Arnold Schwarzenegger on Denial, the Shrivers, and Having It All

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Before he ran for office, he had a lot to say about work-life balance and his wife's legendary family.

arnold Former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger poses during a photocall for the animated TV series "The Governator" in Cannes, France, in April 2011. (REUTERS/Jean-Pierre Amet)

In the summer of 2003, the notion that Arnold Schwarzenegger might run in California's gubernatorial recall election suddenly tantalized the political universe. The prospect of an action-movie star -- who happened to be a Republican with family ties to the Kennedy family -- jumping into the race to displace Democratic governor Gray Davis was delicious, if unlikely.

On July 29, less than a week after the Secretary of State of California had declared that anti-Gray activists had gathered enough signatures to trigger a recall election, I talked to Schwarzenegger. The timing was coincidental. I was finishing up a biography of Schwarzenegger's father-in-law, Sargent Shriver, and had by that point interviewed scores of Shriver's former colleagues and all of his closest family members, including Schwarzenegger's wife, Maria Shriver. Schwarzenegger was the last person I would interview for the book.

Reporters were hounding Schwarzenegger about his intentions. So when I got him on the phone, the first thing I said was, "I bet you're relieved to be doing an interview where you don't have to talk about whether you're going to run for governor."

"Yeah," he said, in his heavy Austrian accent. "That or Terminator III. I'm so sick of that." (The movie had been a box office smash that summer, and he'd been out promoting it.)

But several times in the course of our conversation, he volunteered that he wasn't going to run for governor. He declared this so forcefully, and so colorfully -- and without any prompting from me -- that I believed him. He explained that if he had to commute from Los Angeles to Sacramento, he wouldn't be able to be present for his children, and that he feared that exposing his kids to that kind of "punishment" would put them at risk of getting into drugs and alcohol -- "like the Bush daughters," he said, who had both recently been charged with alcohol-related offenses. "I would kill myself if that happened to my kids because I would then think I was a failure at those basic things. So that's why I'm going to wait, I'm going to postpone my run for governor." A week later, on Jay Leno's show, he announced his candidacy.

The release of Schwarzenegger's new memoir, Total Recall: My Unbelievably True Life Story, which comes out Monday, prompted me to go back and look at the transcript of our interview. Some of what I found there was ironic, particularly in light of subsequent developments. Throughout our conversation, he was charming, crude, funny, and insightful. He told me that, as he also reportedly writes in his memoir, his decision to go into public service was inspired by his in-laws, Sargent Shriver and Eunice Kennedy Shriver. (Eunice passed away in 2009; Sarge passed away in early 2011.) He also talked about how Sargent was at first uncomfortable with his lifestyle as a bodybuilder and actor; about why Maria was attracted to him (she wanted to "rebel" against the traditional Kennedy political life); about how he and Maria shared extraordinary powers of "denial"; about how if had to be married to his mother-in-law they would end up either killing each other or "doing kinky stuff to each other in the bedroom"; and about an infamous toast he gave at his 1986 wedding to Maria.

Here are a few highlights of our conversation:

Schwarzenegger began by reading me a long letter Sargent Shriver had written him regarding his potential gubernatorial candidacy. "You're making me very very happy," Shriver had written. "I hope you realize that if I were a California resident I'd be voting Republican for the first time ever!" Shriver also wrote that he wished Schwarzenegger were not prohibited by being foreign-born from running for president. When I asked Schwarzenegger how reading this letter made him feel, he said he'd already decided not to run for office.

It doesn't have any effect on my decision because basically I know where I am with my decision as far as my children are concerned; they are an age where I want to spend time with them, versus spending time in Sacramento. I can't do both. That I know for sure. There has never been anyone who has been successful in doing both. So the question is, can the kids take that kind of punishment easier when they are a little bit older? Or can they take it now? I think now is not the time because I think that they will end up like the Bush kids and all those other kids all on alcohol and drugs. Listen, I would kill myself if that happened to my kids because I would then think I was a failure at those basic things. So that's why I'm going to wait, I'm going to postpone my running for governor.

He talked about what he had learned from Sargent Shriver, and also about how his future father-in-law was not comfortable at first with his lifestyle.

I got great insight from a guy like him. I always talked a lot about politics, about economic things and social issues about what the solutions are, you know, and you can assimilate two-thirds of it because he has so much information that even if you get 10 percent of that information that its fantastic enrichment. You get so enriched with all his knowledge so I mean he has been really terrific.

Of course in the beginning I think he was worried about my life, my lifestyle. Which I don't blame him because he is the father, you know, of Maria. He was saying, "We already have an actor in our family," that kind of thing. I could get that, I could feel that, you know, because he many times would say that in the beginning "Why don't you help people? You're an expert in health and fitness that's one of the things you ought to do, you could be continuing your education in that area." So his dream about my career was quite different from what it ended up. But maybe it's coming all the way around the circle, you know, and I'm ending up one day with something that he would, that he would love.

I told Schwarzenegger that Maria had told me he had modeled his life, and especially his forays into public service, after her parents'.

She means I think that I didn't model my life after theirs because I never really gave up my career or anything like that but I would say what I did was I used them as an inspiration -- because I felt like that it would be great to give back to the community. I felt like I had a lot of things to offer that are quite different from what Sarge had to offer, but that I really could have an impact because I had this wonderful, you know, all this media attention, all this star power, all this power and influence that I could really have an impact on issues, children's issues. I'd been working with that on afterschool programs, or on the President's Council on Fitness [under President George H.W. Bush] so that I could use my power to have an effect on that, to build that up. So a lot of the ideas and a lot of the inspiration comes from them and the key things that they taught me is the balance between what you make and what you give.

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Scott Stossel is the editor of The Atlantic magazine and the author of the New York Times bestseller My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind and the award-winning Sarge: The Life and Times of Sargent ShriverMore

Scott StosselScott Stossel has been associated with the magazine since 1992 when, shortly after graduating from Harvard, he joined the staff and helped to launch The Atlantic Online. In 1996, he moved to The American Prospect where, over the course of seven years, he served as associate editor, executive editor, and culture editor. He rejoined the Atlantic staff in 2002.

His articles have appeared in a wide array of publications, including The New Yorker, The New Republic, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe. His 2004 book, Sarge: The Life and Times of Sargent Shriver, inspired The Boston Globe to write, "Scott Stossel's superb new biography is an extraordinary achievement," while Publisher's Weekly declared, "This is a superbly researched, immensely readable political biography." His most recent book, My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind, became a top-ten New York Times bestseller in its first week of publication.

Within the Atlantic offices, Scott will be forever remembered as the managing editor who oversaw the magazine's 2005 move to Washington from Boston, where it had been based since its founding in 1857. Under Scott's supervision, the magazine shifted all of its operations from Boston's North End to the Watergate building, all the while producing issues that were later nominated for National Magazine Awards.

Along with writing and editing, Scott has taught courses in the American Studies Department at Trinity College. He lives with his family in Washington, D.C.

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