Dominque Straus-Kahn and Arnold Schwarzenegger: The troubling sexual conduct of politically powerful men.

Journalism in the public interest.
May 18 2011 2:55 PM

Wasted Courage

The women who spoke out against Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2003 were castigated and humiliated. Would it have been any different with DSK?

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The week's news about the sexual conduct of politically powerful men gives me a queasy feeling of déjà vu.

As the French agonize over whether Dominique Strauss-Kahn's star power quashed past allegations, I can respond cynically: Yes, that probably happened. But we should not automatically assume that timelier reporting about Strauss-Kahn's sexually aggressive behavior (including an alleged violent incident in 2002) would have slowed the 62-year old Socialist's march towards the French presidency.

I speak from experience.

Eight years ago I was dragged scowling and complaining into an investigation of allegations that Arnold Schwarzenegger–the leading candidate for governor of California–had sexually harassed and molested women, including those who worked on his movies.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Click image to expand.
Women came forward in 2003, but that didn't stop Schwarzenegger from winning the election

A team of reporters for the Los Angeles Times, where I then worked, had been pursuing the story for weeks and was about to publish a first piece. With the election days away, I was pulled in. At the time I was deep into an investigative project about a troubled Los Angeles hospital that had a history of harming or even killing its patients. Digging into The Terminator's salacious back story seemed a tawdry detour.

But the orders came from on high. They needed someone adept at persuading reluctant sources to share traumatic or humiliating experiences. So out I went crisscrossing Southern California in search of women groped by the Republican candidate for governor. Some declined to speak. Others brusquely said nothing had ever happened.

But several reluctantly began to describe behavior that appeared to cross every imaginable line. As I interviewed these women, I came to believe in the importance of the story. They were strong, professional, independent people, women like me: competent and assertive.

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Their experiences with Schwarzenegger were double humiliations. First they suffered through the acts themselves: demeaning–often public–groping, unwanted, invasive kisses, crude, belittling comments.

Far worse, they felt forced by circumstance to let Schwarzenegger behave badly—like an overindulged toddler, as one woman put it. A complaint against the bigger-than-life moneymaker could tank their careers. Not a single woman felt anyone would have taken their side or chastised the star.

The abuse of power—and the judgments underlying it—were relevant facts for Californians preparing to cast a historic vote. (As was Hollywood's repeated willingness to look the other way, but that is another story.)

So in urging women to go public with their accounts, I was arguing something I truly believed, which was that their stories would be of use to voters.

I went to the door of a woman in Orange County who supposedly had conceived a child with Schwarzenegger. She became teary-eyed the moment I identified myself as a reporter, repeatedly and emphatically denying that Schwarzenegger had fathered her son. Soon after, a British tabloid published her name and said she had a "love child" with the actor. We were never able to confirm this. (The 2003 story resurfaced this week when Schwarzenegger admitted he had fathered a child with a member of his household staff more than 10 years ago. The LA Times, which broke the story, described the mother as a staff member who recently retired. This does not appear to be the woman I interviewed, a former flight attendant on a charter plane.)

Ultimately, several women agreed to recount their experiences with Schwarzenegger, courageously diving into the maw of a nasty political campaign.

Three days before the election, Linnea Harwell, who had become the manager of an Atlanta art museum, described how Schwarzenegger regularly stripped naked in front of her on the 1988 Santa Fe, N.M. set of the movie Twins.

Once, Harwell recalled, he pulled her down on a bed while he was wearing only underwear and let her go only when someone called her on her walkie talkie. "He was laughing like it was all a big joke," she said then. "Well it wasn't. It was scary."

Unless his wife, Maria Shriver, was on the set, Harwell said, Schwarzenegger made rude comments without caring who heard. She recalled wondering, "Why does he think he could get away with it? But he could."

Carla Baron, a stand-in on the same movie set, said the actor and his buddy had sandwiched her between them, then he forced his tongue down her throat. Another woman haltingly told me how Schwarzenegger pinned her against him and spanked her.

Schwarzenegger denied that the alleged events on the Twins set had occurred but issued a general apology. "I have done things that were not right, which I thought then was playful," he said. His wife stood by him.

Election Day arrived and Schwarzenegger was elected by a wide margin. The Los Angeles Times was castigated for smearing Schwarzenegger close to the election. Ten thousand readers cancelled their subscriptions. I received a string of vicious calls and emails. The women were branded as liars desperate for a share of fame.

One of the women called me in tears. I'd cajoled her into revealing her humiliations—and here was yet another. The voters, like Hollywood, ignored the star's troubling behavior. I was devastated and angry, too—and guilty for wasting their courage.

If the press had simply investigated and reported on the past allegations against Strauss-Kahn, would it have mattered? Or did it take an arrest to changle the course of French politics?

Tracy Weber is a reporter at ProPublica, a Pulitzer Prize-winning nonprofit investigative newsroom. You can follow her on Twitter.