally calculated. As he saw it, if he could get a laugh from making fun of himself, he would achieve instant commonality with the audience, winning a kind of capital he could use later on in his speech.
“My fellow Americans, this is an amazing moment for me,” he said, turning serious. “To think that a once scrawny boy from Austria could grow up to become governor of California and stand in Madison Square Garden to speak on behalf of the President of the United States—that is an immigrant’s dream. It is the American dream.”
There in three sentences was the essence of his life, the essentials of his message, and the foundation of his political faith. He conveyed these sentiments with an elevated sense of joy and optimism that affected almost everyone around him, and he had those emotions at a time in modern politics when almost no one else did. That, too, he was conveying to this audience.
Three days before, up to half a million Americans had marched in opposition to the war in Iraq outside this arena, many of them believing that the best and only way to be heard was to shout in the streets. The President, who had authorized this war, was accused by his foes of being a slacker who had used his father’s influence to avoid risking his life in Vietnam. His Democratic opponent was charged by political enemies with exaggerating his heroic record in that tragic conflict. It was a dispiriting time in which Democrats and Republicans tore mercilessly at each other, and many Americans seemed ready to believe the worst of the motives of those who sought to lead them.
“I was born in Europe, and I’ve traveled all over the world,” Arnold said. “I can tell you that there is no place, no country, more compassionate, more generous, more accepting, and more welcoming than the United States of America.” Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, these public professions of patriotism had become a standard ritual of politics, but few of these assertions had the authenticity of Arnold’s.
Arnold was a true witness to the greatness of America and what freedom could mean, and he held this convention the way no one else had yet. The delegates put down their blue Arnold placards, and Arnold could see the TelePrompTer, and he was fully in the moment. He had played many roles, but the character he played best was his own creation: the giant, mythic Arnold Schwarzenegger who stood onstage that evening. He focused relentlessly on whatever he was doing. He was giving the speech of his life, imbuing it with every ounce of his controlled emotional power.
He told the audience what it had been like growing up in Austria, when he had seen Soviet tanks in the streets and experienced firsthand the repression of liberty in a socialist country. Arnold was a loving son of Austria and had kept dual citizenship. This exaggerated picture pleased his audience in America as much as it displeased those in his birthplace.
When Arnold was working on the speech, some of Bush’s people recommended that he not say that when he came to the United States in 1968, he had heard Richard Nixon campaigning for President and found him “a breath of fresh air.” Since his disgraced resignation in 1974, President Nixon’s name was one that Republicans rarely invoked. Arnold did not care. He said to himself, “The hell with that. I’m not embarrassed by anything that has had an effect on me, and therefore I will not stay away from that.” That was the truth of his life, and he was going to speak it, and so he did. There were many in the audience who still revered Nixon. They left the hall that evening remembering the one man who spoke the former President’s name when no one else would. One of those was Nixon’s daughter Julie Nixon Eisenhower, who said that she was “moved to tears by Arnold’s immigrant story and by the fact that thirty years later my father’s legacy—and the impact he had on our party—still resonates.”
In twenty-three minutes, Arnold had to do many things—among them, prove his fidelity to President George W. Bush. Time and again he invoked the President’s name and proved to any who doubted it that he was a stalwart supporter. Arnold also sought to bring the disparate elements of the party together. He was a Republican governor in a state largely controlled by Democrats, and he was here “trying to find the middle ground.” He had to do that “without rubbing it in their faces, putting it in their eyes, and at the same time helping the President.” In California, he had won the support of right-wing members of his party who would have deplored almost any other Republican candidate who held liberal views on social issues—pro-choice, pro–environmental movement, pro–gay rights. “We can respectfully disagree and still be patriotic and still be American and still be good Republicans,” he told the delegates. He sought to reach beyond his own party to independents and Democrats and to move them with the passion of his ideas.
Arnold has an impish quality that no amount of power, no seriousness of position or theme, can change. In July, when he was fighting to pass a budget through California’s Democrat-controlled legislature, he called members of the opposition party “girlie men.” Some accused Arnold of resorting to “blatant homophobia,” but he meant the phrase as a gibe at what he considered weak-willed politicians who would not come to meaningful compromise.
He wanted to use the phrase again at the convention, but when Bush’s handlers vetted the speech, they sought to veto its inclusion. They were incapable of appreciating the irony that they were embodying the very definition of “girlie men.” Arnold held tough and let it be known that even if the phrase was not in the formal speech, he might just decide to say it extemporaneously.
“To those critics who are so pessimistic about our economy, I say: ‘Don’t be economic girlie men!’ ” he said, receiving the biggest ovation of the entire speech. He knew it would be a great applause line, but he also wanted to signal that he “was not apologetic about it at all.”
Arnold insisted that there be humor even in the most serious of moments, not because he was a frivolous man but because he saw that humor was one of the engines of the human spirit. Nothing—not a toast, not a speech, not even a funeral or a memorial service—should be untouched by it. But the purpose of this speech was a serious one: to invoke his own life as a witness to the greatness of his adopted country, to reach for the deepest truths of his own life to inspire his nation and to advance himself as a major national political figure.
“My fellow Americans,” Arnold said at the end of his speech, “I want you to know that I believe with all my heart that America remains ‘the great idea’ that inspires the world. It’s a privilege to be born here. It’s an honor to become a citizen here. It’s a gift to raise your family here, to vote here, and to live here.”
The cheers and applause rose to an ovation, but Arnold did not linger. He walked offstage as purposefully and as deliberately as he had entered onto it. He knew that he had done precisely what he wanted to do. He could never say so publicly, but he believed that there was a vacuum of leadership in his adopted country. There had been a vacuum in California, and he believed that he had more than filled it. As he looked on the horizon, he saw no one with the strength, confidence, energy, and belief to lead America in the twenty-first century. All that held him back from actively aspiring to the highest office in the land was the constitutional prohibition of foreign-born citizens becoming President.
He believed he had been chosen for a special role in the world. He wanted more than anything to leave that stage with people thinking that maybe he was the one. Though he was an immigrant and was not born here, maybe he was the visionary. Maybe the American people would change the Constitution so that he could lead them.
Copyright © 2005 by Laurence Leamer