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Arnold Schwarzenegger: The One-Man Brand That America Keeps Buying

“Retirement is for sissies,” read the billboards for the new action film, The Last Stand, opening today. The words appear below a photo of the Governor of California Emeritus, who is firing a huge machine gun, while former constituent Johnny Knoxville, of “Jackass” fame, cheers wildly in the background.

Rest assured that the slogan is a deliberate message—at once cinematic, personal, and political—from Arnold Schwarzenegger and about Arnold Schwarzenegger. The ex-governor has said that he begins his film roles by deciding on the poster, and then works backwards, tweaking the plot and the script and his own acting (for want of a better word) to serve the image and words that will sell the movie. The marketing comes first, then the product.

This is the Schwarzenegger way, and the message here is unmistakable: I may be 65 years old, with my days as an action-movie superstar a decade behind me. I may have been wildly unpopular when I left office (he brought Democrats, Republicans, and independents together in their unhappiness with his governorship, and left with job approval ratings in the 20s). I may have lost my wife when she learned I got the housekeeper pregnant. But I’m still here, and not going anywhere. I will always be back.

That relentlessness is where, for all the considerable nonsense that attends a champion bodybuilder turned movie star turned governor of America’s craziest state, the public and private Arnold meet. It is on display now. And it’s why, at a moment when he seems like a joke and a has-been, those of us who have followed his career—I wrote a political biography of him in 2006—can’t rule out another comeback, however unlikely.

SCHWARZENEGGER TELLS HIS STORY as one of heroic victories, but the tale is really about his ability to collect what most of us would view as failures—bad films, bad reviews, bad behavior—and somehow construct them into a narrative of success. Just read his 2012 autobiography, Total Recall, which was widely panned. It’s the story of a boy from a small Austrian town of no significance and a family that is nothing special, a not particularly good student who gets through a trade school and joins the Austrian Army, where he is a rather incompetent soldier. He discovers a sport that few take seriously, arrives in the U.S. (where he loses his first major bodybuilding tournament) and gets into the movie business. His first film, Hercules in New York, is embarrassingly bad. But, of course, he perseveres. He marries a Kennedy, despite being a notorious rake. He builds movie stardom on bad reviews. He wins the recall election of 2003 even though the press and much of the political world don’t take him seriously (he faced a groping scandal in the final days of the race).

In office, he digs himself one hole after the other. He is at his best in recovery. After the defeat of a slate of ballot initiatives in 2005, he pivots to the center, and easily wins re-election. After a rough start to his second term, he finishes strong with a 2009 agreement that raises taxes (and saves California, temporarily, from even worse disaster).

Whatever you think of Schwarzenegger (and his fans are not moralists), this is one hell of a story. If Reagan was the Teflon president, Schwarzenegger is America's anti-Teflon—everything sticks to him, and still he keeps going. This is the product of two great talents, which reinforce each other: Arnold has a gift for damage control, and he has a gift for doing damage to himself.

The premiere of The Last Stand is one piece of an ongoing repair operation, one that should be taught in public-relations textbooks. Schwarzenegger, after leaving office at the beginning of 2011 and suffering the revelation of his love child shortly thereafter, seemed to be dead in the water. Movie deals, speeches, his other work seemed to be at risk.

But he pushed through and leaned on friends. He rolled out his autobiography in the fall (full disclosure: he and his collaborator asked for my opinion on what he should say about his second term as governor, and I shared it) and disclosed what had happened with the affair that cost him his marriage. He also did “60 Minutes,” and answered every conceivable question about how he screwed up his marriage.

This was a classic Schwarzeneggerian strategy—that when he started appearing in starring roles again, with The Last Stand, the press would no longer ask about his personal scandal, but rather about his return to Hollywood (and whether audiences will accept him). That gave his renewed movie career a cleaner launching pad. Early signs are that it's working. The Last Stand, with an old-sheriff comeback story that matches Schwarzenegger’s career comeback narrative, has had a friendly reception from the entertainment media (with few mentions of his personal difficulties) and even a few positive early reviews. It could be a modest hit, setting up an onslaught of Schwarzenegger films now in the works: Terminator 5, a new "Conan the Barbarian," and maybe even a sequel to Twins to be called Triplets (with Eddie Murphy joining the brotherly triumvirate with Schwarzenegger and DeVito).

But could a successful showbiz reboot lead to an even more improbable political reboot? Schwarzenegger recently has talked as though his political career is over—a crazy, passing phase bookended by Hollywood success. No one appears to be clamoring for his return, and no office would seem to fit him. Hard feelings remain. Democrats blame him for lingering debt and budget problems, which they believe are only now being cleaned up by Gov. Jerry Brown. California Republicans still dismiss him as a moderate apostate. Privately, even some former aides can be harsh in their appraisals.

Look closely, though, and the political book is not closed. Schwarzenegger remains deeply involved in public policy, rather quietly building two think tanks—one at the University of Southern California (the Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy), another in Geneva (the R20 Regions of Climate Action)—which have thoughtful management and share a focus on the marriage of global policy and local governance. While Schwarzenegger’s governorship is still viewed as a failure by many, his second-term budget policies—austerity in spending, and temporary tax cuts—appear to have triumphed, with Brown (and a budget director inherited from Schwarzenegger) still following the approach. And Republicans, in the face of demographic shift in Democrats' favor, are beginning to say they need to moderate their social positions and embrace immigrants. Did I mention that the most famous immigrant in America happens to be a social moderate and remains a member of the GOP?

Schwarzenegger’s return to movies—and his persistently large role in American culture, despite his handicaps and hiccups—does not merely show that this is a forgiving country (though it is). And his career does more than turn upside down F. Scott Fitzgerald’s view that there are no second acts in American lives (we’re the country of the second act; heck, all our movies have three acts). With its countless acts and comebacks, the never-ending Schwarzenegger show serves as a real-life example that success in America, even in difficult times, is a matter of will—and marketing skill.

So while he remains out of politics, Schwarzenegger is not retired from the game. And he never will be. Because retirement is for ... well, see the movie.

Joe Mathews is California editor of Zócalo Public Square, a fellow at Arizona State University's Center for Social Cohesion, and the author of The People's Machine: Arnold Schwarzenegger And the Rise of Blockbuster Democracy.