IRVINE, CALIF.—The first thing that Arnold Schwarzenegger did upon entering his SUV was to reach for a cigar and happily begin chomping on it, unlit, as he waved at the well-wishers around his vehicle. And everyone he encountered seemed to be a well-wisher, from the firefighters to the cops to the drivers of the delivery trucks.
Governor Schwarzenegger, a former action hero in the movies, is still playing the role he loves best. And that's exactly what he believes the people of California want from him in this time of emergency, as wildfires force hundreds of thousands out of their homes in one of the worst natural disasters in the state's history.
In an interview en route from a local emergency command center in Irvine to John Wayne Airport, Schwarzenegger was the picture of confidence as he portrayed himself as a real-life action figure.
"You call the White House, then you call the speaker, Pelosi, and you call the senators—you call everyone and you say here is the problem," he told me. "I'm going to create a circle around this problem and cover myself in every angle."
Of course, he added, immediacy is vital. Whatever is needed, he tries to get it done as fast as possible. "You say, then I'm going to do that right now, not an hour from now, not letting someone else do it," he noted proudly. Then he paused a moment and added with a smile: "I never have any problem with it. It's my personality anyway."
Schwarzenegger isn't making too much of the positive reviews he is getting. He explained that it's just as important to follow through and help the victims of the wildfires rebuild their lives over the long haul, from getting insurance claims paid for lost valuables to helping rebuild their houses destroyed by the flames.
The governor, an Austrian-born former champion bodybuilder, said, "I spent a lot of time in sports, and so I've learned a lot of lessons in sports. One of them of course is discipline, and positive thinking, visualizing your goals, and having to be absolutely convinced that you can accomplish your goal. And also one of the things I learned is follow-through ... . It's one thing to get out of the gate the first three days, but it's another thing to get through the finish line successfully."
—Kenneth T. Walsh