Years ago I was handing out place cards at a banquet sponsored by the Reason Foundation when I was approached by a square-jawed man with bushy eyebrows and a prominent forehead. "Schwarz-e-neg-ger," he said helpfully.
The flat, Austrian-accented delivery was familiar, but I was surprised that a big movie star would pick up his place card personally. Didn't he have people for that sort of thing?
I also was impressed that Schwarzenegger did not count on being recognized -- or, at least, pretended not to count on it. The appearance of humility was not what you'd expect from a man who'd been publicly cocky since his days as a Mr. Olympia contender. Also, he was shorter than I'd imagined.
But the weirdest thing about my encounter with the bodybuilder turned action hero, who announced Wednesday that he's running to replace Gray Davis as governor of California, may have been that he was there at all. What was the Terminator doing at an anniversary celebration for a libertarian think tank?
The Reason Foundation (which publishes Reason magazine, where I work) may be based in Los Angeles, but it's a world away from the glamour of the movie business. The only plausible explanation for Schwarzenegger's presence was a genuine interest in the ideas promoted by the foundation, which focuses on maximizing individual freedom and minimizing government.
That impression was confirmed by the actor's enthusiasm for Milton and Rose Friedman's PBS series "Free to Choose," which explores the connections between personal, political and economic freedom. When the series was reissued in 1991, Schwarzenegger taped an introduction in which he said:
"I come from Austria, a socialistic country. There you can hear 18-year-olds talking about their pension. But me, I wanted more. I wanted to be the best. Individualism like that is incompatible with socialism. I felt I had to come to America, where the government wasn't always breathing down your neck or standing on your shoes."
Schwarzenegger's attraction to individualism can only have been reinforced by his unlikely success story. After immigrating to the United States at the age of 21 "with little money and even less English," as The Wall Street Journal's John Fund puts it, he conquered first bodybuilding and then Hollywood, making money in real estate along the way.
The most remarkable thing about Schwarzenegger is that he seems so unremarkable. He's not tall, he's not handsome, he's not much of an actor, and he's got a heavy, vaguely menacing accent. Yet through hard work, determination, wit and charm, he managed to become one of the most successful movie stars in history.