Arnie's back - as the Germinator

He terrified the world as an indestructible android; then he became governor of California, and now Arnold Schwarzenegger, the muscly Austrian, is sowing the seeds of a greener future by embracing the global environment campaign.

Kagan McLeod for The National
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He terrified the world as an indestructible android; then he became governor of California, and now Arnold Schwarzenegger, the muscly Austrian, is sowing the seeds of a greener future by embracing the global environment campaign. Stephen Robinson tells his story It may be true, as F Scott Fitzgerald maintained, that there are no second acts in American lives, but an Austrian-born son of a Nazi police chief has been testing that old saw ever since he went AWOL from basic army training to compete in an iron-man contest.

But can that really be Arnold Alois Schwarzenegger, bodybuilder, sexual athlete, driver of ludicrous and ludicrously thirsty Hummers, strutting the stage at Copenhagen this week? Can this central-casting central European really be lecturing the world about emissions, and discussing carbon trading with the likes of Governor Emmanuel Eweta Uduaghan of Delta state, Nigeria, and other emerging stars of the global environmental campaign?

Yes, it can be. And the strangest thing is that this man who, 41 years after he emigrated to the United States, still speaks like an Alpine ski instructor, cracks "inappropriate" jokes, yet is taken seriously by the sort of liberals he has spent much of his life lampooning. Six years into his tenure as governor of California, Schwarzenegger is seen by many environmental activists as a figure on the same elevated plane as the sainted Al Gore, only with charisma and a sense of humour.

When he announced he was to run for the governorship in 2003, it was regarded as something of a joke, particularly by Schwarzenegger himself. "It's the most difficult decision I've made in my entire life, except the one I made in 1978 when I decided to get a bikini wax," he declared on Jay Leno's television show as he launched his campaign. Not a great gag, for sure, but when the corpus of your film work includes Conan the Barbarian and The Terminator, in which you appeared on screen smoking a spliff, it is best not to be seen to take yourself too seriously.

And boy, does Arnie have baggage, and does he like to talk about it. "I have inhaled, exhaled everything," he once said, artfully mocking Bill Clinton's famously inept admission that he had once smoked marijuana, but not inhaled. He also freely admits that steroids were an integral part of his bodybuilding regime as he rose to the pinnacle of the world of muscles, winning the Mr Universe and Mr Olympia titles. In the field of body worship, it doesn't get more distinguished than that.

Inevitably, after his move to America, his body brought him fame, fortune, and girls - many of the latter. There should always be a statute of limitations on a young man's indiscretions, and what is amusing and rather endearing about Schwarzenegger, now aged 62, is his refusal to deny what he is, or bend his knee to political correctness. "I wanted to be part of the small percentage of people who were leaders, not the large mass of followers," he once said. "I was always fascinated by people in control of other people." This is an interesting explanation for why he ultimately chose to run for office, and perhaps a brave thought for an Austrian to voice given that nation's disproportionately large contribution to the Nazi cause.

Schwarzenegger's father was an enthusiastic Nazi, but no war criminal, it turned out, and Arnie is now an assiduous donor to Jewish causes in America. "Every time he does a movie, he writes a cheque," says Rabbi Marvin Hier, of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre. Perhaps that is why he gets away with things other men do not. When draconian anti-smoking policies were introduced in California, he had a tent constructed outside his gubernatorial office so he could continue to indulge his fondness for large cigars.

He has always refused to be apologetic about his Austrian heritage. The guest of honour at his wedding in 1986 was Kurt Waldheim, the former United Nations secretary general, whose shameful role in the wartime SS was just becoming known. "My friends don't want me to mention Kurt's name because of the recent Nazi stuff," he told the guests in his groom's speech, "but I love him." Depending on your disposition, that comment could be interpreted as loyal to an old friend, or contemptuous of the memory of the millions who died in the Holocaust as a result of that "Nazi stuff".

His marriage to Maria Shriver, John F Kennedy's niece, reinforced his political credentials as a Republican who could conquer the Democrats too. They have four children, but occasional (unproven) suggestions that he continues to chase women when he gets the chance suggest she might not entirely have tamed his youthful excesses. But what of his new-found environmental credentials? To be fair to him, he is not all talk, but has acted on his concerns - unlike Prince Charles and Gordon Brown who, it was noted in Britain this week, took separate private jets to Copenhagen to warn delegates of impending planetary catastrophe.

It was Arnie who in the early 1990s triggered the craze among a certain type of American for the civilian version of the Hummer, the 6,300lb environmental despoiler whose fuel consumption is so off the scale that it is classified for regulatory purposes as a large truck. In a masterstroke during his first campaign for governor, he showily paid $21,000 to have one of his four Hummers converted to run on hydrogen. Thus he conveyed the impression of a man remaining true to himself as he ran for political office yet concerned about the future of the world. Since then his other three Hummers have been converted to run on biofuels.

But it is his political record rather than his personal conduct that has astonished and impressed the environmental lobbyists. Delegates in Copenhagen this week fuss about what they should commit themselves to in the future, while it was Schwarzenegger, a full three years ago, who signed America's first law of its type that mandated California to reduce its greenhouse gas production to 1990 levels by 2020.

He has pledged himself to block any moves towards drilling for oil off the Californian coast; he fought spirited battles with the Bush administration over its refusal to allow individual states to regulate vehicle emissions and limit their output. Part of his skill is the way he deploys his reputation for political incorrectness as a foil. During the 2004 Republican convention, he brought delegates to their feet by accusing Democrats of fretting about the economy like "girlie men".

He talks tough, the macho man of his movie persona, as he spirits laws mandating the most fashionable California concerns on to the statute book. Californian liberals will just about put up with him speaking out against same-sex marriage in exchange for his delivering on the environment. He presents himself as somewhat apart from his own party. A "sane Republican" he calls himself, who is a fiscal conservative and pro-business, and who therefore cannot be stereotyped as "the tree-hugger, the crazy guy out there who wants to live on the moon and talk about the spirits and all this holistic stuff".

On one point, Schwarzenegger is surely right, which is that where California leads, America follows, and then the rest of the world follows too. He likens it to the craze for bodybuilding, which he did so much to popularise in an earlier phase of his life. "We promoted bodybuilding here, but it went all over the world, and now in every town no matter where you go in the Middle East or Africa or China, everybody is working out, lifting weights, in the garage at home or in the bedroom, pulling out equipment from under the bed."

Term limits prevent him extending his governorship beyond next year and the US constitution requires that any president be born in America, so his options are limited. Schwarzenegger has said he will not be seeking any further elective office, but that has not stopped speculation that he might run for a US senate seat next year. Schwarzenegger, for all his adolescent attitudes to women and for the dreadful moments in his acting career over the years, stands as a living embodiment of the American dream. He arrived in America unable to speak English, and still hasn't entirely mastered it, yet he has risen to the highest office that his foreign birth allows him to occupy.

One could not imagine him being entirely happy in Washington - a city full of "girlie men" if ever there was one - so a return to movies should not be ruled out. What gravitas, what irony, he could bring to his craft after seven years in the governor's office, mixing with politicians, lobbyists, and tree-huggers. "I like the colour red because it's a fire," he once said, "and I see myself as always being on fire." * The National