A reluctant Shriver made most of first lady role

AP News
Posted: May 10, 2011 10:53 PM
A reluctant Shriver made most of first lady role

Maria Shriver was sidelined as a network TV journalist when her movie star husband, Arnold Schwarzenegger, suddenly decided to jump into politics _ the business of her family.

Being first lady of California, a job that usually involves more pomp than policy, was not an easy fit for the ambitious feminist who had worked hard to carve out an identity separate from her Democratic family dynasty as a Kennedy and a Shriver.

The new role was not one she necessarily coveted, but she made it her own.

"You've got to be kidding! That's not me! I didn't grow up wanting to be first lady of anything!" she wrote in her 2008 book "Just Who Will You Be?" about her sentiments after her husband was elected in the 2003 recall. "But there I found myself, and I didn't have a clue what to do."

What she did not do was seek to fit in in Sacramento, a company town where politics and state government are the core business. She and the couple's four children, now ages 13, 17, 19 and 21, never made the move to the state capital, instead jetting in for special events while Schwarzenegger flew home most nights on his private plane.

In a joint statement Monday night announcing their separation after 25 years of marriage, Shriver and Schwarzenegger said they will keep raising their four children together, calling them "the light and the center of both of our lives."

Still, Maria was never far in spirit from the governor's expansive Capitol office, where an enormous Andy Warhol portrait of her hung over proceedings, and she was said to weigh in frequently with opinions on policy.

Richard Costigan, Schwarzenegger's legislative director from 2003 to 2006, said Shriver helped the governor's staff understand his priorities, many of which aligned with Shriver family interests such as the Special Olympics and community service.

"Early on it was more about protecting the governor, and making sure there was a balanced approach to the way policy issues were approached," he said. "Social safety net programs, people involved in service, those issues that she grew up with were important."

She was instrumental in restructuring her husband's administration after Schwarzenegger promoted a failed slate of ballot initiatives in a 2005 special election. Shriver helped persuade him to bring on a Democratic chief of staff and restore his image as a centrist Republican.

She also urged him to admit he was wrong, which he did the day after the election.

"It appeared that she was the governor's most important political and policy adviser," said Dan Schnur, director of the University of Southern California's Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics and a Republican whom Schwarzenegger temporarily appointed to the Fair Political Practices Commission last year.

Frank Mankiewicz, press secretary for Shriver's uncle, the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, said in a statement that he met Shriver when she was about six years old and watched her grow into a mature journalist and caring human being.

"I have no doubt she will get through this difficult transition. Her strength and skill and, above all, her good humor, will continue to mark her life," Mankiewicz wrote.

During the seven years Schwarzenegger held office, Shriver took on various official projects as first lady, including revamping the California Museum in downtown Sacramento, which is now called the California Museum for History, Women and the Arts. Shriver noticed "the glaring absence of any type of commemoration of California women and the role they have played in the state's history," according to the museum's website.

She and Schwarzenegger also launched the California Hall of Fame, honoring famous Californians from all walks of life during an annual red carpet ceremony at the museum.

The first lady's women's conference grew to a massive, glamorous event called the Women's Conference, where thousands of well-heeled women lunched in Long Beach while listening to the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Bono, Gloria Steinem, the Dalai Lama and former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

Shriver's office started WE Connect to link poor California families to programs and services from state and federal governments that many didn't know about. It continues after her departure, now operated by the nonprofit California Endowment.

Those projects evolved after a rocky start, in which Shriver acknowledged she had grave concerns about exposing her own family to a political life that she equated with separation and loss. She is a child of the Kennedy Democratic dynasty _ the daughter of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who was the sister of President John F. Kennedy, and of Sargent Shriver, the first head of the Peace Corps and vice presidential candidate in 1972.

"I'd learned early on that political life was about constant travel and being surrounded by 50 people in the house, and either you lose or you get assassinated," she told Oprah.

By the time her husband surprised her with the news that he wanted to run for governor in the state's historic recall of former Gov. Gray Davis, Shriver had spent 25 years in the news business and won a Peabody award for her coverage of women in Minnesota's welfare reform program.

After working at stations in Philadelphia and Baltimore, Shriver joined CBS News in Los Angeles in 1983, and jumped to NBC in 1986, where she held positions that included news magazine reporter and anchor. She served as a correspondent covering the Democratic and Republican conventions and later hosted and reported for "Dateline NBC."

Then, she said in "Just Who Will You Be?", her idea of herself went up in smoke.

"One day out of nowhere, my movie-star husband announced he was running for governor of California. Just 60 days later, he was elected. And because NBC News was worried there might be a perceived conflict of interest between my news job and his political job, I was asked to resign. Just like that my career was gone, and with it the person I'd been for 25 years."

Despite her background as a reporter, Shriver's staff always kept her at arms-length from the California political press corps, instead favoring interviews with Oprah and Entertainment Tonight. She also produced a documentary about Alzheimer's disease, from which her father suffered until his death in January. Toward the end of her husband's administration, she collaborated with Time magazine on a project about the status of women.

Her influence and concern for women's equality left a stamp on Schwarzenegger's administration, which was stacked with women, some of them Democrats, by the time he left office in January. They included chief-of-staff Susan Kennedy, finance director Ana Matosantos, cabinet Secretary Victoria Bradshaw and Health and Human Services Secretary Kim Belshe.

She was often the subject of Schwarzenegger's wisecracks, though, as he joked about being in the doghouse with his wife during heated political campaigns such as the 2008 presidential race, when Shriver endorsed Democrat Barack Obama while Schwarzenegger backed longtime friend John McCain, a Republican.

After Obama's victory, Schwarzenegger joked, "I can get back into the bedroom." He added that his wife had been gloating and running around the house with a "life-size cutout of Obama," saying "We won."

Despite her reservations, Shriver was essential to his election as governor in the historic 2003 recall, lending him credibility with women voters after the Los Angeles Times reported allegations from 15 women that Schwarzenegger had groped and verbally harassed them during encounters dating to the early 1970s and as recently as 2000. Schwarzenegger apologized for his bad behavior but never fully addressed the claims.

During a recent interview with Details magazine, the couple's oldest son Patrick, 17, said the transition from being first family of California had been difficult, particularly when the state-paid bodyguards who had become like family left when Schwarzenegger's term in office ended last January.

Of his father, he said, "He's home all the time now."

Patrick, who has his own clothing line and a new deal as a model, shied away from a future in politics.

"My mom always talks about how hard it was to grow up in a political family," he said. "It's always split up, and just _ I want to have fun in life. No, politics isn't on the list."