Maria Shriver: Reinventing the First Lady

With her husband busy in the governor’s office and her job at NBC News no longer an option, Maria Shriver had only one choice: to reinvent the role of California’s first lady (and have some fun along the way).

By Karen Breslau

Going BarefootMaria Shriver is in her stocking feet. This in and of itself might not be newsworthy, but for the fact that the first lady of California is standing on the floor of the state senate. Every eye in the ornate, red velvet-draped chamber is on her, reporters jostling and television cameras rolling, as she congratulates recipients of the senate’s annual Women of the Year awards. According to the official historian who tracks these things, this is the first time since 1879 that a first lady has appeared before the legislature unchaperoned by her husband (the last time was when Mrs. William Irwin poured tea here for the wife of Ulysses S. Grant). From the waist up, Shriver looks suitably first-lady-like in an elegant black Valentino skirt suit, her lustrous auburn hair styled into loose, youthful curls. She addresses the lawmakers while standing at one of the antique oak desks arrayed in a semicircle around the chamber; unless you are behind her, you’d never know that her Manolo Blahniks are lying askew at a senator’s feet. In fact, the breach of podiatric protocol may well have gone unnoticed, had Shriver, reverting perhaps to her instincts as a former television reporter, not announced the news herself: "I’m nursing a bad back," she explains. "So take off your heels, because I’m going to do the same."It’s not entirely clear whether this is a moment of statecraft or standup comedy. After praising the honorees, Shriver wastes no time having a little partisan fun at her Republican husband’s expense: "We all have something in common," she tells the senators, most of whom, like her, are staunch Democrats. "We’re all trying to get my husband to do what we want." Noting that the legislators have grown increasingly critical of Arnold Schwarzenegger during his second year in office, she cracks, "Either you have a great sense of humor [to invite me here], or, like me, you’ve given up resentment for Lent."Amid the appreciative laughter, Clint Eastwood ambles into the back of the chamber with his wife, Dina, who is one of the senate’s honorees. He’s carrying what one assumes is her pink rhinestone-studded handbag. The first lady has no shoes and the craggy tough guy is clutching a purse. If ever there was a snapshot that captures how Sacramento — not to mention Shriver’s life — has been turned upside-down since her husband became governor a year and a half ago, this has to be it. Reinventing the RoleAs she alludes mischievously to controversy without wading into it, it’s clear that every strand of Shriver’s impressive political DNA — as a Kennedy, a media star, and Democratic wife of the nation’s most famous Republican governor — is being put to good use. Despite her ambivalence over leaving her job at NBC News in order to serve her husband’s administration — a tradeoff she at first resisted — she is now determined to have a good time in her new role. Shriver turns 50 later this year, and while her teenage daughters have already started teasing her about "passing the torch," she says more helpful advice came from her good friend Oprah Winfrey. "She tells me, ‘Your job is to kick it up this year, turn it up a notch — how you dress, how you handle yourself, how you have fun.’"At least for this chapter of her life, that’s meant giving in to an existence that seems almost genetically predetermined. But forget about hairspray and tea parties — and don’t expect Shriver to evolve into a left-coast Hillary, tinkering with public policy. Instead, she is transforming the quaint office she inherited into an entrepreneurial, public-service startup. "This is a job people like to make fun of," Shriver says. "Like, ‘Oh, my gosh, they’re planning parties.’ I’ve tried to turn this into a creative, idea-based job." She launched a phone-card program to supply the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan with free calls home. She’s marketing a jewelry line to help fund the California State Alliance (which supports the enhancement of public schools and parks). Last year, Shriver remade the once-staid annual Governor’s Conference on Women and Families into a profitable, multimedia extravaganza, featuring appearances by famous friends like Oprah, Queen Noor of Jordan, and Sheryl Crow — and 10,000 ticket-buying attendees. For this year’s conference, Shriver tells me, she’s planning a panel of A-list actresses and designers, many over 40, to talk about being "Witty, Wise, and Sexy at Any Age." Facing ChallengesIt hasn’t all been seamless. Last fall, Shriver ruffled feathers in Sacramento with her plans to remake the failing California State History Museum into a museum of women’s history. Several board members resigned; the Los Angeles Times published a caricature of an over-reaching Shriver as shrew; and Maria, contrite and bruised, ended up going to lawmakers to get their blessing for a museum that would commemorate both California’s history and its women. She gamely sums up that episode in her new book, And One More Thing Before You Go… in Rule #3: "Learn from Your Mistakes." Written as a guide for girls graduating from high school, you get the sense that Shriver has torn a few pages from her diary from the past year. In Rule #1, titled "Fear Can Be Your Best Teacher," she admits to having "rolling waves of panic" when she became first lady. In Rule #2, "Be Willing to Let Go of Your Plan," she writes that leaving her career to avoid the appearance of conflicts of interest with her husband’s new administration left her feeling as though her world was over. But, she adds, "I didn’t want to live with that feeling — resentful and so rigid that I couldn’t handle change."The word "resentment" seems to crop up a lot in Shriver’s vocabulary. It’s an obvious clue that she and her husband — despite their star status — have faced the same struggles as many other two-career couples. The morning after her senate speech, we meet for breakfast at the Hyatt Regency, just across the street from the Capitol where the couple bunks while in Sacramento (California has no official governor’s mansion). I ask whether her departure from NBC, widely reported as a leave, was in fact a firing. Shriver, who has passed on food but is sipping a cup of black coffee, pauses. "I’ve been fired before, so yeah, I’d have to say it felt similar," she says. "And for me, it was the stupid little stuff. That’s where my friends work, that’s where my office is, with all my stuff. It was my own place. And when my box of stuff came back, it was one of those passages. I once belonged somewhere and didn’t anymore. All of a sudden, I was like, ‘Now what?’" It was an uneasy time. Schwarzenegger was consumed in Sacramento establishing his new administration. Shriver, at home in Los Angeles with the couple’s four children (now age 7 to 15), was sifting through the ashes of her television career, but not yet ready to launch into first-lady mode. "I was wobbling," she acknowledges. Bonnie Reiss, a close friend of the couple’s who is now a senior adviser to Schwarzenegger, says that Maria’s first goal was to minimize the disruption to the children’s lives. "When Arnold did movies, he’d be away at most three or four months," she explains. "The other eight months of the year, he was available to drive the kids to school, to tutor them, to give backrubs at bedtime. That’s been a big loss in the kids’ lives." In her new role, Maria decided to make a very important statement: "You can be a success and still feel comfortable making the kids your top priority."Being a MomFor Shriver, that meant a quick end to the pity party. With four kids to manage, "I had about 24 hours to wobble," she says. Now she tries to spend no more than one night out each week on state business, and rarely more than a day a week in Sacramento. Despite the thousands of invitations that pour into her office every month, she says she turns down 99 percent. "Not because they are not worthy, but because they take me away from my primary job with the children." She keeps her schedule on a spreadsheet that weaves her official functions into the gaps between car pools, tennis lessons, and flag-football practice. Shriver says her girls agree with Oprah that she should, indeed, "kick it up." They’ve been urging her to take more time for herself — to have lunch with her friends and even, she howls, "to go get a facial!" But most days, it seems, she hardly has time to eat. In her Sacramento office, she keeps a drawer full of Pria bars, which she gobbles between meetings. The day she addressed lawmakers started at 5:45 a.m. in Los Angeles, where she got the kids to school before flying to Sacramento with Schwarzenegger. She addressed both chambers of the legislature, attended a concert of the Vienna Boys’ Choir in the Capitol rotunda, hosted a reception at The California Museum for History, Women, and the Arts, and then met with California National Guard families. Then there were several private meetings with her staff, as well as phone calls with the kids. Shriver’s last public appearance started at 7 p.m., at a fund-raiser for victims of domestic violence. Dressed in jeans, sneakers, and a boldly patterned quilted jacket, she gave a passionate speech aimed at women who "feel they have no voice." Then she played a little charity ping-pong with stars from the city’s NBA team, the Sacramento Kings. As she headed back to the hotel shortly before 10, she still hadn’t eaten. But before she had a chance, the phone rang, and she was plunged into high-level negotiations with her 15-year-old daughter over the terms of an upcoming sleepover.Arnold for President? Growing up in a political household herself, Maria watched her parents, Eunice and Sargent Shriver, charge off as soldiers in Camelot, serving Eunice’s brother, President John F. Kennedy. Sarge founded the Peace Corps and Head Start, and served as Ambassador to France; Eunice started the Special Olympics. Both traveled incessantly — heady stuff, unless you were waiting at home for someone to read you a bedtime story. "Growing up, I always felt like I had two parents who were changing the world, and my brothers and I were just sitting there," says Shriver. "I knew, much more than Arnold, what political life was about, and I’ve talked to people whose parents were also in politics. By and large, they don’t like it." In 1972, Sargent Shriver ran for vice president as George McGovern’s running mate. Maria, then 16, felt his defeat acutely. "I remember so vividly when I drove home from the hotel, the Secret Service was unplugging the phones and closing their trailer. And within 24 hours everyone who worked for my dad and was part of his vision was gone." Shriver snaps her fingers for emphasis. "Gone. Just like that."It’s midmorning, and we have moved across the street to Shriver’s office in the "horseshoe," the warren of offices in the Capitol where Schwarzenegger and his top aides work. The small room is tranquil and bright, with a small fountain gurgling on an end table. Photos of Arnold and the children are everywhere. Shriver knows it’s a nice perch, but the memory of her father’s campaign keeps her grounded. She says, "It’s a great help to me to know that this is very temporary, very fleeting." I mention that since last summer, when Schwarzenegger delivered a hugely successful speech at the Republican convention, there’s been a fair amount of speculation about whether he will run for president (a feat that would first require a constitutional amendment allowing foreign-born citizens to be eligible). "People come up to me all the time and say, ‘I hope Arnold runs,’" she says tartly. "I don’t think they have a clue what it takes to amend the constitution. I believe that in a nation of immigrants, the job should be open to people who are not born here. But there’s just no way that it will ever be done to benefit Arnold. It has nothing to do with me. Period." Would Schwarzenegger, now 57, even want to be president? "I don’t ever discuss it," she responds, with the briefest flash of annoyance. "I’m much more interested in my kids’ summer plans."Sensitivity and Determination Late one afternoon, Shriver is meeting with the families of a half dozen California National Guardsmen who have just returned from Iraq. She listens intently as the soldiers describe the astronomical expense of calling home, and promises to help raise money and public awareness. An 11-year-old boy tells her that he got to see his father only once during his 18-month deployment. Shriver leans across the table so that they are nearly at eye level and smiles. "You know your dad is doing important work and serving his country," she tells the youngster, who nods his head in agreement. "But that doesn’t really help when you miss someone, does it? That really sucks." Shriver has honed her determination to be normal over a lifetime — throughout the Kennedy-shadowed childhood, the decades in Hollywood with Schwarzenegger, and her years as a television personality in her own right. When MORE‘s stylist offers her a choice of evening gowns for this issue’s photo shoot, she balks before finally donning one and heading outside to pose on a grass-covered cliff. "How I live is much more understated, much more low-key, than I think people imagine," she says. In the hallway outside her office, Shriver has mounted a gallery of photos of her predecessors, all looking very prim under large gold letters that read "They Served, Too." Someday, when Arnold Schwarzenegger leaves office, she will be on that wall, as well — no doubt, an action shot. Until that day comes, she’s got a lot of kicking up to do. Originally published in MORE magazine, June 2005.

First Published Mon, 2009-04-06 18:05

Find this story at: