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

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.

I told him that when I asked Maria if she believed the Freudian cliché about every woman wanting to marry her father, she'd said "Well, I think Arnold is more like my mom."

I think I've heard that a few times, you know, that Maria married her mother and that could very well be because I as a matter of fact I think that when Maria met me there is no way she could have looked at me and said, you know, you remind me of my dad. I think what made her fall in love with me was because I was the rebel, you know, I was the opposite of establishment you know. Bodybuilding was a sport that was not accepted socially -- it was was not the same as being a golf player or a tennis player or a football player. Those were the sports that were socially accepted; mine was not. I had to basically build the sport from scratch before people started accepting it...

I was definitely no symbol of anything that Sarge represented and I think that Maria fell in love with me because I was the opposite. I didn't go to work with a suit and tie I did not have studied the law, get a law degree like her brothers and father, someone that did not sit in an office all day long, trying to work his way up in the traditional sense and I would not go to the cocktail party and drink port, all those kinds of things, that was not me.

Maria... went for me so she could be a rebel on her own so that she kind of could defy, she did not want to fall into the same trap and the Washington scene or make you go down the same road where you kind of constrict your future, where you are going to be married to a guy at the country club and he's a lawyer and then you go to the cocktail parties for 35 years and have 3 kids and drive around with the trunk and the dog and the cats, you know, you can pretty much see what lifestyles people live and she wanted to do something totally different. She wanted to get away from all that. But this is all subconscious. I don't think she knew all that when she was 21. But I think that was the reason why she was excited about coming out here to Hollywood and starting a whole new life.

He talked about how both he and Maria have extraordinary powers of denial.

Maria lives in denial like I do -- that no problems exist, they don't exist. Maria always says "no, no, everything's fine, everything's fine, fine, fine." Maria says to me, "You must be tired." "Tired? Doesn't exist here. I'm not tired." Meanwhile I'm in the middle of falling asleep, but I'm not tired. So its like, denial, you know? It's like when I had my heart surgery, I didn't think about it before, nor did I ever think about it after. It didn't exist, it was like I was getting a tooth pulled or something like that. So she's like that, I'm like that, so we grind it out, same view of reality and so there are a lot of characteristics like that that we have in common

I asked him what he thought of the relationship between Sarge and Eunice Shriver.

Well, you know, it's so different than my parents. My parents were very affectionate with one another and I think that Sarge is very affectionate, I think, and she is not. I think Eunice does not feel comfortable with anything in public. I don't know what goes on, maybe they're having an orgy right now. I have no idea what goes on behind the walls. One thing I know for sure is they don't have the holding hands when they walk or holding each other. Every time he wants to kiss her she says, "C'mon, Sarge." There is a funny cute way of getting out of things. So it's a different thing but they have a tremendous bonding there and they have a tremendous amount of respect for one another and I think, in their own way, a huge amount of love for one another. But its just different the way its expressed.

I observed that Sarge and Eunice complemented each other very well.

Absolutely. Totally. One cannot argue it at all because it was perfectly set up. If she would have someone as a husband like I am, we would be fighting like cats and dogs -- either that or I'd be tying her up in the bedroom!

At his wedding to Maria Shriver in 1986, Schwarzenegger gave an effusive toast to his Austrian countryman Kurt Waldheim. Waldheim had recently become the subject of international controversy when, while running for the Austrian presidency that year, it was discovered that he had covered up details of his activities during World War II, when he had served in the SA, the Nazi paramilitary organization, and he had -- according to an international commission of historians later tasked with investigating these matters -- been aware of war crimes though there was no evidence he had directly participated in them. (Waldheim had been stationed five miles from Salonika, Greece, when one-third of the Jewish population there was deported to Auschwitz.) I asked Schwarzenegger if his father-in-law, who was reportedly made uncomfortable by the toast, had ever spoken to him about this.

Sarge never told me that he was uncomfortable. I think that what happened is that literally days before that a claim came out that Waldheim was tied to the Nazi party and he was part of the SS but there was no evidence of it at all. As a matter of fact most people dismissed it so when we got this gift from Austria, a wedding gift, which was presented to us by this young Austrian conservative politician who had flown over for the wedding and presented us with this gift and it said that it had come from Kurt Waldheim.

So Kurt Waldheim, I never got a note, or really didn't even see that it was in fact from Kurt Waldheim but that's what they said, and the note said from the "young majority," something like that. So in the toast I said I wanted to thank Kurt Waldheim for that gift, that he sent that and all those kinds of things and that he was a terrific guy and a good candidate to be president. This was two weeks before the election* and all this stuff you know so that's what I said and it was at that point where the whole thing started crystallizing later on you know all the claims got bigger and bigger and bigger the whole thing got really out of control I think that's really what happened.

As a matter of fact when I had a later on conversation with [the Nazi hunter] Simon Wiesenthal, he told me personally, said, "I just wanted you to know that Waldheim didn't do any of those things." He said, "Look, he was not in a position to do any of those things. What Waldheim's problem was, was that he was a fucking liar. He never should have lied in his book that he would ignore the fact that he was down there, that he was in a certain position, that he was a Nazi, and that he was doing a certain job. I mean he should have never cut that out or ignored it. He lied about it, said it was not true. He said, he's a fucking liar, not a criminal." I'm a big supporter of Simon Wiesenthal it was very interesting to talk to him about Waldheim and that kind of thing.

* The wedding was in fact about two months before the election.