Nothing symbolizes the change in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s image over the course of his governorship than his attitude toward cars. Let’s call that transition: From Hummers to Hybrids.

I watched the governor praise alternative fuel vehicles at the opening of the Los Angeles Auto Show last Friday. Standing before 14 alternative fuel vehicles under banners that separated the vehicles into four categories: plug-in hybrid; hybrid electric; hydrogen fuel cell and battery electric, Schwarzenegger said that he loved cars and loved the environment. The array of cars behind him, he noted, proved car manufacturers could build fast, powerful, gorgeous cars and still protect the environment.

Remember this was the man who brought the military Humvee onto the streets as a commercial vehicle – the Hummer that environmentalists detested. Schwarzenegger’s relationship with the beginning of the Hummer is well told by fellow Fox and Hounds Daily blogger Joe Mathews in a Washington Post article from earlier this year.

Schwarzenegger pushed for the manufacture of the huge vehicles and bought the first two off the assembly line, playing to his tough guy movie image. But, as he picked up his political career in environmentally conscious California the Hummer image did not play as well to some voters. Enter the hybrid and other alternative fuel vehicles.

Did Schwarzenegger catch a wave in the change of tastes in automobiles or did he have an epiphany and lead the change?

The head of the California Environmental Protection Agency, Mary Nichols, would argue the latter. In introducing the governor Friday, Nichols referred to the governor’s retrofitting his Hummer for hydrogen and his lawsuits against the federal government on fuel standards as acts of a leader in melding California’s car culture with its environmental sensitivities.

Declaring that working toward cleaner cars was a passion for him, Schwarzenegger said he would continue working with car manufacturers after he leaves the governorship.

Schwarzenegger noted that in 2003 there were only two alternative fuel cars at the LA Auto Show. Now the fourteen alternative fuels vehicles lined up behind him (and the 50 or so at the auto show) were the stars of the show.

Schwarzenegger brought politics into the car show event when he reminisced that
some were surprised that a Republican like himself would defend the environment so strongly. The governor dipped into the history books to show what he termed “Republicans great track record” on the environment, citing Teddy Roosevelt’s history with parks, Richard Nixon creating the EPA, and Ronald Reagan’s accord on acid rain.

He said, we’ve got a little problem with the Republican Party now but we’re going to clean that up. Undoubtedly, the governor was referring to the recent battle over Proposition 23, in which many Republican officials lined up for the proposition to suspend the state’s greenhouse gases law. Schwarzenegger led the charge to preserve the law and prevailed. He gave no hint how he was going to “clean-up” the problem.

The Hummers to Hybrids transition for Schwarzenegger over the course of his governorship will be reflected in another way once he leaves office. Schwarzenegger came in to office as a reformer, concentrating in reforming the political system where he had some success and the budget/fiscal system where, except for workers comp, his triumphs were negligible.

However, over the course of his governorship he embraced environmental issues as his major concern. Once out of office, Schwarzenegger will still have an interest in California political reform but his ability to lead changes will be limited. However, as a worldwide, celebrity figure, the environment presents an issue that will allow him to hopscotch the planet and carry his message of environmental change within the context of still having it all. In other words, he will promote the hydrogen Hummer platform.

The political reformer of years ago has given way to the environmental messenger of today and tomorrow.