National Press Club

NPC in History: The metamorphosis of Conan the Republican

March 28, 2019 | By Gil Klein |

Then-California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenneger shows off a National Press Club windbreaker after speaking at the Club in 2007.

Then-California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenneger shows off a National Press Club windbreaker after speaking at the Club in 2007.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, the champion body builder turned mega movie star turned politician, has spoken at the National Press Club three times, and each time he has presented a different persona.

In 1990, President George H.W. Bush appointed him chairman of the President's Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition. Schwarzenegger had made his film breakthrough starring in Conan the Barbarian, and Bush dubbed him “Conan the Republican.”

He appeared at the Club on May 1, 1992, to talk about his 50-state goal of advocating for fitness and answered dozens of questions about what people should be doing to be in better shape.

But he didn’t have much good to say about the Club’s fitness center.

“I found out that you have a little room upstairs somewhere with 14 pieces of equipment,” he said. “I hope you take fitness more seriously in the future and put new equipment in there rather than these mushy machines that are from the 18th century.”

At the end, Club Vice President Greg Spears of Knight-Ridder asked the important question: Is he considering a run for senator or governor of California?

“No, I have no interest in running for office,” he said. “My interest is totally in show business and in doing charitable activities, in helping certain people that need help, but not to get into the political arena.”

As an aside, Spears made it a priority of his presidency the next year to upgrade the fitness equipment.

That brings us to Feb. 26, 2007. The man who said he had no interest in politics was then nearing the end of his first term as governor of California – at the peak of his popularity just months before the nation’s economy tanked, hitting the Golden State particularly hard. But at the time he appeared at the Club – had he not been born in Austria and therefore constitutionally ineligible – he would have had a shot at the Republican nomination the next year.

Club President Jerry Zremski of The Buffalo News had his hands full in what was to be one of the most popular luncheons of the year. Not only was the boffo movie star turned boffo politician speaking, but two Kennedys were in the audience – Schwarzenegger's wife, Maria Shriver, and her mother, Ethel Kennedy. The ballroom was sold out, the balcony was jammed, and at least 30 television cameras lined the back of the room; six sending the governor’s speech out live.

Schwarzenegger castigated Washington politicians — from the president to the lowest House backbencher – for pointless divisiveness and partisanship that stopped anything from passing.

“How come Republicans and Democrats out here don’t schmooze with each other?” he asked. “You can’t catch a socially transmitted disease by sitting down with people who hold ideas different from yours.”

Zremski phrased his last question in hope of drawing out Schwarzenegger's classic movie line: “We enjoyed having you here at the NPC today. And if we were to invite you again in a year or so, will you be back?”

“I’ll be back,” said the Terminator with the classic snarl in his voice.

And he did come back – but not for another 12 years.

With a Congress and a country even more divided than it was when he last appeared, Schwarzenegger was again asking for a unified approach to a cause that had become dear to him – eliminating partisan gerrymandering in redistricting seats in both the House and state legislatures. Or, as he said, he wants to “terminate gerrymandering.”

Sporting a close-cropped beard and looking his 71 years, Schwarzenegger was joined by former Obama attorney general, Eric Holder, on Tuesday, the day that the Supreme Court heard two gerrymandering cases – one from the Republican-controlled legislature in North Carolina and one from the Democratic-controlled legislature in Maryland.

As California governor, Schwarzenegger had pushed through legislation to create a citizens’ commission made up of five Republicans, five Democrats and four Independents to redraw the state’s election boundaries, taking the procedure out of the hands of whichever political party controlled the state. Six other states have followed suit.

“It is not a Democratic issue. It is not a Republican issue,” he said. “Both parties have gerrymandered. It is the politicians that are the problem, not the party. We want to take the power back from politicians.”

In the room was a friend of Schwarzenegger's, a White House chef and body builder who could bench press 700 pounds. That led Club President Alison Fitzgerald Kodjak to ask of both speakers, “So, how much can you bench press?”

Schwarzenegger had to concede that due to a shoulder injury he had not bench pressed in a long time. Holder admitted that he had never bench pressed anything in his life. If Kodjak had known of Schwarzenegger's past snoots of the Club’s fitness center, she could have taken them upstairs to see who could win.

This is another in a series provided by Club historian Gil Klein. Dig down anywhere in the Club’s 111-year history, and you will find some kind of significant event in the history of the world, the nation, Washington, society, journalism and the Club itself. Many of these events were caught in illustrations that tell the stories.