Between the Lines

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Illustration by Philip Burke

For three action-packed years, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's chief speechwriter had a front-row seat to the biggest show in Sacramento. For the first time, GARY DELSOHN opens up about the art of writing for one of the most colorful characters in California history.

I

It was on a two-hour flight from Beijing to Shanghai in November 2005 when the question came that turned my life inside out.

At the time, I was a reporter for The Sacramento Bee, covering a trade mission to China and Hong Kong led by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and his presidential-sized entourage. Sitting next to me was Donna Lucas, a public relations executive and chief of staff to First Lady Maria Shriver.

“There are going to be a lot of changes in the administration,” Lucas said. “Would you be receptive to a call?”

Schwarzenegger had just suffered a disastrous special election with four of his so-called “reform” initiatives defeated at the polls. Just about everybody, particularly his wife, had warned him that calling for the vote was a bad idea. He plowed ahead anyway.

Stu Spencer, the respected Republican political strategist who ran Ronald Reagan’s gubernatorial and presidential campaigns, was one of the people Shriver consulted about how to rescue her husband’s improbable political career after the defeat.  

Tell him to govern, Spencer reportedly told Shriver. No more special elections. Find a way to work with the Legislature. And get a journalist inside the governor’s office who knows something about the Sacramento press corps.

I would become that journalist.

A week after the China trip, Shriver called and asked if I wanted to work for her husband. No specific job was mentioned in that first conversation, but she said she wanted me to keep a detailed journal of her husband’s time in office for posterity, similar to what historian Arthur Schlesinger had done for President Kennedy, her uncle.

“You’ve written a book,” she said. “Arnold will probably write a book when this is all over. You could be his ghostwriter.” I’d been at the Bee for 17 years and had a satisfying career, but being on the inside of something this big was enticing.

“We don’t lie,” a Schwarzenegger political operative once joked. “We tell the truth very slowly.”

Around this time, Schwarzenegger’s first speechwriter, Jeff Danzinger, was quitting, and I was formally offered the position in a call from Shriver that came during a week I took off for the Christmas holiday. Up to this point, I had never actually written a speech for another person, so Shriver asked me to put together a few samples to judge my aptitude for the work. Schwarzenegger called a few days later to welcome me to his team and I waited for the background check and vetting from the governor’s appointment office to make it official. 

On January 24, 2006, a few hours before I was supposed to cover Schwarzenegger’s appearance at a Sacramento Press Club lunch, I resigned from the Bee. Suddenly, I was the chief speechwriter to arguably the most high-profile governor in California’s, and perhaps America’s, history.

I had come to know Schwarzenegger during the 2003 recall campaign and from reporting on his first two years in office with my colleague, Margaret Talev, who now covers the White House for Bloomberg. State issues and politics were familiar to me, helping to ease the transition from journalist covering the governor to speechwriter penning comments for him. But as I was about to end my newspaper career and become a Schwarzenegger insider, I was worried about two things that any journalist strives for: access and truth.

The three years I spent with access to the state’s top elected official proved to be one of the most interesting experiences of my professional life, though not without a price.

During the two or three days a week that he spent commuting back and forth between Sacramento and his home in Los Angeles, I usually met with Schwarzenegger at least once a day at the large conference table in the Ronald Reagan Cabinet Room in the governor’s office, the room in which he displayed the sword from his Conan films and other collectibles. Or we would find quiet time in his small private study behind the larger office even more crammed with memorabilia, including a shiny metal model of the Terminator, books, family photos and miscellaneous tchotchkes that he loved to collect.

Sometimes it was just the two of us; other times the meetings would include Adam Mendelsohn, Schwarzenegger’s communications director and Susan Kennedy, his chief of staff, along with other advisors. Matt David, who took over the communications job after Mendelsohn left in 2008, was also in some of the meetings from that point on.

But we didn’t always get to meet before a speech was written. Depending on his schedule, Schwarzenegger often preferred to see a first draft based on direction I would get from Mendelsohn, David or, occasionally, Kennedy. Schwarzenegger would weigh in when there was a draft to look at. For me, that often meant getting a call at home from one of the private security guards who protected the gated Brentwood mansion he lived in with Maria and their four kids.

“Are you available to talk with Arnold?” the guard would ask, and after a short wait, the governor was on the phone. We would go through lines he wanted changed in a speech or I would add some text he thought should be included. Sometimes he read the entire speech aloud while I was on the phone, explaining what he wanted changed when he got to it. He didn’t use a computer, so I would type in the new language and fax the speech back to his house. Sometimes Clay Russell, his assistant, or Walter von Huene, his speech coach and longtime friend from Hollywood, would make the changes for him. I usually got calls on weekends, late at night, early morning, during dinner, while I was at the gym, walking the dog, taking a shower, or driving to work. Like for many in Schwarzenegger’s inner circle, there was no such thing as standard office hours for the speechwriting staff.

In 2006, he called at 7:30 on Easter morning and asked if I had the speech on disaster preparedness we had been working on in front of me. On Thanksgiving morning in 2007, he called just as I was heading out on a hike at Point Reyes to discuss a long statement from him on the death of his bodybuilding mentor, Reg Park. Schwarzenegger was in Washington, D.C., spending the holiday with the Shrivers, and he wanted the statement right away.  While my wife and another couple waited, I scribbled notes on scraps of paper as Schwarzenegger and I talked on a pay phone because the cell reception in the area was weak. Without my laptop, I called John Kepley, one of the other speechwriters, dictated the changes to him, and Kepley faxed the new draft to the governor. I took several deep breaths when the hour-long drill was over and we went on our hike. It took a few miles before my brain and heart began to calm down.

Another time, he called while I sat on Poipu Beach in Kauai in June 2008 during a rare vacation to let me know he would need a speech for his daughter’s upcoming high school graduation. After about an hour conversation, we settled on building the remarks on what would eventually be called “Schwarzenegger’s Six Rules of Success”—“Trust yourself, break the rules, don’t be afraid to fail, don’t listen to the naysayers, work your butt off, and give something back.” I spent most of my final vacation day under a palm tree, writing the speech longhand on a yellow legal pad. That turned out to be one of the more enjoyable speeches I worked on because it was so personal to him and we had a lot of time to go over it.

His pal Jack Nicholson was going to be there because his daughter was in the same class, so after the first draft and when I was back in Sacramento, Schwarzenegger came up with a joke about how when he was trying to break into the movies, it was the physically smaller actors who were winning all the parts—Dustin Hoffman, Woody Allen and Nicholson, “before he gained a few pounds, that is.” After he delivered the speech at Katherine’s high school graduation, Schwarzenegger left me a gushing message on voice mail. He was not stingy with praise, nor was he reluctant to call me a “forehead,” his word for fool or idiot, if he didn’t like what I gave him. I learned early not to take either form of commentary too seriously because there was always another speech to write and he was inclined to keep moving forward.

“The graduation speech was a big hit,” he said. “These kids are fickle. They have heard it all before and they loved it. So many of them came up to me after and said they were really inspired. And I think when we can work together like this on a draft and make changes we need, the speeches are really great. Maria loved it. The kids loved it. Katherine was happy.”