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Schwarzenegger's Action-Star Moves as Governor


Back to the studio now and this story, trouble for California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. You'll recall the former actor won a special election a year and a half ago, but his political fortunes may be turning. Powerful state teachers and nurses unions are running TV ads criticizing his efforts to cut spending. Now NPR's Mike Pesca speculates perhaps the governor's political problems come because he still thinks of himself as an action star.

(Soundbite of crowd)

Unidentified Man: No! Stop lying to us! Stop to lying us!

MIKE PESCA reporting:

Not even Joan Rivers is this rude to movie stars, but a small and, as you can hear, extremely vocal part of the crowd attending Santa Monica College graduation last night, made it tough to even make out Arnold Schwarzenegger's commencement address. Anyone who pressed up next to a loudspeaker would have heard the governor's distinct `Follow your dreams' message.

Governor ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER (Republican, California): Then when I did "Conan the Barbarian," the director then said after the movie, `If we wouldn't have had Arnold Schwarzenegger, we would have had to build one,' because of the accent and because of the body development that I had, so it worked to my advantage. So I never lost sight of my goal.

PESCA: Schwarzenegger routinely trades on his movie star past where he gained fame for facing down bad guys like this.

(Soundbite of "End of Days")

Gov. SCHWARZENEGGER: (As Jericho Cane) I want you to go to hell.

Mr. GABRIEL BYRNE: (As Satan) Well, you see, sometimes the problem is hell comes to you.

PESCA: Gabriel Byrne is, yes, the devil himself in "End of Days." These days, Schwarzenegger's nemeses take a different tone.

(Soundbite of ad)

Unidentified Woman #1: I'm a high school teacher.

Unidentified Woman #2: And I'm a parent with a son in the second grade. We have a message for Governor Schwarzenegger.

PESCA: It's not `I'll see you in hell.' Although the California Teachers Association, the sponsors of that ad, say they have been demonized by the governor. John August, screenwriter of "Charlie's Angels," "Big Fish" and "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," says Schwarzenegger's problem may be that he's sticking to the narrative that brought him to Sacramento.

Mr. JOHN AUGUST (Screenwriter): The thing about, you know, a hero in a Hollywood action movie is that he has a really clearly defined villain. There's somebody he needs to take down, there's somebody he needs to beat and defeat. And that doesn't necessarily translate well to the actual business of politics where it's not really clear what you're supposed to be doing, how you're supposed to be doing it, and there's not, you know, an easy way to point to success.

PESCA: Two days ago, when Schwarzenegger announced a special election for ballot initiatives, the Senate's top Democrat derided him as wanting to star in another war movie. Every actor-turned-politician faces this familiar insult, that this isn't a movie. But what John August is saying goes beyond the familiar trope; of course Schwarzenegger knows it's not a movie. But his ability to so effectively communicate has been tied up to the characters he played, not just that they were characters, but to the specific type, the lone wolf, the outsider. In Schwarzenegger's early movies, he was given little dialogue, but then writer Steven De Souza in scripts for "Commando" and "The Running Man" created what became Schwarzenegger's persona. Based on Schwarzenegger's actual personality, De Souza created characters in the mold of James Cagney or Burt Reynolds, the wise guy who's willing to throw a punch, but in the last few months, De Souza says, that character is nowhere to be seen.

Mr. STEVEN DE SOUZA (Writer): Well, you know, if Arnold would normally be in the movie--Right?--the infantry commander, suddenly now he's the colonel. Or he's the division chief of the police station. Suddenly, he's a suit.

PESCA: Real life is murkier than the movies, you might say. Well, sure. But a successful politician will bring clarity out of the complexity. He'll create a useful narrative to get his point across. John August says Arnold can still play the movie star, but maybe these times call for a Jimmy Stewart/Frank Capra movie where he brings the town together, not some revenge-based blockbuster.

Mr. AUGUST: He sees situations where he's not willing to compromise or risk his personal popularity for what might be the larger political gain. Action movie heroes don't compromise. That's sort of the definition of an action movie hero is that he fights the fight, wins the fight and, at the end of the day, you can say, `That's the guy who saved everything,' and compromise doesn't really feel like winning.

PESCA: De Souza adheres to the `let Arnold be Arnold' philosophy. He advises, though, recasting the villains.

Mr. DE SOUZA: The parts that Arnold has usually played--and a lot of them, you know, the movie stars, you know, that we think of as action heroes, or just hero heroes, there is--if you're a fireman, there's a fire, you answer the bell. If you're the sheriff, there's cattle rustling, you jump on your horse. But the conversation seems to be mostly about, like, `How much red beef should we eat?' and you start in saying, `Is this beef marbled enough?' and then we get into conversation with nutritionists and then nobody's paying attention.

PESCA: From top body builder to top box-office draw, Schwarzenegger has always transformed and become more and more appealing. But now with the public growing disenchanted, powerful unions inveighing against him and a Legislature full of dissatisfied Democrats, the question is: Will Governor Schwarzenegger show his range? Mike Pesca, NPR News, Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mike Pesca first reached the airwaves as a 10-year-old caller to a New York Jets-themed radio show and has since been able to parlay his interests in sports coverage as a National Desk correspondent for NPR based in New York City.