Aside from Barack Obama (who’s sometimes known as the American Idol around my house), no politician in America is as interesting or charismatic as Arnold Schwarzenegger. When I had a chance to hear him speak earlier today at the National Press Club, I couldnâ€™t pass it up.
The Gubernator, as heâ€™s called, didnâ€™t disappoint. Schwarzenegger came across as shrewd, funny, authentic and self-deprecating. He brought a simple but appealing outsiderâ€™s message to Washington: Why canâ€™t Republicans and Democrats stop squabbling and work together?
He calls it â€œpost-partisanship,â€ and itâ€™s working in California. Last spring, the state passed AB 32, legislation to roll back greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. Before his talk, he attended a signing ceremony for the Western Regional Climate Action Initiative – a regional agreement by California, Oregon, Washington, Arizona and New Mexico to curb greenhouse gases. By taking the lead, Schwarzenegger and California have helped put climate change legislation on the agenda in Washington. â€œWeâ€™re creating all kinds of businesses in California because of clean technology,â€ he said.
Hereâ€™s what Cheryl Carter, director of Western energy programs for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said about the five-state climate change coalition: â€œCalifornia already is well positioned to curb global warming while bringing economic benefits. Once again, our stateâ€™s enthusiasm is proving contagious.”
Now Schwarzenegger is tackling the issue of universal health care, and promoting a middle-of-the-road, pragmatic approach to immigration. Neither the left nor the right is pleased, but the people of California like him fine. In a Democratic state, he won reelection with 56% of the vote, and approval ratings of the stateâ€™s Democratic legislators have gone up as well.
â€œNo one is calling anyone any names,â€ Schwarzenegger said, â€œwhich, by the way, is big, big progress.â€ He likes to bring his political foes into his famously politically incorrect smoking tent to share cigars. As for those who say he lacks principles, the governor said: â€œWhat is more principled than compromise for the common good?”
Several things about his talk struck me. First, the Kennedy family, to which heâ€™s connected through his wife Maria Shriver, has had a big impact on him. (Maria and her mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver came to the lunch, and beamed.) The Shrivers are a public spirited family. Inspired by the struggles of her mentally-retarded sister Rosemary, Mrs. Shriver started the Special Olympics in 1968, and all her grown children are involved. Sargent Shriver, Mariaâ€™s father was a driving forced behind the Peace Corps. Mariaâ€™s brother Tim, who became chairman of the Special Olympics, once said: “The worst thing in our house was to be caught sitting on the sofa watching TV when the sun was up.â€ These people are activists, and Schwarzenegger clearly likes and admires them, even if heâ€™s no liberal Democrat.
â€œYou canâ€™t catch a socially transmitted disease from sitting down with people whose ideas you disagree with,â€ he said.
Second, Schwarzenegger comes across as above politics because, in fact, he doesnâ€™t owe his job to politicians and he canâ€™t seek higher office. He doesnâ€™t need money or fame. So what drives him? Some combination of ego and wanting to create a legacy, Iâ€™d guess.
Third, the press club audience of reporters, lobbyists and PR folk loved his talk. Now thatâ€™s hardly a typical American crowd, but it is a group that’s well-acquainted with cynicism. It seems clear to me that most Americans want their leaders to stop the name-calling and maneuvering for political advantage that characterizes so much of Washington politics today: the nasty and personal Bush-bashing, the shameful charges that Democrats who oppose the war in Iraq are unpatriotic, the catering by both parties to monied interests who finance their campaigns.
In the corporate world, Iâ€™ve seen a lot accomplished by one-time adversaries who are now collaborate. Most dramatically, CEOs and environmentalists who used to be sworn enemies find common ground all the time. So, for that matter, do unionized workers and executives at companies with good values, like UPS and Southwest Airlines.
What was it that a certain presidential candidate used to say? â€œI’m a uniter, not a divider.â€ Schwarzenegger has assumed that role, and a presidential candidate who can rise above conventional politicsâ€”maybe even the American Idolâ€”could go a long way in 2008.