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Maria Shriver Wields Growing Influence
Maria Shriver Wields Growing Influence
Shriver Wields Growing Influence
California's first lady emerges as a powerful partner with her governor husband. 'Arnold and I are a team,' she says.
By Peter Nicholas, Times Staff Writer
SACRAMENTO Bobby Shriver wolfed down a burger at a restaurant near his office in Beverly Hills as he took stock of what's ahead for his little sister, his brother-in-law and the state of California.
There's a $14-billion budget shortfall and difficult decisions about raising taxes, cutting spending or both. "The honeymoon is over," he said, but no one should underestimate Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger or Maria Shriver. "Arnold's a very hard-headed guy, and Maria's a very hard-headed girl. And they're going to make something work," he said.
Arnold and Maria. Since the recall election six months ago, the governor's office at times has seemed as much hers as his. Shriver is rapidly emerging as a full if unelected partner with her husband in running California.
Some lawmakers confide that when they can't get the answer they want from Schwarzenegger's administration, they go to Shriver. Many briefing papers are passed to Shriver. Political strategy can be vetted by Shriver. Some job candidates interview with Shriver. Legislative diplomacy is a Shriver staple.
In an interview this week, Shriver, 48, talked about her unfolding role in the administration and how her marriage, career and Kennedy family heritage are shaping a first lady unlike any other California has seen.
As part of the extended Kennedy clan, she embraces an analogy from her family's history Robert F. Kennedy's role in his brother John's presidential administration in the 1960s.
"To the exclusion of everyone, Bobby had Jack's agenda on his mind 24/7," Shriver said. "And he had his back. And all he thought about was what could he do to enhance John F. Kennedy . Am I fierce in my protection of and belief in Arnold and want him to do well, and do I think that's like Uncle Bobby? Yes."
Fabian Nuñez, the new speaker of the Assembly, recalled the governor saying of his wife: " 'We make decisions together.' And I know he's not just saying that."
How does he know?
Worried about nearly $500 million in proposed cuts to a program that serves disabled Californians, Nuñez came up with a plan.
He would talk to a sympathetic person within the governor's office who might want to see the money restored: the first lady, whose family, after all, heads the Special Olympics.
So Nuñez approached Shriver.
Shriver spoke to her husband.
And state policy was abruptly reversed.
Shriver's place within the administration was hardly planned.
A "work in progress" is how she initially cast herself. Now, her identity is gelling.
The first lady's office "will expand further by the very nature of Maria Shriver's background: her familiarity to the public as a TV journalist and writer, and the general culture she comes from where public life is instinctive," said Kevin Starr, the former state librarian, who has spent time with the family.
Shriver is about to get a heavy dose of national media attention. On May 3, her latest book is coming out: "What's Happening to Grandpa," a volume meant to teach children about Alzheimer's. Her father, Sargent Shriver, is ill with the disease.
Shriver's other two children's books dealt with issues of death and disability and sold nearly 1 million copies. She is to appear on Oprah Winfrey's show today, followed by turns on assorted national TV shows, including "Larry King Live," the "Today Show" and "Access Hollywood."
Shriver is intent on being an active parent, an example of how she tries to straddle different worlds.
After the election, she consulted experts about how to reassure the couple's four children that their dad would remain within reach. The solution: setting up a telephone hotline in the governor's private office. Shriver said she tries to explain to the children what their father is doing.
Pointing to the war overseas, she said: "Just as every parent in Iraq is making a sacrifice, you try to explain to the children why this job is important to their dad."
"Why he's away. What he's going to do. I try to explain things in the paper why someone might be mad about this, so they understand."
Most California first ladies choose one of several models. They might absorb themselves in the ceremonial parts of the job, dabble in policy, quietly raise families or privately advise their husbands. Shriver is attempting it all.
"Some people advise: Get one issue and don't do anything but that one. I don't think that's realistic," she said. "That assumes you only do one thing and one thing only and that's who you are."
There are a couple of constraints. Mindful of Hillary Rodham Clinton's ill-fated efforts to revamp the nation's healthcare system, Shriver wants to avoid the political perils of pushing too far, too fast, according to friends and family.
Complex policy initiatives don't hold the same interest for her in any case, they said.
"She's different in that sense than a woman like Hillary Clinton," said Bobby Shriver. Clinton "had an independent sort of, 'I want to get in the healthcare business.' Maria's not like that. Hillary has a real interest in politics herself and has worked a lot on specific issues as a lawyer. Real issue-related interests. Maria does not. She has story-related interests. She wants to know who you are. Where your family came from."
What's more, her husband insists that she has no license to yank the administration leftward in pursuit of a Kennedy family vision (though the disability case shows that even here, Shriver enjoys a bit of wiggle room).
Shriver rejects the suggestion that there are fissures within the relationship with her husband that outsiders can manipulate.
"Nobody has come to me to get to Arnold," she said. "And I'm hip to that anyway. That doesn't work. Arnold and I are a team. We're united. And there's nobody who's going to end run him by coming to me. Because I get that."
"I'm not looking for this role to propel me to some place. I'm not looking to come in here and run for office from this," she said. "It's not where my head is at. I had a very nice gig going and was very happy doing what I was doing."
Shriver's parents are Sargent Shriver and Eunice Kennedy Shriver, sister of John and Robert Kennedy. Trained as a TV journalist, California's first lady is prepared for the new role, said her brother, Bobby Shriver.
He said, "we're a little bit different than our Kennedy cousins because those people's parents were running for office or, obviously sadly enough dead from running for office. So our parents till very late in my dad's career; he ran for office, but prior to that there were brainstorms at the house every weekend on this or that. Legal services. Head Start. 'How are we going to get this going?' 'Let's get some child development people out there.' 'Write a memorandum or have a meeting on that.' That's what we did in the house. So Maria knows how to do that."
From the start of her husband's campaign, Shriver has not confronted many boundaries. Bonnie Reiss, a senior aide to the governor and longtime friend of the couple, recalls a meeting with Schwarzenegger's main campaign team.
"Maria said, 'Listen, I've known some of the greatest men in this country.' And she said, 'Arnold measures up to any of the greatest men I've ever known. Don't you underestimate him.' "
For the Schwarzenegger campaign, the main trauma came when The Times reported that the candidate had groped or mistreated several women. Shriver stood by him.
Bobby Shriver suggested that if the crisis was not a pleasant moment for his sister, it was one that she weathered.
"Arnold is a raucous guy," he said. "Did he do whatever? He's a raucous guy. He always has been. So was Maria surprised to read in the newspaper that six girls thought Arnold is a raucous guy? I don't think so."
To this day, Shriver's defense of her husband leaves some women puzzled. Shriver recently turned up at a middle school in Berkeley to tour a program that teaches gardening and cooking skills. Out of earshot, a woman at the school mentioned the question she'd like to ask Shriver: Why stay married to a "womanizer"?
Shriver offers an answer:
"I'm fully supportive of Arnold and he's handled himself extremely well and I know who the guy is," she said. "People have journeys in their relationship. And they walk through them together and come out the other side," she added. "To me, that is courage. And that's a warrior. And everyone who has a problem in their relationship, if they were to walk out, to me there is no kind of courage in that. No kind of commitment."
Gloria Allred, an attorney representing an alleged victim who is now suing Schwarzenegger and his campaign for alleged defamation, offered another explanation.
"My sense of it is that this is a woman who is trying to keep her family through better or worse. And if it takes her active participation to get through the worse, she'll do what's necessary. Other Kennedy women have before her and now she's followed in their footsteps."
Now that her husband is in office, Shriver's influence is at once subtle and pervasive. Sitting home on weekends, she reads through the private memos sent home with the governor. That was a natural.
"In my movies she was going through my scripts and helping make decisions about who should direct," Schwarzenegger said. "Meeting with studio executives and agents, she would come to the set and have a million ideas which is the Shriver mind."
He added: "So she's out there fully and she participates. And when I go through my briefing papers and I'm at home on the weekends, she reads through it and she comes up with ideas: 'You should talk to so-and-so.' "
When Schwarzenegger gives a major address, the words have been, in some measure, shaped by Shriver. She was the one who recruited speechwriter Landon Parvin.
She interviews job applicants, giving out written assignments in some cases: come back with a list of the 10 things the governor would need to do in his first 100 days in office.
After leaving the interview, "a couple [of applicants] were confused as to whether they'd be working for Arnold or her. They weren't sure exactly," said one person familiar with the workings of the administration.
Attuned to the Capitol pecking order, Shriver has courted players in both the Assembly and Senate. She is sending a copy of a new biography of her father to all 120 members of the Legislature. She's diligently befriended the cantankerous Senate Democratic leader, John Burton (D-San Francisco). She gave Burton's grandson two of her children's books. In conversations with Burton, she jokingly calls herself "First Babe."
And she cautions the notoriously profane Senate leader not to swear around her 82-year-old mother. He loves it.
As a Democrat in a Republican administration, Shriver is stepping carefully to deliver a message that squares with her husband's.
She says that despite a friendship with Teresa Heinz Kerry, she won't campaign for the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, John Kerry a move that could embarrass her husband.
When Schwarzenegger leaves office, Shriver said she'll be ready. She recalls her father's defeat in 1972, when Sargent Shriver ran for vice president on the ticket with George McGovern.
"I'll never forget when my dad lost . We drove home from the hotel. All the Secret Service were unplugging the phones from the trailers. The picture is very fresh in my mind. So I'm aware that all of this is fleeting."
Times staff writer Virginia Ellis contributed to this report.