It's the kind of phenomenon that non Americans either laugh at or are baffled by. The rise of a steroid munching, big grinned, Austrian body builder into Hollywood stardom and then the governorship of the most populous state in the U.S. is an only in America story. Arnold Schwarzenegger wasn't even born here. But he is as big a political and cultural presence as anyone.
If you do not understand Schwarzenegger's success, it's worth renting the 1977 film Pumping Iron, which featured his political and human skills in the body building subculture. He outpsyched his opponents as well as out-trained them. He did a deeply American thing: he took a bohemian subculture and infused it with the hard-edged, competitive ethos of capitalism. He has played the popular culture with unerring skill ever since. He took Republican politics, married it to the glamour of the Kennedys and then exported that hybrid to California. This year he managed to rally the Republican base with an order to stop gay marriages in San Francisco while deftly saying on The Tonight Show that he had no problem with gays marrying. Think of any other Republican who could do these things, and you begin to understand the depth of Arnold's talent. He has become a crucial element in making the g.o.p. seem even faintly appealing to social liberals and moderates, and represents the lingering Cheshire smile of Reagan Republicanism in the new century: the optimism, the inclusiveness. Above all: the charm.
From the Archive
The Mind Behind the Muscles: Just who is Arnold, and what does he offer other than a cumulonimbus physique and the thickest Mitteleuropean accent since Henry Kissinger?
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