“The President of 12% of Us”

by-sam-jones-esquire.jpg No, that’s not President Bush’s latest approval rating — it’s how Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is described in his Esquire cover story this month. The tag line is: “The only way Arnold Schwarzenegger has changed since he became governor of California is that he’s gotten even bigger. As big as his huge, embattled, impossible state. Big enough to lead the nation into a new kind of politics.”

Here’s an excerpt featuring Oakland’s own state Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata:

Now, as it happens, the first time I saw Arnold Schwarzenegger, he was getting out of a meeting with Don Perata, and Perata had started the meeting doing the Kabuki, telling Arnold that it was not the right time for water and not the right time for health care, either, at least not until he saw the budget. Why did Arnold think this was the Kabuki? Well, for one thing, he thought Perata was playing for leverage because he wanted to be the man on water, and the only way he could do that was to hold out on health care. And then, for another . . . well, California’s health-care system was broken, right? Then Arnold was going to fix it with a bill that not only was going to make sure that every single Californian had health insurance but that would also serve as a model for the national legislation sure to come. And California was drying up, right? Then Arnold was going to call for the issuance of bonds financing the construction of a new network of dams and canals. He had already seen the finish line on both these issues, and he was sure that he was on the side of history, even if history hadn’t yet had the chance to take place. Hell, history was what he was offering Perata, and anyone else he wanted to get on his side. In the face of such belief, such optimism, such rightness, such certainty, what objection could there be but . . . the Kabuki?

Of course, I didn’t know any of this at the time. I hadn’t even heard him talk about the Kabuki yet. All I saw was him and Perata standing together, shaking hands — Perata a little stout, packed into a sharply tailored pinstripe suit, the thatch of hair atop his rubicund crown as blond as shredded wheat, and Arnold as always Arnold, wearing a gray suit with peak lapels, an open white shirt, and black boots emblazoned with the gubernatorial seal. And all I heard was Perata asking him if he’d flown to Sacramento that morning in the Gulfstream, and him telling Perata . . . but wait a second, did he just say that? Did he just say, “Yeah — and guess who was on it? Gray Davis. I wanted to talk to him about the budget.“ Because if he did, he was definitely giving Perata s—. Oh, he was telling the truth, too, but he was telling it in such a way that the truth sounded like a Gray Davis joke, a budget joke, at a moment when Perata was using the budget to threaten his legislative agenda. And then, as I was standing there trying to parse the s— he was giving Perata, Arnold looked at me, a person he’d never met, and said, “It was a good meeting. You should have been there.”

And, although you can’t see it in the version I’ve posted above, the bigger version of this photo as published in the magazine shows he’s wearing that same belt buckle he’d worn on the cover of Time magazine last June.

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.