In June 2003, as the movement to recall California Gov. Gray Davis was gathering momentum, Arnold Schwarzenegger paid Karl Rove a visit in the West Wing of the George W. Bush White House.
Schwarzenegger was intrigued by the idea of getting involved in the recall, but Rove was dismissive. “It will never happen,” Rove told Schwarzenegger. “There will be no recall election. Plus, if there were to be one, I don’t think anyone can unseat Gray Davis.”
As Schwarzenegger recounts the scene in his new memoir, “Total Recall,” Rove then led his guest down the stairs, where they bumped into Condoleezza Rice, then Bush’s national security adviser. Schwarzenegger suspected the encounter was planned, because what Rove said was meant to knock the movie star off balance. Referring to Rice, Rove said, “I have someone here who is interested in running for governor” in 2006.
“How could Rove have been so wrong?” Schwarzenegger writes. “He was a political genius, and he dismissed me! And he dismissed the recall!”
This brief encounter is among the more intriguing moments in this big book that struggles to live up to its subtitle, “My Unbelievably True Life Story,” given Schwarzenegger’s charmed life.
There is nothing particularly muscular about this memoir, with the possible exception of 64 pages of glossy photos of the legendary body builder who immigrated from Austria. The rest of his story is well known: Schwarzenegger became a box-office superhero in such roles as the Terminator, then proved Karl Rove wrong, winning the recall and becoming the somewhat less invincible Republican governor of California from 2003 to 2010.
Five days before the 2003 recall election, the Los Angeles Times broke a story that said six women were claiming that Schwarzenegger had groped and humiliated them on movie sets and other locations over three decades. “None of the groping accusations was true,” he writes. “Even so, I had sometimes acted inappropriately and did have reason to apologize for my past behavior.”
Schwarzenegger’s tale falls far short of total recall and fails to achieve either the depth or the emotional impact that would make us care more deeply about this fascinating public figure.
Leaving his “past behavior” largely unexplored, Schwarzenegger comes across as a slightly profane, likable enough fellow, the sort most guys would love to join for a beer or a cigar or for pumping some iron. His candor throughout is probably his most appealing trait. He acknowledges that it was stupid and wrong to call California legislators “girlie men” shortly after his election for their refusal to complete budget talks. And he concedes that his decision in 2005 to go for a series of ballot initiatives aimed at schoolteachers, prison guards and state workers — all soundly rejected by the voters — was a “total disaster.”
His willingness to go his own way as a left-leaning Republican also stands out in this election year, when the GOP has veered hard right. Schwarzenegger achieved passage of a cap on greenhouse gases, appropriated $3 billion for stem cell research, took on a health-care overhaul in California and, at a Republican Party conference in 2007, warned: “We are dying at the box office. We are not filling the seats. Our party has lost the middle, and we will not regain true political power in California until we get it back.”He remembers getting little more than “polite applause,” while the next speaker, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who “pooh-poohed climate change,” was cheered on wildly.
By far the book’s most interesting aspect is Schwarzenegger’s description of his marriage to Maria Shriver, daughter of Eunice Kennedy Shriver and Sargent Shriver, whom Schwarzenegger adores, even idolizes. They met in 1977 at the Robert F. Kennedy Celebrity Tennis Tournament in New York and married in 1986, when Maria Shriver, a television journalist, had become co-anchor of “the CBS Morning News” and Schwarzenegger was making millions for each of his movies — he would ultimately earn $14 million for starring in “Terminator 2” and $15 million for “True Lies.” “I could go on for hours about what draws me to Maria but still never fully explain the magic,” he writes, explaining that she had been his first girlfriend “who didn’t treat my ambitions as an annoyance.”
Schwarzenegger notes how much she had suffered growing up in the Kennedy clan — the assassinations of her uncles, Chappaquiddick, her father’s landslide loss in 1972 as George McGovern’s running mate. He called her career in journalism “a real declaration of independence” and said “it was hard to be without her.” He notes, oddly, that an affair he had with Danish model Brigitte Nielsen in 1984 on the set of a terrible movie called “Red Sonja” helped him realize that he wanted to marry Shriver.
He also became extremely close to her parents. While Shriver at first did not want him to run for governor, her parents were immediately supportive (although Shriver ultimately had a change of heart and said Schwarzenegger was “right to follow his dream and run”). Sargent Shriver, he writes, challenged him “to do more for the public good.”
So it is a tragic ending to the book when Schwarzenegger, in the penultimate chapter, describes how his wife took him to marriage counseling as his time in office was winding down and confronted him about an illegitimate child he had fathered with a household worker years earlier. Here’s Schwarzenegger’s confession, with something less than total recall:
“It was one of those stupid things that I promised myself never to do. My whole life I never had anything going with anyone who worked for me. This happened in 1996 when Maria and the kids were away on holiday and I was in town finishing ‘Batman and Robin.’ Mildred had been working in our household for five years, and all of [a] sudden we were alone in the guest house. When Mildred gave birth the following August, she named the baby Joseph and listed her husband as the father. That is what I wanted to believe and what I did believe for years.”
Schwarzenegger and Shriver are now separated and in the process of divorcing, he writes, though he says he remains optimistic that “we will come together again.”
“I was luckier than I deserved to have such a wife,” he says.
Reading his memoir leaves a reader hungering for hers.
will be in Washington on Oct. 2 to discuss his book. Go to WashingtonPostLive.com for details and video clips after the event.
My Unbelievably True Life Story
By Arnold Schwarzenegger
Simon & Schuster. 646 pp. $35