Review

Fantastic
The Life of Arnold Schwarzenegger
by Laurence Leamer (Nepal 1964–66)
St. Martin's Press
June 2005
432 pages
$24.95

    Reviewed by Peter McDonough (Bangladesh [East Pakistan] 1961–63)

    UNTIL RECENTLY, before his polls began heading south, Arnold Schwarzenegger could do no wrong. He went from success to success, from attaining the top slot in world-class body building to becoming an action hero money machine for Hollywood. Even his flops wound up turning a profit in the global market, and from early in his career he demonstrated exceptional savvy in plowing dollars into California real estate (as Bob Hope and Bing Crosby did before him). By the time he reached fifty, Schwarzenegger had amassed an enormous fortune and enjoyed great fame. Along the way he married Maria Shriver, the supreme princess of Irish-Americanism, and they have stayed together, raising four children, defying the standard showbiz scenario.
         What Laurence Leamer succeeds in conveying forcefully is the sheer gusto of the man, together with a sense of his keen practical intelligence and outsize ambition. “Eunice got me involved with Special Olympics,” Leamer quotes him as saying of his mother-in-law. “And I realized it felt good to do good, and whatever makes me feel good, I like to do.” This is a concise statement of the California credo, or a benign (Peace Corps?) version of it. Leamer goes on to make his own assessment:

    Arnold’s friends had noticed a startling transformation in the man. He was still the egocentric, self-centered, fun-loving Arnold they had always known, but there was a deeper, philosophical quality to him. He had a full measure of what the Greeks considered the most unique and highest form of love, agape, a love of humanity. Which did not mean that he would necessarily be a good governor, merely that his most exalted emotions came from doing what he thought was good.

         “Arnold,” to quote another deceptively casual insight by Leamer, “obsessed over nothing but endlessly moved on, discarding whatever was unpleasant and negative and carrying forward only what inspired and moved him.”
         More accurately, Schwarzenegger has a knack for selecting which details to sweat and which to ignore. “I saw the terrific discipline and confidence he had,” Leamer cites one agent as observing. “There were no limits on his ambition. He exerts a tremendous amount of control. He had a vision, and he knew he could turn it into reality. In his mind, whatever he’s doing is like getting a film made.”

         Fantastic is full of tidbits like this that bring the story to life without repetition. Leamer is hardly new to the celebrity bio game, having written three best sellers about the Kennedys, and you can see that he has a sensitive eye for the world of mega-houses, over-produced receptions, and stratospheric insecurities and rivalries at the peak of a slippery power structure. Reading Fantastic is like watching a master director of photography light a scene. Instead of simply downloading gossip, Leamer’s gift is to select the high points. The prose exemplifies the best of the writing you’ll find in venues like Vanity Fair: clarity, immediacy, and a whiff of the pathos you pick up as a refrain in The Great Gatsby. It is as if those long, ruminative pieces in The New Yorker of the ’40s and ’50s had gotten their testosterone boosters and learned something about the velocity of presenting personalities from the New Journalism of the ’60s. Leamer’s sentences are nowhere as ostentatiously electric as Anthony Lane’s, but they are still punchy by comparison with the old days.
         The book is a page turner, a beach read with depth. It is not mere froth. Yet Leamer doesn’t pause long enough for a more considered assessment of what Schwarzenegger represents and where he may be headed. The style of coverage reflects a quickness — an MTV-like jump-cutting — that mirrors the attention-challenged tempo of the world in which Schwarzenegger thrives. (My use of “Schwarzenegger” rather than “Arnold” is a tip-off to my own stodginess. Few Californians refer to him except by his first name, but then the same goes for populist, strong-man rulers in Latin America. It was never “President Vargas” but always “Dr. Getúlio” in Brazil, or “Fidel” in Cuba.) Schwarzenegger comes off looking a bit like the genial buffoon who somehow got it right, a there-but-for-fortune, cunning version of the doofus (Paul Giamatti) who played opposite Thomas Haden Church’s depressive character in Sideways. There is more to Schwarzenegger than this, as Leamer suggests, but there are also more powerful forces surrounding the governor than Leamer bothers to examine except cursorily.
         Leamer may have run up against the same dilemma as Bob Woodward. Access comes with a cost. Occasional criticisms are not the issue, except for Maria Shriver, who appears to react with attack-dog loyalty when it comes to her husband. No one expects hagiographies of movie stars or politicians, and celebrities and their handlers have to calculate what the cost might be of not opening their doors to writers like Leamer, who have no evident axe to grind. A just-the-facts-please exposition has the advantage of allowing readers to make up their own minds. The downside is that it is hard to make out the forest for the trees. This is not a fatal flaw, especially since Schwarzenegger is still a work in progress. Yet more analytical bite into the psychological neediness of a man who let his long-time publicist go because he felt she wasn’t giving him sufficiently upbeat news (wasn’t her job to project a positive image to the outside rather than protect her boss from what was really going on?) would help. There seems to be barely an introspective much less a tragic bone in Schwarzenegger’ body. Lincoln he’s not. One of the accomplishments of this guy was to make the Hummer a desirable brand name. Isn’t downsizing an option, or does that smack too much of the lowered expectations favored by Jerry Brown, the state’s one-time “Governor Moonbeam?” A fuller look at the economic coalition striving to reshape California politics through the governor’s office would also help.
         On balance, Fantastic makes a genuine contribution. It can be read as part of a triptych, alongside Where I Was From, the new memoir by California’s own sibyl of malaise, Joan Didion, and Coast of Dreams: California on the Edge, 1990–2003, the last volume in a monumental history by Kevin Starr. It was Starr who a few months ago published an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times positioning Schwarzenegger within the tradition of “fusion politics” (as opposed to polarizing politics) that goes back a long way in the state and pointing mysteriously, if not very convincingly, to the “European Catholic” roots of the social conscience in the governor’s agenda.

    Peter McDonough lives in Glendale, California, just outside L.A. (don’t we all?) His most recent book, co-authored with Gene Bianchi, is Passionate Uncertainty: Inside the American Jesuits (University of California Press, 2002). The working title of his current project is The Catholic Labyrinth: Remaking the Church after Vatican II.