Travels with Arnold: Covering Arnold Schwarzenegger Can Be Fascinating-And Frustrating. the Popular Actor-Turned-California-Governor Is a Phenomenon, Not Simply a Political Figure. Critical Stories That Would Cause Big Problems for Most Public Officials Are Apt to Find Little Traction outside the World of Political Insiders

Article excerpt

At 4 o'clock one autumn afternoon in the throes of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's first bill-signing season, Gary Delsohn, a Sacramento Bee political reporter and coauthor of this article, answered his phone. The thick accent on the other end of the line was unmistakable.

It was Schwarzenegger, eager to chat at a time when he should have been too busy. Delsohn was working on a profile of Legislative Affairs Secretary Richard Costigan, Schwarzenegger's point man on the hundreds of bills the state Legislature was sending his way in a last-minute crush. The profile could go in any number of directions. Costigan's work ethic and intellect were respected across party lines, but Democrats were troubled by his background as a Chamber of Commerce lobbyist. The governor had decided the best way to influence the story's tone was to step in himself--and turn on his trademark Hollywood charm.

Delsohn asked Schwarzenegger how he was doing. "Fantastic, now that I hear your voice," Schwarzenegger said. "You really get me going." Giggles trickled across the other end of the line. The governor's staff was with him in the room.

"So tell me," Schwarzenegger said. "You guys know the slant you are going to take before you do any of the interviewing. Are you going to build him up or tear him down?" Delsohn played along. "Let's tear him down." "Well," said Schwarzenegger, "he's a total waste. I can tell you that." Then the governor spent another 15 minutes on the line, effusively praising Costigan.

At 57, still one of the most glamorous, recognizable men in the world, still fit from his regular workouts, Schwarzenegger doesn't so much interact with reporters as shadowbox with them. He flirts as easily with male reporters as with the women and revels in head games. We've been doing his dance since the summer of 2003, reading his books, watching his movies, studying lawsuits and financial disclosures and peeking into the parallel universe of bodybuilding. We've watched him with President Bush, interviewed his friends and business partners, his rivals and his admirers. We've also chased him across the globe (he does not take reporters with him on his private jets, so we fly commercial) on trips to Israel, Germany and Japan, and back and forth across the United States.

Each trip features the same phenomena: stampedes of autograph-seeking fans and packs of awestruck local media. Would any other politician be chased, as Schwarzenegger was during a trade mission to Tokyo, by more than 100 Japanese reporters shouting at him to flex his muscles and imploring him to yell out movie lines such as "I'll be back!" or "Hasta la vista, baby!"? And when the scrum of cameramen crowded in to record the start of a private meeting with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, Koizumi looked a bit over-whelmed, telling Schwarzenegger, "You're more popular than Bush."

That popularity, which transcends anything enjoyed by any other modern politician, makes Schwarzenegger both a fascinating and frustrating governor to cover. The hard-hitting reporting that would get a rise out of any other politician rarely elicits a reaction from the former actor, who is rich and famous enough not to care. So far, Schwarzenegger has done many of the things for which he criticized his bland predecessor, Democrat Gray Davis--taking millions of dollars in special-interest money and dodging tough budget choices--but stories about these contradictions have drawn little interest outside the state Capitol in Sacramento and California's small community of political aficionados.

During Schwarzenegger's first year in office, the California press corps and the national reporters who regularly write about him have developed a fuller picture of his political and ideological motivations. This immigrant from a small town in Austria, who came to the United States with only a physique and a dream, is one of politics' greatest showmen. A socially liberal capitalist and a serial exaggerator, he is an exceptional salesman with boundless energy who long ago traded in steroids for calcium supplements. …