Fresh back from a week in China with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s trade contingent, the governor’s press secretary, Margita Thompson, sweeps into her office on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving with a Diet Pepsi in hand, wearing the requisite dark pantsuit and a radiant smile. What she doesn’t have strikes me immediately. Where are the bags? Those hellish concealer-defying under-eye pockets that result from too much stress and a mixed-up body clock—they’re as nonexistent as gray hair on Schwarzenegger’s head.
“I got back Sunday at noon and I was at work first thing yesterday, so I’m like in 10 different time zones,” Thompson says breezily, as if she’d no more than stepped out to pick up some dry cleaning.
I can’t help but conclude that the governor’s press secretary—who acts as the primary spokesperson for the governor to the English and Spanish media—is made of the same inexhaustible material as her boss, because, at 38, neither eye-de-puffing cream nor Diet Pepsi has the power to restore even a modicum of pep so quickly after an odyssey like that. But, considering Thompson’s position, I would expect wattage on the high side. Never in the history of politics has there been a media phenomenon like Schwarzenegger, whose swearing-in as the 38th governor of California in November 2003 attracted celebrities, foreign dignitaries, and more than 700 reporters and 50 satellite trucks from around the world, rivaling coverage of a presidential inauguration. From there on, “press secretary” took on a whole new meaning, along with a conundrum: How do you feed insatiable media appetites and shape the governor’s message when he is
“Under the best of circumstances, it’s a horrific job,” observes Barbara O’Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at Sacramento State.
Horrific? How many people can say they’ve gone to the Golden Globe Awards and flown from Israel with the Terminator himself to have lunch with King Abdullah II of Jordan?
“I remember BlackBerrying my mother from the helicopter saying, ‘Mom, I’m with the governor in the king of Jordan’s helicopter!’” says Thompson, who admits to occasional feelings of surrealism while in the company of Schwarzenegger.
One thing’s for certain: No other press secretary’s job description includes attending bodybuilding competitions that bear the boss’s namesake.
“I’ve gone twice with the governor to the Arnold Classic, and so I’ve learned about the bodybuilding world and what bodybuilders do, and I think it’s that you need to use PAM on your body instead of oil, because oil can streak, and it’s better to spray on your tan as opposed to sponging it on,” Thompson says. “You want to dehydrate and then drink a little bit of wine so that your veins will pop, because you want to see vascularity when you’re out there exhibiting.”
Although Thompson herself may not resort to such measures, she did take up weight lifting at the behest of Schwarzenegger, who set her up with a trainer at Sacramento’s Capital Athletic Club, where he works out.
“When we were in China, the governor said to me, ‘I talked to your trainer and he showed me your card.’ I’m like, ‘He showed you my card?’ And he’s like, ‘Yeah.’ And I said, ‘Well, I think I’m bench-pressing 65—no, maybe it’s 85.’ And he said, ‘It’s 85.’ It’s just funny, it’s like, OK, I’m talking to Arnold Schwarzenegger about how I’m progressing in my weight lifting.”
As dreamy as her job sounds, Thompson is quick to provide a reality check. Which brings us back to horrific.
“There’s a trade-off. I’m single; I don’t have much of a social life. My life is completely at the beck and call of the governor and the press corps. There are moments of extreme glamour and things that are really fun, but by and large, it’s just slogging through day-to-day,” she says. “A lot of times, it means crouching down on the ground so you’re not in camera shot with your arm strung out holding the microphone so you can get what the governor is saying, and your arm’s falling asleep. Or you’re starving and you’re not going to get to eat for the next 10 hours because you’re stuck on a bus. Or living off a diet of potato chips and soda and constantly being stressed out.
“This is really a Type A person’s nightmare and breeding ground. You get paranoid about every little thing, because if the governor or you say one little thing wrong, you’re afraid it may get blown out of proportion. You have to be so precise and so careful about what you say and the information you convey.”
That’s true of any press secretary’s role, to some extent, but there are unique challenges and opportunities associated with working for Schwarzenegger.
“We are constantly bombarded [with media requests], and we have the luxury, with this governor, of being able to place him on shows wherever it makes sense,” Thompson says. “Often you are in a supplicant role when dealing with an elected official, and we are never in that position at all with Gov. Schwarzenegger. I’ve told my staff that they’re not getting a good Press 101 experience because we don’t have to pitch stories and we don’t have to pitch the governor.”
Although one could never completely prepare for a position like Thompson’s, in some ways, she’s been preparing her whole life. Who better to serve the governor of an increasingly Mexican population than a native Californian who speaks fluent Spanish? Thompson was raised an only child in San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico. Her father, Barnard R. Thompson, is a consultant, columnist and Mexican-affairs lobbyist.
“I’ve always loved politics,” she says. “Maybe because I was an only child, my parents always talked to me like an adult. I would listen in on their conversations and to be part of it, I would engage in the topics that they were discussing. I remember in first grade, I did my show and tell on the gas crisis that was happening in the ’70s. And then in third grade, I was absolutely crushed when I lost the spelling bee because I misspelled government.”
Thompson graduated from UC Berkeley in 1989 with a degree in political science and received her master of public policy degree at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government in 1996. She was the California press secretary for Bush/Cheney in 2000 and press secretary to Mrs. Lynne Cheney at the Office of the Vice President the following year.
“It was wonderful working with her. She is such a smart woman, and I got to do a lot of stuff with the family and the vice president because I was doing press around the house. I got to work with Architectural Digest on the layout of the Naval Observatory (the vice president’s residence). And I called myself ‘the puppy pimp’ because I was doing press around the vice president’s having gotten a new puppy,” Thompson says.
She went on to become the director of communications for Richard Riordan’s 2002 campaign for governor of California, and when he lost the primary, she snagged the position of political producer for CNN’s “Larry King Live.”
“One of the reasons I loved working for Larry was, I was able to get a window on what the media culture is,” Thompson says. “People talk about, ‘Are reporters liberal? Is there bias in the media?’ And I really don’t think there is. I think that every reporter is after a good story—and they would eviscerate their mothers if it meant a good story.”
While working for CNN, Thompson was assigned to fly out to California to cover the 2003 recall election.
“My big goal was to secure a Schwarzenegger appearance on “Larry King” because he wasn’t doing any national interviews and it was the biggest national story of the time. Fortunately for my career at “Larry King,” I was able to secure the governor’s appearance on the show, and I think he only did our show and “Oprah” with Maria [Shriver]. So it was a big deal that we got him on the show.”
Thompson flew back to Washington, D.C., thrilled with her coup and eager to return to the good life she’d made for herself there.
“I was happy as a clam,” she says. “Working at ‘Larry King,’ it was the first time I actually had a life outside
of work, and the emotional toll that working for an elected official sometimes takes wasn’t there. I was working out, I was 20 pounds lighter, I was living large.”
Then came The Call.
“I got a couple of phone calls asking if I was interested [in becoming Schwarzenegger’s press secretary], and I was like, ‘No, no, no. I know how hard the startup is going to be; call me after you’ve burned out your first string and we’ll see what’s going on.’ And then all of a sudden they stopped calling. I said, ‘Hey! Why’d they stop calling? What’s up with that?’ Then it turned out they were flying to Washington, D.C., as the governor-elect, and so I hooked up with my friends Rob Stutzman (the governor’s director of communications) and Pat Clarey (the governor’s former chief of staff). They said, ‘We really want you to interview for this job. And we want you to interview directly with the governor-elect.’ At that point I took a step back and said, ‘How can you turn down interviewing directly with Arnold Schwarzenegger?’”
But Thompson was determined to make it a two-way street.
“I wanted to see if I would get along with him because it was important for both of us to be happy,” she says. “We had our interview and instantly hit it off. I fell in love with him. He’s so funny and so nice. I told him, ‘OK, I’ll consider doing this but I need one fringe benefit that I’m sure no one else is asking for.’ And he’s like, ‘What is that?’” she says, imitating the governor’s Austrian accent.
“I need you to help me find a boyfriend.” He said, ‘Oh, I don’t know about that; I want you to work without having a personal life.’ And I laughed, ‘OK, then, get me some self-tanning cream because I don’t want to look pasty.’ And he said, ‘OK, we’ll get you some self-tanning cream.”
Two years into the job, Schwarzenegger has come to depend on Thompson’s drive and expertise, if not her bronzed glow. “Margita is a modern-day Renaissance woman who is well-respected in her field and represents all of California with confidence and poise,” Schwarzenegger says. “She works tirelessly and has done an extraordinary job communicating my agenda to Californians. I can’t imagine my administration without her charm, energy or counsel.” The governor has yet to find Thompson a boyfriend (“He’s sorely lacking in that one area”), but she wouldn’t have time for one, anyway. Her primary relationships are with her eight staff members and the state Capitol press corps.
“I spend more time with the reporters than I do with a lot of the staff, and definitely with my family,” she says. “It’s this weird dance that you do because you end up having to argue with them over certain points of a story, but at the same time, they’re the people you end up yukking it up with and having so many of the common war stories with.”
At the Capitol, Thompson conducts weekly press briefings, which at times can be testy.
“Reporters are aggressive, and they are demanding: ‘Yesterday you said this, so how is that different?’ Or, ‘Rob Stutzman said this, now you’re saying that; how do you reconcile the two?’ Sometimes there is a nuance there and you think, ‘How do you respond so that you make it seem like there’s continuity?’ A lot of it is a love of words and making sure you do the research,” she says. “When you’re up at the podium, the reporters have all the power, but you have the answers, and reporters can’t report what you don’t say. Sometimes reporters will try to goad you into saying something unexpected, and then you reveal something you weren’t planning to reveal because you end up getting flustered. So that’s the key: always wanting to stay on message and stay unflustered.”
Over time, Thompson has earned the media’s respect, if not always its approval. The local press has made no secret of their frustration with the perceived scarcity of access to the governor. “He gives the Capitol press corps just enough access that they can’t say he’s not accessible,” O’Connor, the political communications expert at Sacramento State, told The Sacramento Bee.
“All press secretaries want to control access,” says Kevin Riggs, longtime political reporter for KCRA 3. “I think access is more of an issue with this governor than with previous governors because of who he is. We continue to push [Thompson] on the issue.”
In defense of such criticism, Thompson responds, “It’s a challenge and a balance in that we’ve gotten more requests than any governor has gotten before. We are focused on doing as much as we can to make sure the people of California know what it is he’s trying to do. When the governor says, ‘The people are my partners,’ he really does believe that. And so partially what that means is not being a creature of the Capitol, but getting outside the Capitol and traveling throughout the state. So the Capitol press corps might be critical and say they don’t get enough access to the governor, but it is important for the governor to talk to the press in San Diego, in Los Angeles and in San Francisco.”
Riggs, who makes it a policy not to socialize with Schwarzenegger’s people, nevertheless has a good working relationship with Thompson, as do most reporters.
“The thing about her is if you treat her fairly, she’s going to treat you fairly,” he says. “She’s got some integrity in dealing with the press, and that’s a valuable commodity because once you lose your credibility, you never get it back.
“I think we’re a lot easier to work with than the Washington press corps,” Riggs adds. “Nevertheless, you have a group of demanding, high-energy folks who are under constant deadline and are trying to please their editors and readers and viewers, so there’s always going to be a push-and-pull kind of dynamic. Sometimes the questions do get hostile and sometimes there’s tension between Margita and the press, but that’s to be expected. I don’t think she takes it personally, and we don’t, either. I think she’s gotten pretty good at defusing what could become tense situations. She doesn’t let stuff get to her. I’ve never seen her blow up.”
O’Connor points out that Thompson started out at a greater disadvantage than other press secretaries, who often spend years in close proximity to the politicians they serve—oftentimes to the point of becoming alter egos.
“One of the most intimate relationships an officeholder has is with the press secretary, because that person is a surrogate,” O’Connor says. “Both Margita and Rob have an unusual assignment given they don’t have a campaign history (with Schwarzenegger).”
Thompson recalls those feelings of uncertainty in the early days.
“I was freaked out at the beginning because I didn’t know a lot of the answers,” she says.
Now, after more than two years of steeping herself in all things Schwarzenegger, she’s a lot closer to getting into his head. Where it will lead, who knows?
But Thompson figures a little mystery in her life is OK, even for a driven high achiever like herself.
“You’d think I’d have a plan for the future, but I don’t,” she says. “When I was working in the White House, I couldn’t imagine having a greater job than working in the White House. Then all of a sudden I was working for Larry King, and I couldn’t imagine having a cooler job than working for Larry King. And if, when I was working for Larry King, someone had said, ‘Your next job is going to be press secretary to California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger,’ I would’ve asked, ‘How much have you been drinking?’ And lo and behold, here I am in this amazing job. So I don’t know what my next job will hold. I just figure that God will plunk something else incredible down in front of me. But it’s really hard to think about what could possibly top this.”