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joanna weiss

In step with the Arnold apology tour

The most fascinating part of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s new memoir is the photos: pages and pages of them, full of bulging muscles and politician’s smiles, but also full of family.

There are Kennedyesque pictures of a charmed young couple, Arnold and Maria, posing in celebrity-style romantic bliss. But there are also pages of family snapshots that could have come from anyone’s home album: Arnold, in a really bad Cosby sweater, holding a just-born baby; Arnold poking his fingers up, rabbit-ear style, behind his daughter’s head, and supervising his sons in a public bathroom; Arnold playfully sticking out his tongue as he vacations with his wife and his in-laws.

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This is a different Schwarzenegger than the cyborg we’ve seen on his current apology tour, the one in self-aggrandizing pursuit of book sales and a renewed film career, the one who can brush off a “60 Minutes” question about adultery by saying, matter-of-factly, “I’m not perfect.” The tension is tremendous. There is the warm, funny, charismatic family man, who deployed both his wit and his relatives in the act of campaigning and governing. And then there’s the man who acts more like a dog, driven by his instincts at the moment. In the memoir, here’s how he describes the moment, in 1996, when he romanced the maid:

“Maria and the kids were away on holiday and I was in town finishing ‘Batman and Robin.’Mildred had been working in our household for five years, and all of a sudden we were alone in the guest house. When Mildred gave birth the following August . . .”

Because, you know, there they were, without supervision, so what else could possibly have happened?

The Schwarzenegger story is interesting and relevant, because it ties into our powerful national myth of the self-made man. As Arnold likes to say, his is the ultimate immigrant story, the improbable tale of a poor Austrian boy who conquered career after career out of sheer force of will. He even purports, at the end of his book, to offer advice to fellow strivers: “Stay hungry,” “Forget plan B,” and “When someone tells you no, you should hear yes.”

Arnold’s ambition has always been a part of his appeal — what makes him, for all of his otherworldly qualities, also seem universal. In the book, he compares himself to his wife’s grandfather, Joe Kennedy Sr.: the drive to succeed, followed by the accumulation of wealth, followed by the wielding of great power. He also offhandedly mentions Kennedy’s affair with Gloria Swanson, but doesn’t linger on the commonalities.

When it comes to our long national history of philandering politicians, the prevailing narrative seems to focus on the guy who gets corrupted after the rise. Once a man reaches a level of power and celebrity, the temptations increase, and become impossible to resist.

But maybe the opposite is true: that great ambition and entitlement are two sides of the same coin, and the striving personality is also the type to take what he wants along the way. This is the premise of the soon-to-be-released movie “Knife Fight,” a send-up of political scandals: That what makes a man a great politician and a personal scumbag are often the very same qualities.

Not every politician, obviously, follows this template. One refreshing thing about the current presidential race is that it’s sex-scandal free, which hasn’t always been the case in American history. For a recent column, I did some research into campaigns in the past, and was surprised at how many American icons had been accused of acting like pimps.

Plenty of politicans manage to bounce back; there are rumors that Anthony Weiner is planning to run for office again. We are, as a culture and probably a species, extremely forgiving — because we all make mistakes, we believe in love, and we want to think the best of these magnetic personalites. (All of this plays into the current fervor over Rihanna’s troubling possible reunion with Chris Brown.)

The Arnold apology tour, with its constant cry of “Maria, Maria,” has a subtext of wish fulfillment. If he declares his love loudly enough, pays his public penance, all will be restored — and somehow, that will make us happy, too. Even an Indian gossip website is currently trumpeting, “Arnold Schwarzenegger’s apology to wife brings in fruitful results!”

Schwarzenegger has succeeded, in Hollywood and politics, in large part because of that sentiment, and maybe he’ll drum up great book sales now, too. But when it comes to absolution, there’s a different calculation for a family man. He’s our cyborg, but he’s not ours to forgive.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.
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