Between the Lines

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.
Illustration by Philip Burke

Illustration by Philip Burke


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.”

Speechwriter Gary Delsohn meets with Arnold Schwarzenegger in the governor's private study at the Capitol in 2007. (Photo courtesy of Gary Delsohn)

Speechwriter Gary Delsohn meets with Arnold Schwarzenegger in the governor’s private study at the Capitol in 2007. (Photo courtesy of Gary Delsohn)

It was always risky to stray too far from home or a computer. Being on call was what you signed up for. I understood that from the beginning. I knew there would always be a price for making personal plans or getting too far out of pocket. To illustrate this point, one of the governor’s closest aides told me a story early in my tenure about Tom Campbell, Schwarzenegger’s finance director for part of his first term as governor. Schwarzenegger was frustrated because Campbell couldn’t be reached one weekend. When he came back to Sacramento the following Monday and apologized, saying he had been “out in the middle of Lake Berryessa,” with no cell service, Schwarzenegger deadpanned, “You shouldn’t be out in the middle of Lake Berryessa.”

As for my concerns about the truth, the challenge was to square my background with my new vocation. As a journalist, you know from the start: you don’t lie or exaggerate. Accuracy and honesty are everything. Now I was writing for a politician, and one from Hollywood at that. It was a job, I soon learned, that sometimes required obfuscation. “We don’t lie,” a Schwarzenegger political operative once joked. “We tell the truth very slowly.”

As John Burton, the colorful former Senate President from San Francisco put it when I was working for Schwarzenegger: “I love your boss. He’s such a bullsh-tter. He is so full of sh-t, I love the guy.” I got the impression that Burton intended it as a genuine compliment.

Burton, for good measure, also told me he never understood how anyone would need a speechwriter. “Me, I’m going to a poultry convention to give a speech, all I need are a few facts about f–king chickens and I’m golden. I don’t get it.”

Of course, there were days when neither did I.

“I recognized two words from the speech I gave you,” I said to him when he came back to the office. “Charter and schools.” He just laughed and said, “Yes, but you wrote a fantastic speech!”

One of the first speeches I wrote for the governor was a keynote address for a conference on charter schools. I quickly read all I could on the issue, talked to policy experts in the administration like Bonnie Reiss, now a University of California Regent, got a few talking points from Schwarzenegger and Mendelsohn, and pounded out a 15-page speech.

That’s not as long as it sounds. Schwarzenegger wanted his remarks in 24-point type, Tahoma Bold, with slashes where commas or pauses are supposed to be so he had a visual reminder not to rush. He didn’t like to wear glasses in public, so the type had to be extra large. He would study the draft with von Huene, his speech coach, going through it again and again like a movie script. He marked off each time he read through it with a short line at the top of the page. On big, important speeches, there could be 30 or 40 such lines; he told me the practice was a throwback from his bodybuilding days when he kept track of his gym reps on a chalkboard and he wanted to see exactly how much lifting he had done.

“I recognized two words from the speech I gave you,” I said to him when he came back to the office. “Charter and schools.” He just laughed and said, “Yes, but you wrote a fantastic speech!” When the speech was on a subject he was relatively conversant on, he’d use my draft to help focus, but would speak extemporaneously and improvise as he went along.

In fact, I learned early on that he has strong natural instincts about how to connect with people. For example, he knew that if he included a joke at the top of a speech, especially a self-deprecating one, perhaps a reference to his thick accent or one of his movies that bombed, he would almost always have the audience on his side from that point on.

He also knew how to connect policy issues to people’s everyday lives. When we spent much of 2006 pushing his ambitious public works bonds, he said from the start we needed to do more than just recite facts and figures about what would be built or accomplished. “We need to get their hearts, and their minds will follow,” he said time and again. “We need to tell stories that really grab people and that they can relate to their everyday lives.” That’s why we talked about the soccer mom getting stuck in traffic because more roads were needed, or the importance of new schools so kids wouldn’t have to sit in trailers that doubled as classrooms in many rapidly growing school districts. Despite his immense wealth and immigrant background, he had a common-sense understanding about what people seemed to care about, which is what helped make him so appealing to California voters in the first place.

As for me, it was critical that I learned to adopt his voice as much as possible. As a writer, you normally try to develop your own distinctive voice. As a speechwriter, if you do that, you’ve failed. Fortunately, I had the advantage of covering him for two years as a reporter, so I already had a pretty good sense of how he spoke.

For instance, I knew he liked straightforward language. And while it’s a common speechwriting tactic to put phonetic pronunciations in for tricky words or names, it was even more critical for him because of his accent. And because it was a German accent, I also knew to stay away from words beginning with V or W. Unfortunately, I learned just how important that was the hard way.

I had written a speech for a Holocaust remembrance event in Los Angeles, which included a quote from Elie Wiesel, the dignified Holocaust survivor and author. I was assured by someone close to the governor that he knew Wiesel and the correct pronunciation of his name (vee-ZEL), so I left out the phonetic spelling. My heart sank when I heard Schwarzenegger say “Elie Weasel” to the mostly Jewish audience. It was a mistake I didn’t make again.

The job was … like skating across a frozen lake. You’d be sailing along just fine and all of a sudden you could hit a bad patch, fall through the ice and die a frigid, watery death.

Writing speeches for the governor of California allowed no margin for error. As a reporter, if I made a mistake in print, I was embarrassed and had to apologize and explain what happened to my editors and story subjects. Such transgressions are taken into account during a reporter’s annual performance review. A correction gets published. It’s bad.

As a gubernatorial speechwriter, if we made an error, it could become a news story that might not only embarrass, but damage California’s most powerful politician and one of the best-known celebrities in the world. Schwarzenegger had three speechwriters and we tended to divide the work by topics. For example, one would cover the budget, health care and the environment, another would be primarily responsible for speeches on water and prisons and another would cover political reform and economic development. But we all overlapped because the work was constant, and any one of us could find ourselves pinch-hitting on a subject matter that wasn’t in our area of expertise. As the speech unit’s chief, if we made a mistake, I was the one held accountable.

The metaphor I liked to use for the job was that it was like skating across a frozen lake. You’d be sailing along just fine and all of a sudden you could hit a bad patch, fall through the ice and die a frigid, watery death.

I hit my piece of weak ice the afternoon of Sept. 7, 2006. I was in my Capitol office in the Department of Finance, around the corner and down the hall from the governor’s office, when the phone rang. It was Bob Salladay, a former colleague and a friend who worked for the Los Angeles Times.

“Are you with people?” he asked me.

“Yes. I’m in my office. I have people here,” I replied.

“You should go where you’re alone. It will be easier to talk.”

You never want to hear words like that from a reporter. The disaster that was about to unfold began a few weeks after I took the job, when I went into Schwarzenegger’s office with a pen and a legal pad to go over upcoming speeches and an aide handed me a tape recorder.

“He likes to tape these conversations so there’s a record,” she said. I recorded three or four of our sessions, frank talks about immigration, budget issues, personalities in the Legislature, his public works proposals and a variety of other subjects. There was no time to transcribe the recordings, so I asked one of the deputy press secretaries to have the transcription service we used do it. I gave specific instructions not to share the recordings with anyone, and the service was bound by a confidentiality clause. For whatever reason, the deputy press secretary stored digital versions of the conversations in a directory that also included audio files sent to reporters after Schwarzenegger made a speech or held a press conference.

My files sat in that directory for six months before anyone outside the office knew they existed. Then, as the campaign for Schwarzenegger’s reelection was heating up against challenger Phil Angelides, the Democratic state treasurer, someone in Angelides’ campaign figured out that by deleting a few characters at the end of the directory’s URL address, all the files became accessible.

Within a few hours, we were virtually certain that was how the recordings got out and that our computer system was not hacked into, but the CHP was asked to investigate nevertheless. Two detectives took my computer for several days to search for forensic clues.

The comment the media seized on came after Kennedy—for who knows what reason—asked Schwarzenegger if Bonnie Garcia, a Republican assemblywoman who was supporting his public works bonds, was Puerto Rican.

“She maybe is Puerto Rican or the same thing as Cuban,” the governor said. “I mean, they are all very hot. They have, the, you know, part of the black blood in them and part of the Latino blood in them that together makes it.”

The grenade landed a few days after a party my wife and I attended at Schwarzenegger’s Mediterranean-style Brentwood estate where he, Shriver and some of his chief campaign aides made toasts celebrating his huge lead over Angelides. Schwarzenegger had just come off a productive 2006 legislative session where, working primarily with Democrats, he would sign bills that raised the minimum wage, put billions of dollars of infrastructure bonds on the ballot and made California the first state to enact legislation attacking climate change.

At the party, Shriver, campaign manager Steve Schmidt and Schwarzenegger praised the governor’s campaign and office staff in Sacramento for working so effectively to make him a virtual shoo-in for reelection. Then came brief remarks from Kennedy.

“First of all,” she deadpanned, “I want to thank the governor for setting the bar so f–king low last year that we all look like geniuses right now. I really appreciate that.”

Everyone at the party was laughing, no one harder than Schwarzenegger, who slapped his knee in delight. With the “black blood” comment going viral a few days later, California’s governor was now the punch line of jokes from Jay Leno, Jon Stewart, Bill Maher and just about everyone else who was paying attention.

Schwarzenegger apologized. Garcia said she was not offended and caused her own stir when she joked in remarks to high school students a few weeks later that, “I wouldn’t kick [Schwarzenegger] out of bed.”

The governor went on to trounce Angelides by more than 1.4 million votes, but it took me a long time to get over feeling awful. Inadvertently, I had caused my boss to be ridiculed and embarrassed. I stayed in the job another two and a half years and Schwarzenegger never seemed to hold the episode against me, even when our office chose to release all the recordings on Super Bowl Sunday, which included more salacious comments, because the Los Angeles Times had them and was going to publish a story.

Shriver also was gracious, admonishing me to be careful with my tapes and notes. “But don’t worry,” she said. “We all make mistakes. He’s done far worse to himself, believe me.”

There were many tense moments during my three years as Schwarzenegger’s chief speechwriter. Every day was a communications fire drill. We were in crisis mode whether there was anything controversial going on or not. Unlike Gov. Jerry Brown’s office, where they don’t always answer the phones in the press office, we were driven by Kennedy and Mendelsohn to win every news cycle. With blogs and social media just coming into prominence, the news cycle was nonstop.

Once, after a budget speech I wrote for him in which he included his iconic movie line, “Hasta la vista, baby,” Kennedy was angry and sent me an accusatory email.

“Did you put that in his speech?” she demanded to know. “We’re trying not to do that anymore. It makes him sound like a cartoon character.” I didn’t put the line in. Occasionally he would say, “I’ll be back,” which his audience always loved, but I knew better than to put lines like that into his speeches.

I also had to worry about the Arnold-Maria squeeze play, something a veteran staffer warned me about early on.

In April 2006, I worked with Schwarzenegger on a San Francisco speech that for the first time laid out his commitment to the sweeping climate change legislation he signed into law later that year. I had written several drafts, and he had rehearsed the final version more than a dozen times. We seemed set. When we assembled in the cabinet room to go over it once more a day before he would deliver it, Maria was in Sacramento.

“You have to grab people,” Schwarzenegger said. “You have to get their attention and move them. So being able to do that helps, and having come from Hollywood gives me a leg up.”

She sat in on the meeting, scribbling away on the draft with a Sharpie, making suggestions and changes. The governor kept nodding his approval. Among other things, she wanted a line in the speech connecting the legislation to John Muir, the legendary conservationist. Schwarzenegger didn’t object, so I put it in and faxed the revised draft to his house. Later that day, I got an email from one of his aides.

“Guess what,” he wrote. “He didn’t want any of the new version. He went back totally to the one we did last night. I knew he wouldn’t want changes. He said not to listen to Maria unless he approves it.”

I had a similar experience a few months later when he was to deliver brief welcoming remarks at the Women’s Conference that Maria built into an international event. I got a note from Daniel Zingale, her new chief of staff, about what he should say. The suggestions were about strong women role models, including his mother, and how he surrounded himself with independent-minded women on his staff. A few days later, with the earlier experience still on my mind, Schwarzenegger gave me different instructions. He wanted the speech kept simple, just lavishing praise on Maria for the great work she’d done building up the conference and little else. I went with his version and sent the draft.

That Sunday night, I was home watching 60 Minutes when Maria called. Where was the material Zingale had sent, she wanted to know. “If he gives this speech,” she said of my version, “he’ll sound like a freaking idiot. It doesn’t say anything. He can’t give a speech like this in an election year.”

Schwarzenegger with his daughters Christina (left) and Katherine at Maria Shriver's Women's Conference in Long Beach in 2006 (Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI/Newscom)

Schwarzenegger with his daughters Christina (left) and Katherine at Maria Shriver’s Women’s Conference in Long Beach in 2006 (Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI/Newscom)

I quickly rewrote it with her ideas. A few hours later, she called back and thanked me profusely. The conference took place two days later. I wanted to watch the live stream of his speech before going into the office. Suze Orman, the financial commentator, introduced his two daughters, Katherine and Christina, who were to bring out their father.

“And now, please welcome Katherine and Christina Schwarzenegger” Orman told the packed meeting hall in Long Beach. No girls appeared. It felt like an eternity but Orman stood there for no more than 30 seconds before introducing another speaker.

My mind started to race with bad possibilities. Arnold and Maria must have had a fight over the speech, I convinced myself. I’ll be blamed and fired. I realized later that Schwarzenegger was late in arriving and his daughters had to wait to introduce him. When he finally showed up, he read Maria’s preferred draft word for word.

Maria was a great ally the entire time I worked for her husband and had my back on more than one occasion, but getting between the two of them was something I assiduously tried to avoid from then on.

One of the reasons three speechwriters were constantly churning out text was that Schwarzenegger never seemed to stop moving and the staff never stopped planning speaking opportunities for him. When he was in public, especially during his first term, he frequently referred to himself as “The Action Governor,” and signed an executive order his first hour in office to repeal Davis’ tripling of the state’s car tax. It was a populist move that ended up removing $4 billion from the state budget at a time when the state was running a serious deficit.

It’s no stretch to say that, at times, he appeared to approach his job as a movie performance. One day, during a meeting in his suite at the Hyatt (where he lived when he was in town), Schwarzenegger talked about a fire site in the San Bernardino mountains he’d already visited several times.

“I knew I had to go there again,” he told me as I wrote down what he said. “When you go twice, that’s really hands-on. That shows you really care. I had this vision of walking through the burned-out rubble and talking to the people. It’s like a director, when he can see a scene before he shoots it. It was the same way. I get visions like that and I called Susan and told her I wanted to go and she set it all up. I wanted to get the shot of looking out the helicopter down at the burned-out ruins. The people have to see you are on top of all this.”

As disingenuous as it may sound, they were solid political instincts, and he certainly wasn’t the first or last politician to realize that perception counts. If George W. Bush had Schwarzenegger’s appreciation for the importance of theatrics in politics after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, Bush would have come out of that crisis much stronger. It helps, of course, if your emergency responders are generally efficient and productive; to his credit, Schwarzenegger and his staff did all they could to make sure they were.

To Schwarzenegger, the Capitol and the state were a stage, with him cast in the lead role of a play. Consider this soliloquy I heard him share one morning in July 2007 when Rose Friedman, the widow of Nobel-winning economist Milton Friedman, stopped by to say hello to Schwarzenegger. At the time, we were trying to push Schwarzenegger’s doomed health care reform bill through the Legislature. He was frustrated with the debate over whether his plan to have doctors, hospitals and others help pay some of costs was a tax, requiring a two-thirds majority vote, or a fee, needing only a simple majority. I took careful notes as he talked, which I almost always did.

“You will read George Skelton in the Times,” Schwarzenegger began. “And you will get all mad because he writes how this is a tax and not a fee and you will get all angry and want to call him and give him a bad time but then you realize, he is just a character in this great stage play. And it would not be the same without him.

“Just like the speaker [Fabian Núñez] is an interesting character. Or the Senate President [Don Perata]. He will come down here with his wine and he will have a glass and then by the third glass he is pretty reasonable.”

An associate of Mrs. Friedman’s asked Schwarzenegger if he thought a Hollywood background was helpful in politics, as former President Ronald Reagan often said when he was governor or in the White House.

“Absolutely. No doubt about it,” Schwarzenegger said. “It’s like when I do a press conference or an interview. We prepare like crazy but I don’t want to look too slick or packaged. I hate when I see that in interviews. So it’s like Reagan did. He would pause when he was asked a question so he made it look like he was thinking. ‘Well,’ he would say, and it actually appeared like he was thinking of the answer right there. I do the same thing: ‘Let me see. That’s a good question.’ Then you give them the answer. So yes, it’s just like being back in Hollywood.”

No matter what, he went on, “you have to grab people. You have to get their attention and move them. Whether you are talking about water or health care or global warming. So being able to do that helps, and having come from Hollywood gives me a leg up.”

Maybe so, but it didn’t seem to help his relationship with legislators, including fellow Republicans. Kennedy summed up this problem during a meeting about the budget in the summer of 2008 when Schwarzenegger left for a few minutes to take a call from Shriver. The conversation was about whether he could break the latest budget stalemate by calling a press conference and declaring that he would not sign any bills until the Legislature sent him an acceptable budget.

“This is about respect,” Kennedy said. “They don’t respect him. They think he’s weak and I love the visual of him being the strong parent inside the Capitol. The minute he does this, he will occupy the most powerful position in Sacramento. He will no longer be on the sidelines.”

Before a decision was made on whether to issue the threat, he told me that if he held a press conference “it would be good to have some jokes” to lighten things up. I placed the customary call to Jon Macks, the comedy writer for Jay Leno whom Schwarzenegger paid for some of his best quips. A few hours later, I had a fresh batch. Sometimes we wrote our own jokes, but I called Macks a lot.

In the end, he held the press conference without any wisecracks. He played it straight and issued the threat. But legislators weren’t moved by the tough talk. They didn’t send him a budget for another month. When they finally did, most pundits characterized it as a sham for failing to address the growing deficit in a substantive way.

By the time the depressing 2008 budget fight was over, I felt done, too. An administration that once seemed bold and energetic had become paralyzed. I wrote speeches about nonpartisanship that seemed no more evident under Schwarzenegger than it had been when Davis was booted from office. I was also anxious to get my life back. In February 2009, three years after I started, I left for a job in the private sector in Southern California.

When I told Schwarzenegger I was resigning, he gave me a bad time, which I expected because I knew from other senior staff who’d left that he got angry when someone resigned.

But I gave a month’s notice and by the time my final days were ticking off, he came around, as he did with the others, too. On my last day, we sat in his smoking tent just before noon and he gave me the customary gifts he handed out to departing senior staff. They included a boxed set of DVDs he said were among his “all-time favorite films”—Ben Hur, Doctor Zhivago, Fantasia, The Godfather, High Noon, Lawrence of Arabia, The Sound of Music, Titanic, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Twins. He also gave me a proclamation thanking me for my service and an Austrian beer stein with his photo on it. I appreciated the gifts and the nice things he said about my work and devotion to his efforts.

Then, as he waited for the four legislative leaders to come down to his office for yet another meeting on the budget, he vented about his growing frustration, a dominant feeling for just about everyone at the Capitol as his term was winding down.

“They can go to the ex-leaders I have worked with and pick their brains about what they think they should do to close the deal with me,” he said of the other so-called Big Five leaders with whom he had been negotiating. “Whether it’s Burton or Fabian or [former Assembly Speaker Herb] Wesson. I have no one. Reagan is dead. Pat Brown is not around. Wilson never did anything bold. They got tax increases but what did they get for it? Nothing. There is no one I respect who I can go to for advice or counsel on how to get this done. I am alone on that and I want the whole thing if I am going to go for a tax increase. Wilson went for taxes and didn’t get anything. I want economic stimulus. I want the workplace regulations to be fixed. I want CEQA reform.”

After I left, I signed a contract to write speeches and op-ed articles for him for about a year after he left office. I also helped with a lot of the copy for the self-published 403-page coffee table book chronicling his time as governor that he gave as a Christmas gift. When it came to his memoir, he told me that publisher Simon & Schuster gave him a list of four authors to choose from and he selected Peter Petre, who had ghostwritten books for Norman Schwarzkopf and Alan Greenspan. I sent Petre about 75 pages of notes from my journals and had two long talks with him about my recollections. One story I shared didn’t get into the book.

When I was writing speeches for him, Schwarzenegger often liked to end his remarks with a paraphrase of Reagan’s oft-repeated comment that America was a “shining city on a hill.” For Schwarzenegger that morphed into his pledge to once again make California “the golden dream by the sea.” After Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign started to catch fire in 2008, Schwarzenegger began to implore me to use something memorable that Obama said about America’s future. Finally, he said to me on more than one occasion, “It’s fine to quote Reagan or Obama, but we have to come up with my own memorable lines that people will quote years from now. That’s what we need.”

We kicked around some ideas, but by the time I left the governor’s office in early 2009, the economy had collapsed and the former Hollywood action hero was worn down by the state’s budget crises. Despite the governor’s own relentlessly upbeat persona, it was too late for scripted optimism. There was no speech or catchphrase that could stem the tide of a dysfunctional government and economic gloom. For all his effort and accomplishments, this was one role where there was simply no Hollywood ending to be written.