As women's groups and religious leaders worked feverishly yesterday to galvanize opposition to Arnold Schwarzenegger, the man whose book proposal quoted the California gubernatorial front-runner as expressing admiration for Adolf Hitler said the quotes were taken out of context.
Even as more women came forward to accuse Schwarzenegger of once making unseemly advances, the actor shrugged off the charges as last-minute attempts to derail his bid to replace Gov. Gray Davis. If anything, the charges appeared to energize some Schwarzenegger supporters, many of them women, who delighted in jeering the media. One carried a sign that read: "Gray Davis groped me while reaching for my wallet."
"They'll try to tear your character down and everything you stand for," Schwarzenegger told more than 1,000 cheering supporters in Arcadia on the second day of a statewide bus tour. "Let me tell you something: They already have begun. But I — I — will stay focused. I will always stay focused, because the fight continues."
Leading Democrats said they were horrified by reports that the actor had once praised Hitler as a role model.
The New York Times and ABC News reported Thursday that Schwarzenegger had praised the Nazi leader.
"I admire Hitler, for instance, because he came from being a little man with almost no formal education up to power," Schwarzenegger said, according to a transcript of a 1975 interview that was obtained by the news organizations as part of a 1997 book proposal. "I admire him for being such a good public speaker and for what he did with it."
Schwarzenegger's campaign, however, released a letter from filmmaker George Butler, author of the book proposal, who defended Schwarzenegger.
"I have never witnessed or heard of Schwarzenegger making remarks that are derogatory to anyone of the Jewish faith," wrote Butler, who said he had unearthed the original transcript that was at odds with the version obtained by The New York Times.
According to Butler, Schwarzenegger said he admired Hitler "for being such a good public speaker and for his way of getting to the people and so on. But I didn't admire him for what he did with it."
Schwarzenegger also denied lauding the Nazi leader, saying, "I can't imagine saying it, and I always despise everything that Hitler stands for."
Butler has known Schwarzenegger for more than 30 years, having met him in the early 1970s while he was gathering material for a book about body builders. The book led Butler to make the movie "Pumping Iron," which explored the world of body-building contests.
In making the movie, the filmmakers shot hours of interviews with Schwarzenegger. Much of this material did not make it into the final cut. The statements about Hitler are from outtakes, Butler said. Schwarzenegger bought the outtakes in the early 1990s.
The accusations clouded what was supposed to be a quasivictory lap around California, but political analysts said it was too soon to know whether they would damage the actor's campaign.
The effect on voters is unknown. The most recent California Field Poll, released yesterday but taken before the groping and Hitler charges became public, showed support for the recall widening and that Schwarzenegger was the clear favorite to replace Davis.
"There's plenty to be concerned about," said Barbara O'Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at California State University, Sacramento. "The question is: Does it reach people who were going to vote for Schwarzenegger?"
Darrell West, author of "Celebrity Politics," said the charges may fall flat because most voters had heard about Schwarzenegger's suspected womanizing.
Schwarzenegger apologized Thursday for behaving "badly" as a movie star. He also denied that he ever had expressed awe for Hitler, contrary to the New York Times and ABC reports. Schwarzenegger yesterday tried to focus on themes that have positioned him as the most likely candidate to succeed Davis if he is recalled Tuesday.
But liberal activists kept the controversy alive. One day after a Los Angeles Times article quoted six women who accused Schwarzenegger of sexual harassment, several more women, including nationally syndicated radio psychologist Joy Browne, came forward with similar claims.
Browne told "Inside Edition" that Schwarzenegger groped her ankles and knees during an interview in the 1970s. Browne said the actor also insisted she personally return a credit card he had left behind to his hotel room, where a shirtless Schwarzenegger with champagne invited her in. Browne said she declined.
Another woman, the 45-year-old founder of a Culver City public-relations firm, said the actor made a crude remark and grabbed her behind in 1981 as she was leading him to a CNN set for an interview. Then-23-year-old intern Colette Brooks said she was shocked and afraid to speak out.
"He was a star. I was a peon, basically," said Brooks, who made her claims public at a Los Angeles news conference organized by liberal groups that unveiled an anti-Schwarzenegger TV ad scheduled to air this weekend.
In an interview with the San Jose Mercury News yesterday, Schwarzenegger said he didn't realize his conduct had been offensive until now, but questioned the timing. "Why am I getting all this stuff thrown at me a few days before" the election? he said. "And why none of these women contacted me in the past and said, 'Arnold, I still have a problem with this, what you did to me or what you said to me 10 years ago, I want an apology'? I'm around."
After a speech in Newport Beach, Schwarzenegger's wife, Maria Shriver, did her part to quash the controversy. The TV reporter called her husband "courageous" for apologizing and disputed the charges.
"I'm not going to go down this road because I don't believe in gutter politics, and I don't believe in gutter journalism," she said. "I believe in taking the high road, and I believe he handled himself in this situation in the best possible manner."
In West Los Angeles, before the full transcript of Schwarzenegger's Hitler statement was released, leaders of Jewish, black and Muslim community groups called a news conference yesterday to denounce the Hitler report.
"There is a chance that a man who admires Adolf Hitler could be the next governor of California," said Scott Svonkin, Southern California chairman of the B'nai B'rith Center for Public Policy.
And Davis, who at first kept his distance from the controversy, said yesterday that the accusations raise "serious questions about his ability to govern this state."
"If true, his personal behavior was disturbing and unacceptable, and his professed admiration for Adolf Hitler unconscionable," he said.
More than a decade ago, Schwarzenegger sued the British tabloid News of the World and a writer for libel over a 1988 story that claimed he held pro-Nazi, anti-Semitic views. Schwarzenegger won both suits. The tabloid and the writer apologized and agreed to pay undisclosed damages in 1989 and 1993, respectively.
In addition, Schwarzenegger and his wife have donated more than $1 million to Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, an international Jewish human-rights organization.
Compiled from Knight Ridder Newspapers, The Associated Press, the Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times.