September 22, 2003


STRONGMAN: Arnold Schwarzenegger and California’s recall race. (HENDRIK HERTZBERG, 2003-09-22, The New Yorker)

In the “Pumping Iron” series, which chronicles events leading up to and including the Mr. Olympia contest of 1975, there are intimations that Schwarzenegger’s ultimate goal, absurd as it would have seemed at the time, was power. “I was always dreaming about very powerful people—dictators and things like that,” he soliloquizes at one point in the original film. “I was just always impressed by people who could be remembered for hundreds of years or even, like Jesus, being for thousands of years remembered.” In “Raw Iron,” he recounts another dream: “Me being a king and standing on top of a mountain—and there was no room left for anybody else up there, O.K.? Just for me.” Later, a fellow-bodybuilder teases, “Arnold, when are you running for President?” He shoots back, “When Nixon gets impeached.” And in “A Portrait” Butler recounts a conversation he had in a taxi with the actress Candice Bergen a few months after the Whitney show. Bergen is insisting that bodybuilding, and Arnold, has peaked. “I disagree,” Butler replies. “It’s here to stay, and Arnold is going to be the Governor of California one day.” (Bergen, hooting with laughter, retorts, “And one day Ronald Reagan will be President.”)

What comes through above all, however, is a sense of Schwarzenegger’s indomitable will. That will is manifested not only in his spooky ability to sculpt his own body and in his outlandish (at the time) vision of himself as a man of destiny but also in his total, and apparently effortless, psychological domination of his fellow-musclemen—the way he intimidates and tames them with his charm, his confidence, his humor, and his obviously superior intelligence. And this domination is not simply instinctual. It is strategic. Everything Arnold does to advance himself (which is to say, everything Arnold does) is carefully thought through by an analytical mind that always looks many steps ahead and is acute and coldly realistic about the strengths and weaknesses of everybody in the game, himself included. Megalomania usually leads to hubris, but not in Arnold’s case. Not so far.

Even the fact that, “Arnold Strong” notwithstanding, he retained his name is a marker of his powerful will. By doing it his way, he made it thinkable for others with “funny” names to do it theirs: no Arnold Schwarzenegger, no RenĂ©e Zellweger. More important, Schwarzenegger has changed the way people look—in both senses. When “Pumping Iron” first came out, Schwarzenegger and his bodybuilder friends appeared not so much strong and healthy as grotesque and misshapen. Twenty-six years later, bodies like theirs no longer seem in the least monstrous, merely exaggerated. Schwarzenegger opened up our ideal image of the male body in his direction, as surely as the Beatles and their rock-and-roll colleagues opened up our ideas about the permissible range of men’s hair styles. Today, a pre-Arnold toga-and-sandals movie star like Victor Mature looks to our Arnold-conditioned eyes like someone in need of a workout. Free weights and weight machines are now part of the exercise regimen of tens of millions of people. People have become more relaxed and less fraught about the male body. Ideas of male beauty have broadened. There is room for the Charles Atlases, and also for the ninety-eight-pound weaklings. This is a kind of liberation, and it is partly Arnold’s doing.

In the now famous 1977 Oui magazine interview—the one in which, as the Sacramento Bee put it, he “bragged about group sex”—Schwarzenegger does indeed refer to homosexuals as “fags.” But “fag” was not then the automatic term of abuse it has since become. Whether it was an expression of conscious contempt or only a bit of insensitive slang depended on context, and here is the context in which Schwarzenegger used it:

Recently I posed for a gay magazine, which caused much comment. But it doesn’t bother me. Gay people are fighting the same kind of stereotyping that bodybuilders are. People have certain misconceptions about them just as they do about us. Well, I have absolutely no hangups about the fag business; though it may bother some bodybuilders, it doesn’t bother me at all.

Schwarzenegger certainly set out to break the association in the public mind between bodybuilding and homosexuality, and in that he succeeded. But he did it without pandering to the prejudice against gays. On the contrary, the net effect of his career has probably been to weaken that prejudice. In the recall election, his relatively liberal (for a Republican) attitudes on “social issues”—gay rights, abortion, gun control—impart to him both strength and protection. Those views are shared by a majority of the California electorate; as important, they shield him from the charge of hypocrisy. If Schwarzenegger were a moralist scold of the William Bennett type, then the fact that he has boasted about participating in a gang bang, has commented on the size of his penis, has had himself photographed with a bare-breasted young woman straddling his shoulders (as well as posing nude himself), and has been filmed drawing contentedly on a marijuana cigarette might have done him some serious political damage. As it is, he’s almost unscathed. It helps, of course, that the recall process sidesteps formal party primaries, and that the main issues this time are economic and budgetary. His colorful past isn’t likely to hurt him with Democrats, who have lately been reminded how he felt about the impeachment of President Clinton. (“We spent one year wasting time because there was a human failure,” Schwarzenegger said in an interview in George, in 1999. “I was ashamed to call myself a Republican during that period.”) For Arnold, politically, Hummers are a bigger threat than hummers.

This may be the only few paragraphs in this essay that you'll not have read countless other places countless other times. It's fine for The New Yorker to try to add a contemporary political edge but is hack work like this and Jane Mayer's drivel really the best they can do?

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 22, 2003 8:34 PM

On the other hand, the New Yorker had an excellent articel about North Korea 2 weeks ago.

Posted by: jim hamlen at September 22, 2003 9:42 PM