The Best Salesman in America?

By Malcolm Fleschner

In 1966, an unknown 19-year-old bodybuilding hopeful named Arnold Schwarzenegger shared with a friend his life’s aspirations. He said, “I want to be the greatest bodybuilder in the world, the greatest bodybuilder of all time, and the richest bodybuilder in the world. I want to live in the United States and own an apartment block and be a film star.”

From nearly anyone else such ambitions might have sounded like a mixture of pie-in-the sky fantasy and unmitigated arrogance. Yet what is perhaps most striking about the young Austrian’s plans is that he actually sold his future short. Or perhaps he just forgot to mention marrying into America’s preeminent political family and being elected governor of California – not to mention becoming one of the top box office movie stars of all time worldwide. Oh, and let’s not forget that he also became a savvy and wealthy businessman.

Today it’s almost easy to forget that the man known around the world as simply “Arnold” was not always the larger-than-life icon so deeply embedded into the universal consciousness. Arriving on these shores in 1968, he was just another immigrant – albeit one who could tear phone books in half – looking to achieve not just one American Dream, but all of them.

Each step in Schwarzenegger’s unlikely climb – from bodybuilder to movie star to politician – required a selling job as formidable as any of the actor’s on-screen adversaries. First he had to prove to the public that bodybuilding – previously viewed by most as little more than a fringe curiosity – was a legitimate sport. Next he persuaded an entire nation to buy into the idea of a foreign-born action hero with an accent as thick as his oversized muscles. Most recently he sold Democratic-leaning Californians on the idea that a transplanted movie star with no political experience to speak of, and a Republican to boot, could spearhead an unprecedented statewide financial turnaround.

Looking back, can there be any question that underneath the rippling muscles and behind that famous gap-toothed grin resides this generation’s greatest salesman?

Growing up in Thal, a small village in southern Austria, the young Schwarzenegger was influenced by his disciplinarian father’s authoritarian ways. Often pitted against his older brother in boxing matches and skiing competitions, Arnold learned to equate winning with gaining parental approval. Even at an early age, the budding salesman was emerging, however. During the summer when he was 11, Arnold would purchase ice cream cones from a vendor and resell them for three shillings to visitors at a nearby park.

As an athlete, unlike many of his classmates who pursued soccer and other team sports, Arnold preferred to stand out on his own. “The worst thing I can be is like everyone else,” he told Rolling Stone in 1985. “I hate that. That’s why I went into bodybuilding in the first place. It was the idea of taking the risk by yourself rather than with a whole team.”

Having been exposed to bodybuilding through Hercules films starring the strapping Reg Park, 15-year-old Arnold resolved to use bulging muscles as his ticket to success, as well. Pursuing his goal with the kind of single-mindedness that would characterize many of his later endeavors, Schwarzenegger worked out seven days a week, often returning home as late as 10 p.m. On Sundays, when the local gym was closed, Arnold simply forced his way in through a window, smug in the knowledge that he was getting an edge on all his fellow gym rats. While working out he visualized himself being crowned Mr. Universe.

“I was driven by that thought,” he once told an interviewer. “It was a very spiritual thing in a way, because I had such faith in the route, the path, that there was never a question in my mind that I would make it.”

Not even Austria’s compulsory military service would deter him. Sneaking off the army base, the 18-year-old Arnold went to Stuttgart to compete in – and win – the Junior Mr. Europe title. Flush with excitement at his victory, he didn’t even mind the seven-day stint in the brig he was sentenced to for going AWOL. “I didn’t care if they locked me up for a whole year,” he wrote in his 1977 autobiography. “It had been worth it.”

The Arnold Schwarzenegger who arrived in the U.S. in 1968 at age 21 was already a star in the bodybuilding world, having realized one dream by becoming the youngest ever Mr. Universe in 1967.

In between competitions and workouts Arnold pursued his lofty financial dreams. With the goal of becoming a millionaire by age 30, he combined his entrepreneurial zeal with bodybuilding winnings to purchase a $10,000 apartment building. He and fellow muscleman Franco Columbu opened a bricklaying firm doing jobs around Los Angeles. In one memorable case the two took a job tearing down a customer’s chimney for $1,000. By lying on the roof and leveraging their powerful leg muscles, the two were able to complete the job in 10 minutes. The grateful client gave the bricks to Arnold, who then turned around and sold them as antiques.

By 1975, having won the Mr. Universe contest four times and Mr. Olympia six times, Arnold was able to retire from bodybuilding confident of his place in the sport’s history. Plus he was ready for a new challenge and felt that retiring would help him focus on setting aside the body oil and stage posing in favor of a career on the big screen. “I stopped bodybuilding internationally,” he told USA Today, “to create the hunger for acting. That created the need to get attention somewhere else. I love it when the camera is on.”

In his first film role Schwarzenegger followed in the footsteps of his hero, Reg Park, with the title role in the miniscule-budget picture Hercules Goes to New York. Other bit parts followed until 1981, when Arnold and his biceps first received top billing in a major motion picture, Conan the Barbarian. To prepare for the role, he got back into competition shape (for extra motivation, coming out of retirement to enter and win an unprecedented seventh Mr. Olympia title) and even focused his energy on learning the craft of acting.

“Acting was an enormous challenge for me,” he told one interviewer. “In physical competition I had to learn to keep my emotions under control. You almost have to build a wall around yourself – guard against your own feelings and the feelings of those around you, too, because lows or highs, coming at the wrong times, can negatively influence how you perform. I trained that way for a long time. In acting it’s exactly the opposite. You have to be sensitive to yourself and to those you’re working with. Stay open. Keep your defenses down.”

Not surprisingly, the critics failed to be impressed with the sensitivity in Arnold’s portrayal of a sinewy behemoth who solves most of his problems by cutting a swath through anyone who stands in his way. But he wasn’t interested in impressing the critics; what mattered to Arnold – and to the studios – was that the film grossed more than $100 million worldwide, as did the sequel, Conan the Destroyer.

Despite the seemingly insurmountable obstacles of a thick Teutonic accent and little acting experience, Schwarzenegger had successfully parlayed his bodybuilding success and renown into a film career. Eager to maintain the momentum, Arnold next signed on to portray what would become his trademark role in 1984’s Terminator. As his character so famously put it before destroying an entire police station, “I’ll be back.”

Was he ever. Subsequent films in the ’80s included the slaughter-fest hits Commando, Predator, Running Man and Total Recall, which together earned well over $1 billion. A true salesman, as his star continued to rise Schwarzenegger used the time wisely, learning to navigate his way through the show business ropes. In one memorable incident, prior to Commando’s release, he met with studio chairman Barry Diller to ask for more billboard advertising promoting the film’s release. Diller refused, saying, “I don’t believe in billboards.” Later Arnold repeated the conversation to other studio executives who laughed, saying, “He’s BS-ing you. On 48 Hours we had a big billboard on Sunset Avenue.” Rather than being angry with Diller, Schwarzenegger reproached himself for failing to prepare for the meeting.

“I did not do the proper research,” he once said in an interview. “You’ve got to have your act together. You have to have a total understanding.”

The 1980s were a watershed decade in Arnold’s personal life, as well. Having met Kennedy Clan scion Maria Shriver at a 1977 tennis tournament, Arnold wooed the telegenic newscaster until the two were wed in 1986. A staunch Republican dating back to his support of Richard Nixon in 1968, Arnold faced another daunting selling challenge: ingratiating himself to the nation’s foremost family of Democrats. Besides turning on the legendary Schwarzenegger charm, Arnold was also able to show his in-laws that his heart was in the right place by throwing himself into public service. He became a vocal advocate for the Special Olympics, an organization founded by his mother-in-law, Eunice Shriver, and worked with Nelson Mandela to bring the Special Olympics to South Africa.

In 1990 the first President Bush named Schwarzenegger chairman of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. Using his high profile and instant rapport with children, he traveled to schools, kids’ clubs and childhood athletic competitions touting the benefits of exercise and an active lifestyle. The exposure to the realities facing many underprivileged children led Arnold to establish his own charity, the Inner-City Games, which now holds events in cities across the country.

By this time Schwarzenegger’s film career was taking a new direction as well. In addition to the kind of roles audiences had come to expect from him in films like True Lies, Last Action Hero and Eraser, Arnold was also exercising his comedic chops. In Twins, Kindergarten Cop and Jingle All the Way he proved he could elicit laughs as well as gasps from an audience.

But amid the laughter there were rumblings that Arnold was ready for an altogether new challenge: politics. As far back as 1977 he had told the German magazine Stern, “When one has money, one day it becomes less interesting. And when one is also the best in film, what can be more interesting? Perhaps power. Then one moves into politics and becomes governor or president or something.”

Although he had supported Republican candidates for office in the past, for the first time in 2002 Schwarzenegger lent his considerable muscle to a single political issue. His choice was California’s Proposition 49, a ballot issue to provide state support to before-and-after-school programs. The proposition passed, and few question that Arnold’s support tipped voters into the “yes” column.

His appetite for the political arena whetted, Schwarzenegger was rumored to be eyeing California’s 2006 gubernatorial race for his first office run. Then came the recall. Facing a $38 billion deficit and with Democratic governor Gray Davis’s approval rating hovering near absolute zero, California’s voters were receptive to the idea of making a change well before 2006. Backed by big dollars from prominent Republicans, the campaign for a recall election to oust Davis garnered enough signatures for ballot approval. But who would replace him?

Speculation immediately surrounded Schwarzenegger, who went on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno on August 7, 2003, to announce he was throwing his hat into the ring for the election two months later. Perhaps figuring that his moderate politics would find a more ready audience among the general recall electorate than in a Republican primary race, Arnold hit the campaign trail running, taking his message of cleaning up the state directly to the voters.

Knowing his appeal was strongest among the regular folks who went to see his movies, and not the critics who panned them, Arnold bypassed the media, forgoing interviews and nearly all the candidates’ debates. Inevitably, the press and other candidates chastised him for abandoning the traditional stepping stones to higher office. But Schwarzenegger shrugged off the criticisms, using them to burnish his new image as an outsider who could breathe new life into the state. This was no small order. It’s quite a leap from selling people on paying $7.50 to see you shoot up bad guys on the big screen to selling them on handing over control of the fifth-largest economy in the world.

In other ways, Arnold was a traditional politician, however. Like virtually every office seeker before him, Schwarzenegger portrayed himself as a true “man of the people,” not beholden to special interests. With his star power, nearly universal name recognition and wife Maria at his side (and despite being dogged by allegations of serial harassment of women throughout his movie career) Schwarzenegger managed to convince Californians that he had the right stuff to fight for their interests against the wastrels and spendthrifts who’d gotten the state into such a mess. That he was able to do so without offering much in the way of specific programs or new ideas merely underscores his political savvy and incredible personal charisma.

Drawing support from Republicans, Democrats and Independents alike, as well as a substantial bloc of traditional nonparticipants in the political process, Arnold swept into office, collecting just under 50 percent of the vote. This despite the presence of 134 other names on the recall ballot.

With his celebrity, and amidst the carnival-like atmosphere of the truncated recall campaign season, perhaps it’s not surprising that an atypical candidate like Arnold would emerge victorious. But winning elections is one thing – effective governing is another altogether. Upon taking office, the state’s new chief executive gave voters a sense of how he planned to govern by making good on one of his few concrete campaign promises, to repeal the unpopular car tax. Then, using the same “take it to the people” tactics that worked during the campaign, Governor Schwarzenegger persuaded Californians to pass a $15 billion bond issue as a temporary solution to the state’s fiscal troubles.

In dealing with legislative issues, Schwarzenegger adopts a two-stage, carrot-and-stick approach. Perhaps the most gregarious governor in state history, he is an inveterate schmoozer, willing to share cigars with state legislators on both sides of the aisle. He’s also hashed out agreements with representatives from organizations traditionally hostile to Republicans, like the California Teachers’ Association and the public employees union. But behind the smile and bonhomie lies the ever-present threat to take his case directly to the public. Last March, when legislators were poised to defeat his plans to reform the state’s workers compensation laws, the governor grabbed a clipboard and headed for the parking lot at a nearby Costco. There he collected signatures from star-struck shoppers for a plan to put the initiative directly to the voters on the November ballot. The stunt led the evening’s newscasts around the state, and the dissenting legislators caved, passing the reform package with only six dissenting votes.

Today, while there is certainly no guarantee that Governor Schwarzenegger will lead California out of its still-daunting budgetary morass, the state’s residents appear confident in their leader. According to a recent poll, 65 percent approve of the job he’s doing, the highest approval rating for any governor in the past 45 years, while 64 percent believe he’s performing better than expected.

For longtime Arnold watchers, a more compelling question may be whether he’ll be allowed to finish the job at all. Last year Utah senator and Schwarzenegger pal Orrin Hatch introduced the Equal Opportunity to Govern Amendment, proposing to eliminate constitutional restrictions on those born outside the U.S. that keep them from running for the nation’s top office.

For a man with an unblemished 35-year record of turning his most outlandish ambitions into reality, even the United States Constitution may be no obstacle. But President Schwarzenegger? That would be one impressive selling job, that’s for sure.