- The Washington Times - Monday, August 8, 2005

FANTASTIC: THE LIFE OF ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER

By Laurence Leamer

St. Martin’s, $24.95, 421 pages

Like other great Hollywood movie stars and like that other well known Hollywood movie star turned California governor, Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger has thrived — as both movie star and politician — by being perpetually underestimated. And it is apt that this valuable and thought-provoking new biography of “Ah-nold” should be underestimated by reviewers and that it should emerge just as Mr. Schwarzenegger’s standing among pollsters and pundits is in the doldrums.

The irony is that, like Reagan, Mr. Schwarzenegger has always achieved the most when he is most underestimated. He was a quiet, relatively small-in-stature teenager compared with previous titans when he entered the bodybuilding scene. He was despised as dumb and tongue?tied — and he has never been either — when he appeared on the Hollywood scene.

Mr. Leamer’s book is far from the superficial hagiography it has been smeared as. The book weighs in at 362 pages with impressive footnotes and bibliography as well as a gratifyingly thorough index. Like Ronald Reagan and Franklin Roosevelt, the two dominant presidents of modern American history, Mr. Leamer notes, Arnold was a mama’s boy, given love by his self-sacrificing mother Aurelia. It is an often-overlooked example of Arnold’s decency that he took over the financial support for his brother Meinhard’s illegitimate son Patrick after Meinhard’s death in a car accident in 1971. As Mr. Leamer writes, “He provided him with emotional support and a true family.”

Mr. Leamer is moving in his restrained description of the funeral of Arnold’s beloved mother in 1998, “Arnold knew that his mother would be no more comfortable with extravagance in death than in life. He gave her a simple funeral among friends, helping push the cart that carried her body from the church to the family burial plot.” If there is one area where Mr. Leamer most shines, and where, indeed, his book is invaluable, it is in showing the role of focused intellect at every stage of Mr. Schwarzenegger’s rise. It is not common for bodybuilders to parlay their physical stature into highly successful business careers, but Mr. Schwarzenegger did this, and rapidly. His real-estate acumen has been impressive. His Hollywood career, as critics like Roger Ebert and the late Gene Siskel noted, has been replete with shrewd career choices. He was, as Mr. Leamer notes “the producer, director and screenwriter of his own career.”

The keys to his success as governor can be seen in the way he handled his own rise. He was always a commanding presence, but with a shrewd eye for talent, ready to delegate and take expert advice. Not being an intellectual in politics has many up sides: It makes it far easier for a politician to communicate with ordinary people. But it also, ironically, often makes it far easier for the politician to avail himself of the best and brightest minds available without feeling that he needs to be smarter than them — failings that have bedeviled the careers and presidential campaigns of Al Gore and John Kerry. The current wisdom is now that Mr. Schwarzenegger’s honeymoon has worn off, he may well prove to be a one-term governor and will face a bruising contest for reelection that may leave him burned out even if he wins.

The amazing story revealed in Mr. Leamer’s aptly titled book suggests a very different outcome: Such flip, facile conclusions not only underestimate Mr. Schwarzenegger and his achievements, but they also misread the well-established political dynamics of the Golden State. Not a single California governor in more than 70 years has been denied reelection, not even Gov. Jerry Brown or Mr. Schwarzenegger’s hapless predecessor Gray Davis who drove the wealthiest state in the union to the brink of bankruptcy.

Mr. Schwarzenegger, by contrast, has already marked up real and lasting achievements: His solution to the financial crisis alone ranks as one of the great fiscal turnarounds in the modern history of any state. And the $3 billion bond issue for stem-cell research he masterminded will not only play a crucial role in regaining and maintaining U.S. global leadership in this cutting edge medical technology, but renew California’s century-long power to attract the greatest minds to boost her fortunes.

Throughout the 20th century and beyond, the surest path to the presidency has been to be the successfully reelected governor of one of the three largest states: It was a route that worked for Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan and current President George W. Bush. All it would take is one popular minor constitutional amendment and the man who was Mr. Universe, The Terminator and Conan the Barbarian might yet hold the highest office of all. There have been worse choices.

Martin Sieff is national security correspondent for United Press International.

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