Total Recall: My Unbelievably True Life Story, by Arnold Schwarzenegger, Simon & Schuster, RRP£20
There are 619 pages in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s new autobiography and it takes 590 of them before the Austrian-born body builder, who became an action movie star and then, improbably, governor of California, addresses the event that last year cast a shadow over his previous achievements.
Schwarzenegger had already left office on a subdued note in 2010, having served a maximum two terms without fixing California’s perennial budget problems – or the fallout from its outsized housing bubble. The revelation that he had fathered a child with his family’s housekeeper and kept it secret for 14 years from his wife, Maria Shriver – while the housekeeper continued to work in the family home – torpedoed the remnants of political goodwill.
In a way, this is a shame. A moderate Republican who had no qualms about standing up to his party’s lunatic fringe, Schwarzenegger used his charm and outsize personality to considerable effect in California, despite promising – and failing – to fix the state’s dysfunctional finances. His popularity inspired talk of a push for a constitutional amendment to allow a foreign-born American citizen to run for president. In a party where moderate voices are in short supply, Schwarzenegger stood out: “I can work with Democrats,” he once joked, referring to his wife. “I’ve been sleeping with one for 20 years.”
But in a memoir that reveals how he hurt the people closest to him Schwarzenegger appears secretive and untrustworthy. In an interview with CBS’s 60 Minutes last week he said his wife, a member of the Kennedy dynasty, had not even read his book: he also admitted to other indiscretions but said the affair with the housekeeper was “the stupidest thing I have done”. In the book he explains what he told Ms Shriver when she confronted him about the affair – magnanimously absolving her of any blame. “It’s not because anything is wrong or you left home for a week, or any of that,” he writes. “You look fantastic, you’re sexy.”
Plain speaking has always been a characteristic of Schwarzenegger’s and is one of the reasons he appealed to Californians bored of identikit politicians. They warmed to his personal story: that of the immigrant who grew up in postwar Austria in a house with no running water, then became a star in America, first in bodybuilding and then in Hollywood, landing starring roles in Conan the Barbarian, Terminator, Predator and other hits.
Single-minded and determined, he overcame anything that stood in his way, including an initial inability to speak English and a name that talent agents told him was too long for billboards. He conquered Hollywood, earning huge pay days for movies such as Twins, when he was one of the first stars to secure a “back-end” deal, entitling him to a hefty slab of the movie’s revenues. He also made millions in property deals.
But eventually he grew bored and yearned to emulate the public service achievements of his in-laws, the Kennedys. Ms Shriver’s mother, Eunice – the sister of John and Robert Kennedy – was a big inspiration, he writes, and encouraged him to run for governor when voters in California began agitating to recall Gray Davis.
Schwarzenegger swept to victory, despite being dogged by rumours that he had groped women: in a key show of support, Ms Shriver took to the stump, making a passionate case for his defence. After his election he battled public sector unions to reform the state’s ailing pension system but suffered a bruising defeat in a state ballot. He bounced back, scoring significant policy wins that included a landmark bill to curb the emissions that cause climate change (California’s regulations would later be adopted by the US government).
These accounts often inspire comparisons in the book with his life as a bodybuilder. When the public unions defeated his reform plans “it was like losing [Mr Olympia] to Frank Zane in Miami when I first came to America”. His opinion of friends and foes alike is often blunt: consider his first impression of top GOP strategist Karl Rove (“What an asshole”) or his lofty assessment of his time battling political foes in Sacramento. “Six years of ups and downs forged me as governor the way Conan was forged by pit fighting and the Wheel of Pain.”
His journey from postwar Austria to governor of America’s most populous state remains impressive: the book’s promotional blurb calls his “the greatest immigrant success story of our time”. But while his drive and focus is not in doubt, the book and its timing is. In pushing ahead with its release so soon after dropping a bombshell on his family, Schwarzenegger has revealed a brass neck as impressive as his sternocleidomastoids were at the peak of his bodybuilding prowess. Even the Terminator himself would have been more sensitive.
The writer is the FT’s Los Angeles correspondent