As the wildfires of October consumed thousands of acres and hundreds of homes from San Diego to Los Angeles, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger reprised his action-figure role to launch a round of executive decisions on the emergency response. He encouraged firefighters with handshakes and high-fives and consoled victims throughout the region. In the process, the Austrian-born former bodybuilder demonstrated some of the principles of leadership—decisiveness and management skill—that have earned him praise.
More broadly, Schwarzenegger, 60, has worked with the state Legislature in a nonpartisan way to promote alternative fuels, limit greenhouse gases, and increase aid to education. The bipartisanship has not been consistent; Schwarzenegger strayed right during the 2004 election, and the result was a series of failed ballot initiatives. The governor took time between official stops during the wildfire crisis to talk with U.S. News's Chief White House Correspondent Kenneth T. Walsh.
Is there a different standard for leadership in crisis?
In a time of disaster, or a time where you just need to plan to rebuild or change certain laws, I think the key thing is to be very clear. [You need] a very clear vision that you are 100 percent convinced of, because if you're not convinced, it will be very hard to sell.
How would you describe your leadership style?
You cannot waver; you cannot change. When it comes to a disaster like this, I think the key thing is to be out there with the people—checking out that you have enough diapers, enough baby formula, enough nurses. Who are the doctors? Do they have enough food? Do they have enough water? And if you see any shortcomings, you have to jump into action—not an hour from now, not letting someone else do it, but right now. I have never had a problem with it. It's my personality, anyway.
Did you learn any lessons from the government response to Hurricane Katrina?
I think we learned from the mistakes that others have made. I use the [Katrina] experience to rebuild my levees in California. We have levees that are just as vulnerable as the ones in New Orleans.
What did you learn from sports that has helped you as a political leader?
One of them, of course, is discipline, and having to be absolutely convinced that you can accomplish your goal. And one thing I learned was follow-through. If it is soccer, with the kick following through with your foot all the way up. And when you pose [in bodybuilding], you complete your movement. It's one thing to get out of the gate the first three days [of a crisis] but it's another thing to get through the finish line.
You were more confrontational when you first took office. What changed?
I have tried, in the special elections, some daring things that were very risky. But if they had worked! And if they don't work, then you pick up the pieces and start over. I don't shy away from those things, because it's like I always say: If you have 500 pounds of weight in front of you, the only way you know you can lift it is if you try. Right? And chances are very high that you will fail. But if you make it, it's over. I tried something; it didn't work. I said that I wanted to push forward in an aggressive way. It was too aggressive, and I'm going to back off and do it in a more inclusive way. Right? And so I learned my lesson.
What mentors have helped shape your life's course?
In bodybuilding, my mentor was Reg Park, who was a three-time champion and involved in movies. Later, I had mentors like [the economist] Milton Friedman. Ronald Reagan was one of my mentors. He was a perfect example of what I'm talking about in leadership, how you articulate your dreams, your vision. I think Nelson Mandela has shown unbelievable leadership, as he's open to forgiveness, tolerance, and inclusion. Mikhail Gorbachev I admire because [he] grew up under communism and dismantled the whole system. I think it took a staggering amount of will.
How does one limit carbon emissions and encourage the growth of California?
We just have to get off the fossil fuel thing. What matters is that technology has to change. If we increase the amount of homes but build them with solar, we don't take power away from the [overall electric] grid.
Seven out of 10 Americans think the country is going in the wrong direction. Do you agree?
I think that this can be turned around very quickly. I think that when you have a war it doesn't matter whether it is a Democrat in office or a Republican, people get kind of down. I think the country as a whole is doing very well. I know it's easier said than done, but we've got to get out of that war. We've got to let those people [in Iraq] know that you've got to start running your own country.
How much has your celebrity helped you as a governor?
It helps. There are no two ways about it, because when you have a meeting somewhere you will get a much quicker response from people than if you come in as just another suit. But you've got to show substance. Believe me, I've seen people that have star power and have misused it. I think [star power] can be very helpful. If you have this power of influence over young kids, then use it as something positive.