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A Tale of Two Schwarzeneggers

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The last time I saw and photographed

Arnold Schwarzenegger at an auto show, he stormed down Broadway into New York’s Times Square amid a phalanx of law-enforcement vehicles, flanked by two Hummer H1s — military SUVs in civilian garb. He drove up onto the sidewalk and into ABC’s ground-level studio in an open-bed version of the Hummer H2 SUV.

He was helping promote what was at the time a relatively new and more refined Hummer that he had helped design (at least according to AM General, a GM partner that manufacturers the Hummer). Ahh-nold was one of Hollywood’s few remaining action heroes and one of the biggest box office draws the film industry had ever seen, and I was in my fourth year as senior editor of Cars.com.

It was April 11, 2001.

The H2 had begun to supplant the Ford Excursion as the poster SUV for unbridled testosterone and the inexcusable waste of everything from fuel and oxygen to America’s very landscape. There were two hybrid car models on the market, owned mainly by tree-huggers, the odd celebrity and others of inflated self-importance. Paris Hilton was unknown, having done nothing. George W. Bush was president, with a 62 percent approval rating, having done nothing. Terrorist acts were things that happened elsewhere (except that one time at the World Trade Center that was quickly forgotten). Iraq was a country we once magnanimously smacked down after it invaded its neighbor.

Now it’s Nov. 30, 2006. The Ford Excursion is gone and Hummer is one of GM’s most successful brands, despite high gas prices and the fact that it’s been painted by some as “the problem.” There are 10 hybrid models on the market, with nearly as many more coming in the next 18 months. They’re driven by a wide range of people for a wide range of reasons. Paris Hilton is a global celebrity, having done nothing. George W. Bush is president, with an approval rating in the low 30s, having served for almost six years. Iraq is part of our daily lexicon.

Schwarzenegger, who convinced AM General to turn the HMMWVs he saw while filming “Kindergarten Cop” into diesel-sucking, smoke-belching consumer products, is now standing in front of a phalanx of hybrid, clean-diesel, E85 and hydrogen vehicles, saying, “These cars are the future of the automobile industry, and I know that they are the future for California because we have taken the lead in environmental protection and promoting alternative fuels.”

If you had told me in 2001 that this actor would become governor of California, I like to think I could have envisioned that. He was well-liked and active in the Republican Party, and Ronald Reagan had shattered California’s actor/governor barrier before I was born. Yet here I stand, mouth agape, as this transformed figure waxes on in the same Austrian-tinged English that once uttered, “It’s not a tumor.”

Though I notoriously deem the opinions of actors irrelevant, I find myself scurrying behind Schwarzenegger the governor along with a handful of other journalists as he walks the L.A. Auto Show floor with its general manager, Andy Fuzesi, and a security detail too large to count. Around every corner is another burly man, always a step or two ahead of the governor and the rest of us. Soon I notice that every third woman I see, in among the reporters, also has an earpiece and eyes that never stop moving. It seems absurd. The governor is solid and square-jawed as ever, and able to lay you out with just a stare. When a brawl breaks out at the National Conference of State Legislatures (as it invariably does), I want Schwarzenegger on my side.

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The governor moves quickly, seldom stopping for long in one place, though he seems captivated and perplexed by the portholes on the fenders of the Buick Enclave — stopping to ask about them and revealing no impressions, positive or negative.

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Arnold is tight-lipped throughout, though he clearly lingers much longer at the German manufacturers, seemingly impressed with the Volkswagen Tiguan concept — also the Cars.com editors’ show favorite. Good eye, Gov.

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He also gives a literal thumbs-up to the BMW 335i and stops to check out what the new X5 packs under the hood.

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Finally he reaches what is certainly an objective of this tour: the BMW Hydrogen 7, a 7 Series sedan that burns hydrogen or gasoline. One hundred will be built for research. California has 23 of the country’s 31 hydrogen filling stations.

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After a few casually staged photo ops, the cleaner, gentler Schwarzenegger is on the move again, cutting through the Buick display, skirting Pontiac, ignoring the Solstice roadster and stopping briefly at Chevy to honor the Corvette. One or two of his handlers start motioning, and the flock turns toward the door. I see him make one last stop, as if it’s an afterthought, while darting among the most hulking of hulking SUVs. Governor Schwarzenegger still has a moment to peer into the Hummer H2, and I am still the senior editor of Cars.com.

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Photo of Joe Wiesenfelder
Former Executive Editor Joe Wiesenfelder, a Cars.com launch veteran, led the car evaluation effort. He owns a 1984 Mercedes 300D and a 2002 Mazda Miata SE. Email Joe Wiesenfelder

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