SO THERE WE WERE, me and Arnold Schwarzenegger, sitting in the Jacuzzi, talking about movies and the meaning of life.
It had been a long day of frenetic activity. Schwarzenegger -- the chairman, or "Main Man" as he puts it, of the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports -- was in the middle of a six-day, 11-state tour to promote the idea that American kids ought to get off their fat butts and exercise. That morning, he'd breakfasted with Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer, led exercises at a gym class in a Maryland elementary school, held a press conference, spoken at a "fitness rally" and then flown on his private jet to Maine, where he'd lunched with Gov. John McKernan, led exercises at another elementary school, held another press conference, spoken at another fitness rally, delivered a "distinguished lecture" at the University of Maine, held a "fitness summit" with state leaders and then flown to Albany, N.Y., where he would begin a similar schedule the next morning.
After checking into the Albany Hilton, Schwarzenegger, 43, had headed down to the basement, where he'd spent about half an hour pumping iron on the hotel's exercise machine. Then he'd stripped down to his bathing suit and plopped into the Jacuzzi.
So there we were, sitting in the hot, swirling water, while Arnold regaled me with stories about the filming of his latest movie, "Terminator II," which premieres on July 3, and about the filming of some earlier movies too, like "Conan the Barbarian," a film in which Arnold, playing the eponymous hero, bit the head off a vulture and chopped the head off James Earl Jones. His stories were great, and he told them well, particularly the one about the schnapps-drinking contest he had with a reporter during the filming of "Conan" in Spain a decade ago, a contest Arnold lost because he was actually drinking shot after fiery shot of the schnapps, while the sneaky reporter was surreptitiously pouring his shots into a potted plant, a ruse that enabled the puny scribe to walk away unscathed while the great bodybuilder collapsed like a felled oak.
Anyway, we were sitting there in the Jacuzzi, with the steam rising and the sweat falling, and I figured it was time to ask Arnold a heavy, profound philosophical question.
"So, Arnold," I said, "what is best in life?"
Chairman Schwarzenegger smiled. "Crush enemies," he said. "See them driven before you. Hear the lamentation of their women."
OF COURSE, AS EVERY SCHWARZENEGGER FAN KNOWS, THAT question and answer are the most memorable lines of dialogue from "Conan the Barbarian." Probably the only memorable lines of dialogue from "Conan the Barbarian."
Characters in Schwarzenegger movies tend to let their weapons do the talking, but there is usually one line of dialogue designed to become a pop catch phrase, thereby advertising the movie. In "Total Recall," for example, Arnold, playing a construction worker whose brain is controlled by Martians, shoots his wife, who's in cahoots with the Martians, and then proclaims, "Consider that a divorce!" And in "The Terminator," Arnold, playing a robot sent to Earth from the robot-controlled future, tells the guard at a police station, "I'll be back!" and then, true to his word, he drives his car right in the front door and starts shooting everybody. That line -- "I'll be back!" -- was so popular that it was reprised by Schwarzenegger's characters in "Twins" and "Kindergarten Cop," inspiring an over-excited Village Voice critic to theorize that the line "has intimations of the Eternal Return."
I'd never seen a Schwarzenegger movie until a few days before joining the fitness tour, but I made up for lost time by renting and watching eight Arnold flicks in a little over 48 hours. It was a prodigious feat of background research that might have killed a lesser journalist. In those 48 hours, watching "Conan" and "Predator" and "The Terminator" and "Total Recall" and "The Running Man" and "Twins" and "Red Sonja" and "Raw Deal," I saw Chairman Schwarzenegger do many amazing things: He levitated on a stretcher of fire! He burst out of the body of a fat lady! He cut off the head of a giant snake! He stuck a pair of pliers up his nose and removed an electronic device from his brain! He gouged out the eyes of a sea serpent! He calmly removed his own wounded eyeball with an Exacto knife and then casually covered the bloody socket with a cool pair of shades! He strangled a homicidal hockey player with barbed wire! He shoved a roaring chain saw into a psychotic motorcyclist's crotch! He cut off an enemy's arm with a giant sword, then casually tossed the still-quivering limb aside!
Quickly, I realized that Chairman Schwarzenegger, though a novice to the Washington scene, definitely possesses the toughness necessary to survive in the jungle of the federal bureaucracy.
Bleary-eyed and mind-boggled, I ended my little Schwarzenegger Film Festival with another blazing flash of insight: A great American theme runs through the Arnold oeuvre, I realized, the same great theme that runs through detective novels and cowboy movies and Superman comics -- the theme of the lone hero who rides into town (frequently on a horse) to save the innocent from evil.