By Steve Lopez

Back in 2003, I witnessed a remarkable spectacle at a rally for then-gubernatorial candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger. As I talked to people about allegations that Schwarzenegger had crudely groped women against their will, using his celebrity and power to have his way, they were outraged - not at Schwarzenegger, but at the Los Angeles Times, for reporting the stories.

Even after Schwarzenegger stepped to the stage and admitted that "where there's smoke, there's fire," women who espoused family values came to his defense. They insisted that either Arnold's accusers were making it up or they wanted to be groped. Some accused the Times of delving into ancient history to deliver a knockout punch solely because Schwarzenegger was a Republican.

Later that day, I watched as Schwarzenegger staged a crowd-pleasing stunt, dropping a wrecking ball onto an Oldsmobile to symbolize his plan to crush the vehicle tax if elected. It was such a good show that nobody noticed the deception. Schwarzenegger didn't explain how he'd make up the $4 billion in lost revenue, and not long after he took office and slashed the tax, the state's deficit had grown by $4 billion.

California never climbed out of that hole. In fact, it only deepened as Schwarzenegger failed to deliver on his promise to "tear up the credit card," instead borrowing huge sums. And after vowing to get the money out of state politics, he set fund-raising records.

It didn't help that the economy crashed while he was in office, but make no mistake: Schwarzenegger was a flop as governor, despite fleeting flashes of leadership. Even his once-adoring fans turned on him when they realized they'd been had, driving his poll numbers to embarrassing depths.

In one of his final acts as governor, Schwarzenegger further sullied himself - and outraged the family of a homicide victim - by commuting the murder sentence of the son of former Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez, a Schwarzenegger friend.

Self-glory

Given this backdrop, I can't say I was surprised by the news that Schwarzenegger had fathered a child with a longtime member of his household staff. It fits the narrative of a man who has always seemed to live in his own celebrity world, by his own twisted rules of privilege and entitlement, his life an orgy of self-glory.

"After leaving the governor's office, I told my wife about this event, which occurred over a decade ago," Schwarzenegger said in a statement. This "event"? Is the betrayal of his wife and children in their own home just an "event" to him?

"There are no excuses, and I take full responsibility for the hurt I have caused," Schwarzenegger went on. "I have apologized to Maria, my children, and my family, and I am truly sorry." Sorry he did it or sorry he got caught?

There's been no allegation that Schwarzenegger's attentions were unwelcome in this case, but the woman did work for him; it wasn't a level playing field. And I can't help but think about the groping incidents that were described as uncomfortable and unwelcome.

Beyond fiction

Schwarzenegger risked not just the exposure of his appetites, but the destruction of the relationship between the employee and Arnold's wife and children. And then there's the child he fathered, who asked for none of this. One can only hope he will be able to build a life that's not defined by the parents' lies.

To make it even more mortifyingly awkward, Schwarzenegger kept this under his hat while his wife, Maria Shriver, gave up her television reporting job to serve his political ambitions. And she did it with grace, using her position as first lady to advocate for families and female empowerment.

No wonder she moved out of the Brentwood house and into a hotel when she found out the husband she defended, amid all the groping allegations, had kept an even bigger secret from her all these years.

It's beyond fiction, this tale of greed and deceit. The man with huge biceps (thanks to his admitted use of steroids), huge box-office receipts, and huge ambitions turns out to be a huge phony, too. How about an apology to the people of California, Arnold?

Since he left office, the ex-governor has been jetting around the world, hobnobbing with director James Cameron and Mikhail Gorbachev, and skiing in France while an alleged bidding war broke out for two more Terminator installments. He's expected to write a memoir. And, at least until this week's news, he was said to be working on an animated children's series based on his life.

Can someone please red-light that project?

Steve Lopez is a Los Angeles Times columnist. He can be reached at steve.lopez@latimes.com.