FANTASTIC

The Life of Arnold Schwarzenegger

By Laurence Leamer

St. Martin's. 421 pp. $24.95

Of the many parts Arnold Schwarzenegger plays in his new political career, his favorites are those of the immigrant boy who, through will and what Horatio Alger called pluck, achieved the American dream, and of Hiram Johnson, the Progressive-era California governor who, in Schwarzenegger's rendering, joined "the people" to fight "the interests." Both role models grew from the stresses of the Gilded Age. But as embodiments of public morality, they're simplistic and contradictory -- one a mythic affirmation of the system, the other a call for reform of it. And neither, as Schwarzenegger has discovered in recent months, is enough of a compass in a 21st-century society.

In his effort to resolve that conflict, Laurence Leamer's new biography of California's governor provides rich insights into the conditions that have made Schwarzenegger what he seems to be, material that will no doubt form the basis for any subsequent biographies: the ambivalent relationship with his authoritarian Austrian father; the determination and hard work required to become the world's greatest bodybuilder (a sport, if that's what it is, whose growth paralleled and probably benefited from his rise within it); the ensuing career as an action-hero star in Hollywood; the groping and other acts that Schwarzenegger later characterized as "rowdy"; the conversion, almost overnight, from a showbiz celebrity into a politician successful enough to succeed Gray Davis, the discredited Democratic governor who was recalled in 2003.

Along the way, Leamer provides extensive details on the stratagems and psychic gamesmanship that helped gain Schwarzenegger his various bodybuilding titles, the smart business deals in Hollywood and real estate, and even the box office grosses, foreign and domestic, of every major movie he made. But beyond the ambition, the smarts and the complex relationship with his wife, Maria Shriver, the inner man, if one exists, remains elusive.

The book's greater difficulty is that mid-career biographies are always risky, especially if they're about politicians in places as mutable as California. So while much of the first two-thirds of "Fantastic" is persuasive -- and an easy introduction to the culture of bodybuilding -- the last third is on shakier ground. Even in his first year in office, Schwarzenegger often reversed himself, changed his tone from sweet collaboration to personal attack and made deals on which he later reneged.

Leamer, the author of "The Kennedy Women," laces this book with Schwarzenegger's declarations of his visionary sense of his destiny, including a meeting early this year with the editorial board of the Sacramento Bee where he talked about his ambitious reform agenda for California, whose dysfunctional governmental and fiscal structure have earned it near-bottom rankings on almost every scale there is.

"I tell you that this is going to be the year that things change very drastically because I have the feeling for it," he said. "I always see things ahead of time. . . . When people say, 'You won't be Mr. Universe, Austrian farm boy,' I say, 'I see.' And they could not figure that out, and I did. I was totally convinced that it would work. I saw myself as a great action star. I never saw myself as a musical star or something like that. I saw myself as an action star and that's exactly what I did. And I saw myself as the governor. And I can see that we can turn our state around."

That was in January, after he warned the California legislature that if it didn't give him what he wanted, he'd call a special election and join "the people" in initiative drives to change the budget process and the state's redistricting system, privatize the pension system for public employees and institute merit pay for teachers.

But by late April, the reform agenda had shrunk. Schwarzenegger had abandoned a much ballyhooed abolition of almost 100 government boards and commissions, had deferred pension change and was retreating on merit pay. In the interim, his failure to honor a school-funding deal he had made with the powerful California Teachers Association and his attacks (both in proposed policy changes and in his often intemperate language) on teachers, nurses, cops and firefighters had generated fierce opposition. The nurses, he said, were a special interest who were mad because "I kick their butt." On the street, groups of public employees dogged his campaign fundraisers enough that he had to sneak into hotels through back entrances. His high poll ratings dropped. By late April, according to the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California, only 40 percent of Californians approved of the way Schwarzenegger was doing his job, down from 60 percent in January; 50 percent disapproved.

None of that means that Schwarzenegger -- almost certainly America's second-best-known officeholder -- is finished. But he's now perceived less as a Hollywood action hero than as just another politician. That demands far more texture and context from a biographer than Leamer provides.

One of the strengths of Leamer's book is his awareness of Schwarzenegger's arrogance, his dependency on adulation, his will to dominate. But that awareness should also have warned him that in the political world, where your flacks, agents and handlers can never fully protect you and where, as in California, you really must move mountains, a biographical ride into the sunset is always dangerous. At the very end of the book, Leamer quotes Theodore Roosevelt's famous statement about the man "in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood," who "spends himself in a worthy cause" and who, "if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly."

"If Arnold fails," Leamer concludes, "it will not be for want of daring greatly." That would have sounded quaint even in January.

Jonathan Yardley is away.