Arnold Schwarzenegger has lived a long life in just 65 years. An immigrant who grew up poor, he came to the United States to achieve his goals and succeed. As a bodybuilder, he took a quirky culture and helped turn it into an internationally recognized sport.
As an Austrian who could hardly speak English, Schwarzenegger somehow rose to fame in Hollywood, landing blockbuster roles and making millions. And once he conquered the silver screen, he became a politician who sought to apply his own life lessons to the public sphere.
Schwarzenegger joins NPR's David Greene to talk about the improbable successes and headline-grabbing detours he recounts in his new autobiography, Total Recall.
On how his love of bodybuilding led to a misunderstanding
"I saw this magazine that had my idol on the cover, Reg Park, who ... became Mr. Universe three times and won, and then ended up in the Hercules movies in the '60s. And so he kind of became my idol. And so then I started cutting out pictures of these bodybuilding magazines and boxing magazines and weightlifting magazines and put them up on the wall above my bed, kind of to remind me every day this is what I ought to look like, this is what I ought to do, train every day, and one day, I will be like that. So it was a kind of motivational vehicle for me.
"But my mother looked at it in a different way. ... I took her into the bedroom, and I said look how I decorated my bed above here, the wall. And she shook her head and, you know, didn't say much. And I was kind of concerned why she didn't really say something or didn't compliment me of how well I decorated the wall.
"And the next thing I knew was she flagged down the doctor who, every Wednesday, came with his little Fiat by our house. And [she asked] him to come up to the house and to look at my bedroom wall. And so ... he came to the bedroom, and he looked at the wall, and she said: 'Look at this. I mean, what do you think of this? I mean, my son has all these naked pictures of men. They're all oiled up, and they're with their little briefs standing there and flexing. And it's terrible. What should I do? I mean, all his friends have pictures of girls above their bedroom, you know, above their bed on the wall.' ...
"[And the doctor said] 'This is quite normal, you know, that boys at the age of 15, 16, they look for heroes, and they want to improve their bodies. It's the time when they want to get big, more muscular and more athletic and all this. It's just a stage that they go through. So don't worry about it. It's actually very healthy, and you should be happy because he's training every day.' "
On the "Hans and Franz" skit on Saturday Night Live, which spoofed him
"I thought it was fantastic because, you know, in the beginning ... agents and producers and directors and Hollywood executives, they always said, 'Arnold, I know your big wish is to get into movies and you want to be leading man on top of that. It's impossible. I mean, you have such an accent. You know, it's so thick that you can't cut through it with sword, with a Conan sword. And ... your muscles are so huge, that's not in anymore.'
"And then all of a sudden, you know, I think I was successful in breaking through. ... And then all of a sudden came Hans and Franz on the scene, on Saturday Night Live, you know, 'I'm Hans and I'm Franz. We're here to pump you up.' ...
"So all of a sudden ... I felt like, you know, the accent and the whole idea of speaking different has kind of arrived and it became part of America. And America really has embraced my accent, and it became, actually, such a valuable tool and an asset ... that [director] John Milius, after I did Conan the Barbarian, even said that if we wouldn't have had Arnold, we would have had to build one. You know, that's how important the body was. And then with the accent also, you know, [director James] Cameron after Terminator said, 'Look, this movie only worked because Arnold talks like a machine. ... That's how we could sell the character. Otherwise it would have never worked.' "
On his affair with his family's housekeeper when he was governor of California
"It was the worst thing I've ever done, and, you know, I hurt my family by doing that. I hurt so many people. My kids, you know, have gone through tremendous pain because of it. And ... even though I am ashamed of what has happened and what I've done, but I did not want to exclude it from the book. And so in the book, I deal with that, and I made it very clear that this is a book about me.
"And that means that there's the Arnold that is a great immigrant story, and there's the Arnold that has had tremendous successes in the bodybuilding world and winning 13 world bodybuilding championships, and, you know, doing endless amount of movies and becoming the highest paid actor, and that was highly successful in my political career, becoming governor of the great state of California. ... But at the same time, with all the successes, there were also failures, failures on the professional side. Politically there were failures. And also on the personal level, there were tremendous failures."
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm David Greene. When we talk about Arnold Schwarzenegger's life, it is hard to find the right words to capture it. It's the story of an immigrant who grew up poor and came to the United States to achieve his goals and succeed. It's the story of a giant bodybuilder who took a quirky culture and helped turn it into an internationally recognized sport.
It's the story of a man who could hardly speak English and somehow rose to fame in Hollywood, landing blockbuster roles we'll never forget. And don't forget the story of a politician who sought to apply his own life lessons to the public sphere in California.
Given all this, it probably will not surprise you that Arnold Schwarzenegger's new autobiography is 624 pages long. Arnold Schwarzenegger will join us in just a second to tell his stories, and we want to hear yours, as well. If you're an immigrant to this country, what was your plan, and how has it worked out? 800-989-8255 is our number. You can also reach us by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Arnold Schwarzenegger joins us from a studio at member station WAMU here in Washington, D.C. His new book is titled "Total Recall."
And governor, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION. I like the title.
ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER: Well, thank you very much, David. It's nice to be on your show.
GREENE: You know, as autobiographies often do, yours starts when you were born. And it was 1947, post-World War II Austria, and your family was incredibly poor, it sounds like. So tell me a bit about that.
SCHWARZENEGGER: Well, my father was in the police. He was just starting out, and made very little money. And we lived in this little house, and there was no food. It was really my mother had to go out and beg for food when she went from farm to farm and beg for food, and then she came home with a little bit of butter and a little bit of bread, just enough to feed us for a few days. And then she would go out again and beg some more for food. I mean, it was really horrible.
There was less food around and more misery after the war than during the war, and - but that's the way I grew up. And I think that's also the reason why I created such tremendous desire to succeed and had this fire, always, in the belly, you know, to get out of that village and become the best in something and to eventually go to America and be part of a country that is, you know, the land of opportunity.
GREENE: Best of something, you write about putting pictures of men, bodybuilders, around your bedroom. And your mother was a little concerned about that at one point?
SCHWARZENEGGER: Well, I was - I think my parents were concerned about me because I always was searching for what could I have the best talent in. You know, I was playing soccer. I was doing track and field. You know, I was involved in so many different sports, trying to search what it is that I'm good at, because I always felt like it's through athletics I could get out of the country and become somebody.
And I, totally coincidence, fell into the weightlifting and the bodybuilding. I met this guy that was Mr. Austria at the lake where I grew up, and he would come out every summer during, you know, summer vacation, during his holidays, and, you know, swim there and exercise there. And so we kids were impressed by watching him exercise and lift all these weights.
And there were other athletes, the shot-putters and discus throwers that came out and lifting weights and doing chin-ups and wrestling and boxing and all this. And so I got sucked into this whole thing, and then eventually joined a weightlifting club and became a weightlifter, bodybuilder, power-lifter.
And I saw this magazine that had my idol on the cover, Reg Park, who was - became Mr. Universe three times and won - and then ended up in the Hercules movies in the '60s. And so he kind of became my idol. And so then I started cutting out pictures of these bodybuilding magazines and boxing magazines and weightlifting magazines and put them up on the wall above my bed, kind of to remind me every day this is what I ought to look like, this is what I ought to do, train every day, and one day, I will be like that. So it was a kind of motivational vehicle for me.
But my mother looked at it in a different way. I mean, she looked at it one time, I was very proud. I took her into the bedroom, and I said look how I decorated my bed above here, the wall. And she shook her head and, you know, didn't say much. And I was kind of concerned why she didn't really say something or didn't compliment me of how well I decorated the wall.
And the next thing I knew was she flagged down the doctor who, every Wednesday, came with his little Fiat by our house. And I used to understand, there was almost no car driving in the village. There were no cars around. But he had a car. He was a doctor, and he drove to go fishing.
And my mother would just stop his car and would ask him to come up to the house and to look at my bedroom wall. And so he was kind of the consultant in all different areas, not just a doctor for bodily injuries or for illnesses and so on. She would ask him all kinds of questions about how to raise the kids and what to do about this and that.
So anyways, he came to the bedroom, and he looked at the wall, and she said: Look at this. I mean, what do you think of this? I mean, my son has all these naked pictures of men. They're all oiled up, and they're with their little briefs standing there and flexing. And it's terrible. What should I do? I mean, all his friends have pictures of girls above their bedroom, you know, above their bed on the wall.
GREENE: And what did you tell your mother?
SCHWARZENEGGER: And he only has men. And so, you know, and she said - having tears come down her eyes.
GREENE: And what did you tell your mom?
SCHWARZENEGGER: Well, he said, well, Frau Schwarzenegger, (German spoken) - which means this is quite normal, you know, that boys at the age of 15, 16, they look for heroes, and they want to improve their bodies. It's the time when they want to get big, more muscular and more athletic and all this. It's just a stage that they go through. So don't worry about it. It's actually very healthy, and you should be happy because he's training every day.
And then he talked to me, and he calmed my mother down. But she was very, very concerned at this point, and luckily the doctor saved the day.
GREENE: I have to stop you, because one thing you said was by coincidence you fell into this sport. You can't make me believe that there's not some physical talent you have. I don't think if I did the training, I would quite look like you, governor.
SCHWARZENEGGER: No, but - you're absolutely correct. I think you caught onto something that's very important that when I - this was one of many sports that I started, and within no time, I got endless amount of compliments in the weightlifting club. They immediately made me a member of the weightlifting team. They felt that they have never seen anyone gain that much strength in the shortest period of time.
The way my muscles developed was also abnormal. So it was very clear that my talent was there. That was my talent, and so that's why I went all out and I felt like in that area, I could become a champion - not only a champion, but actually a world champion.
GREENE: And with goals like that, I mean, you said you had this fire in your belly. I mean, where did that come from? You wrote that at 10 years old, I became absolutely convinced that I was special, and I knew I was meant for bigger things. Coming from poverty in Austria, I mean, what gave you that certainty?
SCHWARZENEGGER: It's just, I would say, faith. I had very clear visions of me being a champion. When I saw this picture of Reg Park on a cover, standing there like - as Hercules, from the Hercules movies, I looked at that, and then I looked at the inside and I read the story, and I immediately started creating visions of me standing there on the pedestal at the Mr. Universe contest and me being Hercules and me doing movies and so on.
And that created such unbelievable drive and such unbelievable will and discipline, that there was absolutely no stopping me. I mean, I went to the gym two hours every day lifting weights. When I came home afterwards, I lifted an extra hour and a half and did bodybuilding training, and it was just relentless.
Even in the military - and ESPN just showed the documentary on that, of what I would do in the military. I would have, in my tank, I was a tank driver, we had in the tool boxes on the side of the tank, I took all the tools out and I put my exercise bench in there and dumbbell plates, barbell plates, bars and the collars for the bars and everything with me so when we were on maneuver at 6, 7 o'clock at night, when we were finished, or at midnight if we were finished, I would then take out all the exercise equipment and I would be working out for, you know, for hours. And so I was relentless.
GREENE: You were a tank driver, right? Is that...
SCHWARZENEGGER: I was a tank driver. I was a tank driver, yes. So it was a perfect - the military then provided for me the food. It was the first time that I had meat and protein every day. And that made me gain 25 pounds during the year I was in the military. And so I - you know, I remember that after I came out of the military at the age of 19, I went to Munich to train in this professional bodybuilding gym that I then became the trainer at.
And that gave me enough time to then train morning, noon and night. And I would train three times a day and - like, fanatically. And I went then to London at the age of 19 to the Mr. Universe contest to place in the top six. That was the goal - and I ended up being runner-up. I was second in the Mr. Universe contest.
GREENE: So you beat your goal.
SCHWARZENEGGER: So I knew. So I knew. And I had a standing ovation. I was the only one that had a standing ovation. I was this young sensation, and I knew that a year later, when I come back, that I will win this competition. And sure enough, a year later, after a year of hard training and building my body, getting it defined, getting the size and the strength and everything that I needed, I became the youngest Mr. Universe ever. And I achieved this goal that I had with the age of 15.
GREENE: Well, governor, you're so goals-oriented, and it was incredible to hear this very detailed plan. You wanted to get into bodybuilding. You wanted to get into the United States. You wanted to get to Hollywood. But before we go on, I just want to bring up a topic that has come up in a lot of the interviews that you've been doing for this book. I think it was something that was not part of your plan, and that was - that's your affair with your family's housekeeper. You've called it the worst thing that you've ever done, and I wanted to just give you the chance to kind of elaborate on that.
SCHWARZENEGGER: Well, it was the worst thing I've ever done, and, you know, I hurt my family by doing that. I hurt so many people. My kids, you know, have gone through tremendous pain because of it. And it was - even though I am ashamed of what has happened and what I've done, but I did not want to exclude it from the book. And so in the book, I deal with that, and I made it very clear that this is a book about me.
And that means that there's the Arnold that has - that is a great immigrant story, and there's the Arnold that has had tremendous successes in the bodybuilding world and winning 13 world bodybuilding championships, and, you know, doing endless amount of movies and becoming the highest paid actor, and that was highly successful in my political career, becoming governor of the great state of California, and - which is the most important and biggest state in the United States and the eighth largest economy.
GREENE: But once you...
SCHWARZENEGGER: And - but at the same time, with all the successes, there were also failures, failures on the professional side. Politically there were failures. And also on the personal level, there were tremendous failures.
GREENE: Once you did become a public figure - as you mentioned, your political career - your private mistakes, you know, can certainly break the public's trust in you. And I wonder, do you feel like you can regain that trust once it's been broken?
SCHWARZENEGGER: Well, I think that I will do everything that I can to gain the trust again from my kids and from my wife, and I will do everything I can to rebuild all of that that I have destroyed because of my doing.
GREENE: And the last question on the subject, governor, there are a lot of voters who voted for you in California, a lot of fans out there. I wonder if you can fault someone if they decide that they want to form their opinion of you based on this mistake, as you call it.
SCHWARZENEGGER: Can you rephrase the question?
GREENE: Sure. I wonder, can you fault people if they say, you know, I don't like Arnold Schwarzenegger because of this, because of this mistake that he made? Can you fault someone for forming their opinion based on this decision?
SCHWARZENEGGER: I think that people will make up their mind and - when they have gotten that information, you know, how they feel about me and all that. I'm not trying to get any, you know, sympathy from people or anything like that. I'm a - you know, I think that I'm aware the amount of pain that I've caused and how I have disappointed people. And so it's up to me now, you know, to rebuild that trust.
GREENE: We're speaking to Arnold Schwarzenegger on TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's take a caller now, governor. We're going to go to Simon from Valley Park, St. Louis. And, Simon, you're on TALK OF THE NATION. Welcome. Simon, can - we're having a little trouble hearing you. Are you there?
SIMON: Yes, yes. I'm here.
GREENE: OK. Go ahead.
SIMON: Well, my story is I - my family is from Ukraine. We moved here in 1995. I was 3-and-a-half, and I have an older sister. And my parents' dream was always to make sure the kids go to college, and that dream has come true. And it's always great coming home and seeing that look on my parents' face, just knowing that they put in so much work, so much time, and it's turned out pretty well.
GREENE: Simon, thanks for the call. And we are asking you to give us a call if you have your own immigrant story. What were your plans, and how did you succeed? And Governor Schwarzenegger, you said that you had a relationship with your mother that sounds similar to the one that Simon had. I mean, she was very proud of you, and you brought her into your life as an actor and as a politician as the years went on.
SCHWARZENEGGER: Well, in the beginning, like I said, my family was not very supportive at all, which I can totally understand because it was kind of an odd thing for someone to be in a country that is known for skiing and for bicycling and for track and field and for those sports, but not really for bodybuilding. And so my mother and my father, they looked at that and they thought it was kind of odd, and why would I be lifting so much? And so that was not the kind of support that I actually expected and wanted from them.
But later on, when I started winning competitions and they saw the success and they saw me, you know, come - going to America and going to school in America and working here, and winning one competition after the other and then going into the movie business, and then starting a mail order business and started getting into real estate and investing and making millions of dollars, they became very proud parents, and they really were excited and, for instance, asking about, you know, what kind of a son they have created.
And my mother came over after my father passed away. My mother came over many, many times every year, as a matter of fact, and visited me for sometimes up to two months and spent time with me. And she was extremely proud. She came to every movie set with me. She watched me film. If it was "Terminator" or the Conan movies or "Commando," "Predator" and "Mexicans."
GREENE: She saw all your movies.
SCHWARZENEGGER: She's just so - oh, she just loved being on the set. And she would take hundreds of photographs, create her own photo album. And then she will go home to the neighbors and, you know, just have coffee with them and she will show them the photos in the photo albums and share her experience with me. And I say it was really wonderful. And so I had a terrific relationship with her. And - but she was a tough mother all the way through. I mean, if - I remember that there were times where she would see me, you know, just touch my nose and she would say, are you picking your nose? I mean, Arnold, I mean, this is unbelievable.
GREENE: Tough love.
SCHWARZENEGGER: I mean, here you are. You are going to the White House. You're being invited by President Reagan and you're going this and that and you're making movies, and you're still picking your nose, now.
SCHWARZENEGGER: I'm embarrassed (unintelligible). She will be very critical like that.
GREENE: This is what she was interested in. But we're going to speak much more with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in just a moment. His new autobiography, again, is "Total Recall." If you are an immigrant like Governor Schwarzenegger, an immigrant to this country, call and tell us what was your plan, and how has it all worked out for you. 800-989-8255 is our number. You can also reach us by email if that's better for you. It's email@example.com. I'm David Green. Stay with us. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GREENE: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm David Green. Arnold Schwarzenegger, in the promotional video for this new book, says that if his life were a movie, nobody would believe it. His story, at heart, is about an immigrant who came to America with big plans and followed through. He opens up in a new book, an autobiography called "Total Recall: My Unbelievably True Life Story." And we want to hear your stories as well. If you're an immigrant to this country, what was your plan and how has it worked out? 800-989-8255 is our number. You can also reach us by email. It's firstname.lastname@example.org.
And, Governor, I - we have a lot to cover, politics and much more. Before we move on from bodybuilding, can I just ask you about the pose, the pose that made you famous as a strongman and bodybuilder? Why was this pose so important?
SCHWARZENEGGER: Well, there were, you know, several poses that was known for everybody, that is known for certain poses. And to me it was the three-quarter back pose. And it was a very difficult pose to do, to twist your body and to show the small waist and to show at the same time your wide shoulders, your back. And you also see the front and you see the abs and you see the calf and the thighs and all of those things. But it was a difficult pose to do. Very few bodybuilders could master it. I copied basically Reg Park, who was my idol and who won three times the Mr. Universe competition.
And he was known for that pose in a kneeling position and in a standing position. And so because he was my idol, I was, you know, absolutely fanatic to copy his poses and then to kind of improve on that. And that's exactly what I did.
GREENE: All right. Well, Governor, we're going to take a call here. Franz(ph) from Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. Am I saying all of that correctly, Franz? Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
FRANZ: Yes, you do. Aloha.
GREENE: Aloha to you.
GREENE: Go ahead.
FRANZ: So I moved from Germany to Hawaii in '92. I worked in a lawyer's office in Germany. Hated it from the start. But once would you learn a job in Germany, you're stuck with it. Coming to Hawaii gave me the opportunity to find what I really like, what I want to do because you're only judged by what you can do, what you want to, not what you did before. And here in Hawaii, I'm called the Hawaiianator because of my accent, and people said it reminds me of somebody who lives in California.
SCHWARZENEGGER: What are you doing in Hawaii as Hawaiianator?
FRANZ: I work for a natural organic food distributor. So I bring good products to people, something that makes people happy, and I really enjoy it.
GREENE: All right.
SCHWARZENEGGER: So you have a food supplement company or you represent a company, or what do you do?
FRANZ: Yes. We represent about a thousand natural organic food companies, and we bring all the product to Hawaii. I work for United Natural Foods, so we're a nationwide company, the largest national organic food company in the States.
GREENE: It sounds like a success story. Best of luck to you.
SCHWARZENEGGER: Great success story. I love stories like that.
GREENE: Thank you for the call, Franz.
FRANZ: You're welcome.
SCHWARZENEGGER: (Foreign language spoken), Franz.
FRANZ: (Foreign language spoken)
GREENE: Governor, I have to ask you, Hans and Franz, "Saturday Night Live." It comes up in the book. What did you think of that?
SCHWARZENEGGER: Well, I thought it was fantastic because, you know, in the beginning, they always said - agents and producers and directors and Hollywood executives, they always said, Arnold, I know your big wish is to get into movies and you want to be leading man on top of that. It's impossible. I mean, you have such an accent. You know, it's so thick that you can't cut through it with sword, with a Conan sword.
And, you know, and your muscles are so huge that they - that's not in anymore. The day where the scene is, you know, Al Pacino and Dustin Hoffmann and Woody Allen. Those are the sex symbols today. They are all little guys. And there's, you know, I heard all of these stories, your name cannot even be pronounced, no one will remember it and all this.
And then all of a sudden, you know, I think I was successful in breaking through when people thought is uncomfortable with an accent and was able to, you know, kind of make fun of it. And then, you know, the comedians had a great time with it. And then all of a sudden came Hans and Franz on the scene, on "Saturday Night Live," you know, I'm Hans and I'm Franz. We're here to pump you up.
GREENE: Hey, you do it better than the actors do. Listen to that.
SCHWARZENEGGER: And there was all of that. And so they did this whole accent thing. So all of a sudden, you know, it really - I felt like, you know, the accent and the whole idea of speaking different has kind of arrived and it became part of America. And America, really has embraced my accent, and it became, actually such a valuable tool and an asset that a liability turned into an asset, that John Millius, after I did "Conan the Barbarian," even said that if we wouldn't have had Arnold, we would have had to build one. You know, that's how important the body was. And then with the accent also, you know, Jim Cameron after "Terminator" said, look, this movie only worked because Arnold talks like a machine. When you listen to him, it's like a machine. That's why it worked that he played the Terminator, and that's how we could sell the character. Otherwise it would have never worked.
So there was many incidents like that where, you know, it was very clear that those things that people said would be a huge liability became assets, and it was actually a big plus. So I felt delighted that Hans and Franz came on scene.
GREENE: And you kind of captured your view that you were able to turn a potential liability on its head. You wrote: You loved Hans and Franz, being Austrian, marrying Maria Shriver, being Republican, the accent. With all this going for you, you need a sense humor so you can join in the fun. Let's take one more caller, Avla(ph) from Fresno, California. Tell me if I got your name right, Avla. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
AVLA: You got it right. Thank you much for having me.
GREENE: No. You're welcome. Go ahead.
AVLA: My story is very similar to Mr. Schwarzenegger. I left Egypt 25 years ago, looking for freedom and equality as a woman. I lived 15 years in Holland and Germany. I found the freedom, but I didn't find the equality. And when I moved to the United States 10 years ago, that was my hope, it's to be in a country where I'm treated like everybody else and not looked down at.
And in the last 10 years I devoted my life to intercultural psychology and helping immigrants and students from all different culture background to believe in that dream, to believe they are powerful and they are like everyone else and they can achieve their dream if they set their mind to. And even though I moved to United States shortly after 9/11, I've never been looked different at. I've never been looked down at. Everybody welcomed me and treated me in the most beautiful way. It was so heartwarming. And the last thing is what - basically, the dream I have lived all my life, that I deserved this life and the equality in United States is just incredible. It's - people really need to realize that.
GREENE: And I understand, Avla, you've recently become a U.S. citizen?
AVLA: I just took my oath for the citizenship on Friday...
AVLA: ...and it was the most emotional moment of my life. And I couldn't believe it, not because I didn't want it, it's because I thought it's something that would never happen. And it was a day of laughter and tears, and the most joyful day in my life. I just can't believe I belong to this greatest country in the world.
GREENE: Abla, congratulations to you, heartfelt congratulations.
SCHWARZENEGGER: Congratulations, Avla. This is really a great, great story, and it just shows to you that there's many people that have that fire in the belly because think about what it took for her to go from Egypt and to travel through Europe and to find finally the place that she felt happy and to come to the United States. And not only then to have that fire in the belly to find this place but then also to give something back and to help other immigrants. So this is a terrific story. Congratulations, and congratulations on your American citizenship.
AVLA: Thank you so much.
GREENE: Avla, thanks so much for the call. We appreciate it.
AVLA: Thank you.
GREENE: Governor, do you remember your day when you got U.S. citizenship? You write about it in the book.
SCHWARZENEGGER: Absolutely. 1983. And it was the most extraordinary feeling to become part of a country that is the number one country in the world. And, you know, America is, you know, without any doubt, the richest country. It was always the most powerful country and more powerful than any feudal system in the history of this world or any dictatorship or any democracy or any country, period. And so it's wonderful.
It feels so good when you're from another country and you always - you had a dream to come to America and to become an American. And so it was really an extraordinary day. I wrapped myself with the American flag and we sang and played music, great American music (unintelligible) and celebrated. So it was really fantastic.
GREENE: Let's take one more call, Governor. This is Ricardo from Houston, Texas. Ricardo, you're on TALK OF THE NATION. Welcome.
RICARDO: Welcome. How are you doing? I just wanted to share my story...
GREENE: Go ahead.
RICARDO: ...and just give you a unique Latino perspective. When I came in from Mexico, I only had one thing on my mind, and that's to not be myopic in my thinking and to know that I got to do whatever it is I can to be a United States citizen, abide by the laws and do all of those necessary things. And ultimately, in 2007 I became a citizen, and I've been an educator for the past six years. And now, seeing that my students, a lot of them are immigrants and undocumented students, it only makes me work harder to make them aware of what it is they can still do here and aspire for more.
GREENE: Ricardo, thank so you much for the call and for telling your story. We appreciate it.
SCHWARZENEGGER: Congratulations, Ricardo.
RICARDO: Thank you.
RICARDO: Thank you.
GREENE: It sounds like we're hearing from people who really got what they wanted out of coming to America, Governor. And I wonder, I wanted to talk to you about the turn that you made into politics after you were in your acting career for a while. You met Maria Shriver and the whole Kennedy clan, and I have to hear you tell the story of your first trip to the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port. As the story goes, you didn't have the clothing that you probably should have brought. What happened?
SCHWARZENEGGER: Well, I met Maria at a tennis tournament in New York, at the Robert F. Kennedy Tennis Tournament, and - I mean, first of all, I don't even know why I went because I was not a tennis player.
SCHWARZENEGGER: I never played tennis before.
GREENE: No problem.
SCHWARZENEGGER: I never played tennis before. But Ethel Kennedy was on the phone and asked me. I turned it down first. And then she got on the phone and asked me, and so I couldn't say no to her. And she told me that it doesn't matter if you play tennis or not, just be there and hit the ball with some kids. It's something that is raising money for the foundation and so on. So I went there, and that's where I met then, you know, Maria.
And I remember Tom Brokaw introduced us to each other, and the next thing I know is the next day after the party and after the tournament, Maria came up to me and she said, why don't you come with Caroline and me to Hyannis Port? And I said, well, I said, I don't know how I'm going to do that, I said, because my clothes is back at the hotel because it was picked up at the hotel with my tennis clothes on, so I have only tennis clothes with me and nothing else, not even a wallet. I said everything is at the hotel. And she says, don't worry about that at all. She says, the only we do in Hyannis Port is play tennis and go waterskiing. So she said for that you have the perfect clothes.
GREENE: You're fine. You have enough.
SCHWARZENEGGER: So, yeah, exactly. So I said, OK. So I went on the plane with them, and we flew up Hyannis Port, and we got down there around 10:00 at night. We went out and swim. It was wonderful and we had a great time, and then the next morning all of a sudden there was commotion in the house and I woke up. And everyone was running around - get dressed, quickly, quickly, quickly. Grandma decided to go to church, and we all have to meet over there at church. And so I said, wait a minute, what are they talking about? Then Maria came into my room and said, hey, get up quickly.
She says, you know, my grandmother Rose, she's going to church and, you know, and Teddy's going to go and so and so is going to go and, you know, my father - my mother's going to go. Everyone in the kitchen has to be dressed up and really go quickly. And I said, well, Maria, I have no clothes. I mean, I only have my tennis clothes. I said, I told you I need to go home to the hotel and get my clothes. She says, no, no, just get some clothes from Bobby, which is her brother, who is, you know, my height and as a matter of fact, a little taller. And so I tried on Bobby's shirts. He was taller than me, but he was slim, so none of the shirts even fit on my chest.
I couldn't even button the button. So I had the shirt half open. I had - he gave me pants that didn't fit. They were kind of like - and I was - I couldn't even get them up my waist because he was much slimmer. So I looked like a total immigrant.
GREENE: Great first impression.
SCHWARZENEGGER: It was horrible the way I came to church. It was like, you know, you would laugh at that sight when you see this. Anyway, I write about that in the book also, of how - what a trick it was. It was one of Maria's - it was their sense of humor.
GREENE: Initiation, it sounds like.
SCHWARZENEGGER: It was always about doing things like that. And, you know, I mean I felt like - I felt horrible being in the church because normally I would always dress up going to church. I would, you know, have a nice white shirt on and a jacket, a blazer and some khaki pants or something like that, and here I looked totally disheveled, and I couldn't wait to get out of the church and to get back to the Shriver house as quickly as possible and hide in the room.
GREENE: That's a great story.
SCHWARZENEGGER: That's how I felt about it, yeah.
GREENE: We're talking to Arnold Schwarzenegger. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And Governor, there's so much to ask you politically. We just don't have the time to cover it all. But one serious question I wanted to ask you. I mean the state of California is so deeply in debt right now. And I wonder, as you look back on your time as governor, is there something you wish you had done differently to put California in a better place today?
SCHWARZENEGGER: Well, first of all, let me just say that California has approximately $80 billion debt, and unused debt that the people have approved. There's 140 billion that has not been used yet, that would be used in the future for infrastructure projects and various different other things - rebuilding the prison system and high-speed rail and so on and so forth. But it's really only $80 billion, so that's not that much. I think California doesn't have a problem that it's so deep in debt. California has a problem that we have a tremendous unfunded liability of $400 billion of pensions, of public pensions, and that's a huge mistake that the politicians have made to hand our pensions that it could never afford.
And they kind of put wool over the - into the people's eyes when they promised that they're going to make investments, that they're going to make this money and the taxpayer wouldn't have to foot the bill in all this. So all of it was wrong and now they have to make the adjustment. I think that we need to have true pension reforms in order to solve this problem. Number two...
GREENE: Does it mean get rid of pensions or...
SCHWARZENEGGER: Not to get rid of it, just reform it, to roll it back again to the 1990 level, the way it was. There was absolutely nothing wrong with the pensions the way it was. They just - because there was such a huge boom in the business and in revenues that they thought they can afford that. It wasn't mean-spirited by any means. It was just, you know, they thought they can afford it and the economy is going to grow like that every year. But it didn't. You know, and no one planned on recessions and there will be two recessions in a row, one in the year 2000, early 2000, and the second one in 2007.
So no one planned that. And so now they are in deep, deep trouble because of it, and now they have to reform it. The second problem is that California always had an issue with overspending. The legislators had an insatiable appetite for spending - again, not because they're bad guys. It's just that they feel very strongly that people need those programs. But I always, when I was governor, made it clear that we should only spend the money that we have. I fought very hard.
But this is one of the many things that I did not accomplish as governor, is to bring, you know, a kind of system in place that - where we never have that problem again where we spend more money than we take in. I tried to create a rainy day fund. I tried to put the rainy day fund aside so we have, in troublesome times, when we have difficulties in the recessions, that we have money to cover those various different programs, including education. But it didn't come about. Time ran out and we are now back again to this same problem. And I'm very happy that there were so many other things we were able to accomplish.
But one thing I learned that when you're a governor, you have a very ambitious list of things that you want to accomplish, and you can't accomplish all of them because politics sometimes gets in the way. And this is why I created the institute, the Schwarzenegger Institute with USC, to continue this work and try to solve some of those problems.
GREENE: I'm glad we got that in because that is new initiative that you've begun. Arnold Schwarzenegger, thanks so much for joining us. We appreciate the time.
SCHWARZENEGGER: It's my pleasure. Thank you very much, David.
GREENE: His new autobiography is titled "Total Recall." If you want to find out how he conquered his fear of the dark, check out the excerpt we posted at npr.org. Governor Schwarzenegger, it was great to be with you. Tomorrow, Neal Conan will be back for a conversation about the mighty Mississippi and a performance by Mary Chapin Carpenter. I'm David Greene. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.