SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California’s last two governors would seem to have nothing in common, at least at first glance.
Arnold Schwarzenegger is a Republican; Jerry Brown, a Democrat. Brown is the scion of the state’s most renowned political family; Schwarzenegger is a movie hero who parlayed his celebrity into the governorship. But one thing they demonstrated when they ran the largest state is a rarity in today’s politics: a willingness to buck their own parties.
What each has to say about the dysfunction in American politics and how they tried to govern may hold lessons at a time when Congress seems perpetually on the brink of shutting down the government and the Republican candidates for president are one-upping one another in their bloodlust.
Both are unconventional personalities, and their aversion to the tribalism that’s rampant in Washington is perhaps even more pronounced now that their careers in elected office are likely done. (Brown served a total of 16 years as California governor; Schwarzenegger, 76, served seven years and batted down any suggestion he might run for the U.S. Senate on Friday at a luncheon event in the state capital. “I’m totally ruling it out; it’s not even in there,” he said.)
Brown was in San Francisco last week during a summit of Asian-Pacific nations, where the biggest development was a four-hour meeting between President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping. It was the first time the leaders of the two largest economies have spoken, much less met face-to-face, in a full year.
That prolonged silence worries Brown, given the scale of the problems the world confronts. Sitting in a friend’s apartment, he ticked off a list of potential catastrophes that could swiftly turn a fragile planet into a hellscape: detonation of a nuclear weapon, global warming, more pandemics, bioweapons and the militarization of space and cyberthreats, among them. He pointed to a book he’s reading about nuclear war called “The War That Must Not Occur.” Don’t read it, he advised, too frightening.
“Put it all together and boy, things can go bad very fast,” Brown said in an interview with NBC News. “That being the case, Xi and Biden should be worried to death about not alleviating the mounting conflict and danger. And I don’t see it. That’s what I call sleepwalking. They’re just walking along.”
“As Dan Ellsberg told me about a month and a half before he died, we’re on the Titanic and it’s full speed ahead, right into catastrophe,” he said, referring to the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers.
Brown was pleased that Biden and Xi are at least talking again, though he said such conversations need to be far more routine and less formalized than the carefully choreographed sit-down last week, where the two leaders were flanked by a number of aides sitting across from one another at a table.
“The reality is that the world has serious problems that only China and the United States can mitigate,” Brown said. “Therefore, they have to talk — not once a year, but many times a year. And not with 10 people on each side of them, but in a more intimate setting where they can begin to break down some of the barriers. There’s no doubt that Xi, coming out of his background, and Biden, coming out of his, are like Mars and Venus. So, they better get together or they’re going to have a conflict.”
Schwarzenegger was in Sacramento over the weekend for events marking the 20th anniversary of his swearing-in after the historic 2003 California recall campaign. Interviewed on stage by journalist Carla Marinucci, he fielded a question about Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump’s remark likening political adversaries to “vermin.”
“Look, I don’t want to comment now on every single stupid thing that he says, because otherwise, we would be sitting here for the next eight days,” Schwarzenegger said.
He then segued into how he sought to govern in the seven years he held office. After a major setback in which ballot measures he had put forward were rejected by California voters, he brought in a Democrat, Susan Kennedy, to become his new chief of staff. (Brown also shook up the state Capitol in the early 1980s by hiring a chief of staff from the opposite party, Republican B.T. Collins, during his first stint as governor.)
Schwarzenegger said he understood that his role was to represent all Californians — not just Republicans and not just loyalists.
“I’m very adamant about working across the aisle and not seeing the other side as the enemy,” he said. “Democrats should not be the enemy of the Republicans. It’s competition. And competition creates great performance.”
When he won the recall election, he said, “I wanted to serve the people: it didn’t matter if they’re Democrats or Republicans or independents or declined to state. I knew that I won and I had to represent all the people of California, even though my Republican colleagues didn’t like that because they wanted to be stuck in the ideological corner. But you can’t. I had to represent them all. That’s my idea of how to run things.”
Schwarzenegger and Brown differ in their prognosis for America’s democracy, whose checks and balances would be at risk of unraveling in a second Trump term, the former president’s critics contend. Brown holds the darker view, saying there are no assurances that the nation’s two centuries of democratic norms and traditions will endure.
“Trump’s attempted sabotage of the election has no precedent,” Brown said, referring to the 2020 vote. “It’s extremely dangerous. But we know historically that democracy usually devolves to the dictators, to the mob. That’s the historic classical view. You go from democracy to the mob to dictators to the oligarchy. There are these cycles that we go through.”
He seemed more worried about the public’s restive mood than about Biden’s advanced age; the president turned 81 Monday.
“He has nothing to worry about until he gets to be 85,” Brown, 85, said.
“The fact is that there is disquiet in the electorate,” he said.
Is Biden the party’s best bet to beat Trump?
“I would say he’s the man of the hour. He’s there,” Brown replied.
“I don’t have any great political strategy here of the Democrats,” he continued. “It’s very challenging.”
Asked his view of Vice President Kamala Harris, who got her start in California politics, Brown stiffened a bit. The garrulous ex-governor who freely opined on U.S.-Chinese relations, global threats and even Gregorian chants (keep reading) had nothing at all to share about a fellow Californian who is next in the line of presidential succession.
“I do not have a thought on that topic,” he said.
Schwarzenegger sees democracy as more resilient than Brown does. When he first moved to the U.S. in 1968, the nation was roiled by political assassinations, he said. Then came Watergate. But democracy persevered, as he expects it will do again.
“It was absolute insanity,” he said of the late 1960s. “People all over the world said to me, ‘Do you think they will recover?’ They did. America eventually climbed out of this hole. And this is why — I’ve seen it personally — America can get out of this hole, also.”
America, he said needs “fresh blood in there.” He insisted he was not singling out Biden. But there’s no denying the obvious: Biden has held elective office for most of the last half-century.
The media gets its share of blame these days for the nation’s polarized politics. Brown doesn’t call the news media “the enemy of the people,” as Trump is wont to do, but he sees the press as deeply irresponsible. At the president’s news conference after the Xi meeting, a reporter asked if he still believed Xi to be a “dictator,” a term Biden used earlier in the year. “Well, look, he is,” Biden replied, an answer that appeared to elicit a wince from Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
“Yes, Biden is responsible” for the remark, Brown said. “But the reporters want to fan the flames of conflict leading to war because they’re so damn stupid. That is my belief of your profession.”
Then he had some advice for Biden. “When you’ve been in politics for 50 years, the first thing you’re supposed to learn is how to avoid an embarrassing question. That has to be lesson one.”
Just as Trump’s fame grew with the help of New York’s tabloid press, Schwarzenegger’s celebrity widened thanks to the news media’s coverage of his bodybuilding, movie and political endeavors. That’s something he remembers when he’s the subject of a critical story. He doesn’t call it “fake news.”
“The bottom line is, I would not be sitting here today if it wouldn’t be for the press. The press has created me,” he said.
Both share a zeal for the political arena and a curiosity about where life may take them. Brown’s interests are eclectic. He reads widely but also enjoys harvesting olives on his 2,500-acre ranch about an hour north of Sacramento. After scientists were invited to explore the ranch, an entomologist discovered a rare species of beetle. It’s now named after Brown: Bembidion brownorum.
“I like policy,” Brown said. “I like issues like climate, prison reform, education and water. I like politics. It keeps you on your toes because you can screw up at any moment and it all can come crashing down if you say the wrong thing. That keeps your heart beating a little faster.”
“I also like monasteries and Gregorian chants,” Brown added.
Schwarzenegger now has an institute in his name at the University of Southern California, one whose mission is promoting “post-partisanship” and solving real-world problems.
“I’m a f—ing happy camper,” he said at the luncheon. “I loved being a bodybuilder and being the most muscular man in the world. Then I switched over to show business and then I loved being an action hero and being Danny DeVito’s twin brother. Then I got sick and tired of that and I got into politics.”
“And then I loved being a public servant. Just loved it,” he said.
So did Brown. The pair may get a chance to discuss their mutual passion for the public sphere soon enough. California’s former Democratic governor has invited his Republican predecessor to come up to the ranch for a visit, conversation and perhaps a chance encounter with a rare beetle.