March 31, 2005: Headlines: Directors - Shriver: New York Times: Maria Shriver Builds a Different Role as California's First Lady

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Maria Shriver Builds a Different Role as California's First Lady

Maria Shriver Builds a Different Role as California's First Lady

Maria Shriver Builds a Different Role as California's First Lady

California's First Lady Builds a Different Role

Published: March 31, 2005

SACRAMENTO - There are 16 million women in California, and Maria Shriver is only one of them. But as she strode past the potted palms and the oil paintings of aging gray-haired former governors earlier this month to address the Legislature - the first time in modern history a California first lady had taken the rostrum without her husband - it was difficult not to sense the symbolic import of the state's alpha female.

"We have a lot in common," Ms. Shriver told 120 rapt "women of the year" being honored by the lawmakers, a group upon whom her husband has famously heaped disdain. "We're all trying to get my husband to do what we want."

After an initial period of ambivalence, in which she left her network television job because of possible conflicts of interest and assumed a potentially retro role, Ms. Shriver is on her way to becoming California's most influential first lady ever, observers say.

The niece of President John F. Kennedy and the only daughter of R. Sargent Shriver, the founding director of the Peace Corps and a onetime vice-presidential candidate, and Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founder of the Special Olympics, Ms. Shriver was weaned on politics and public service. Now she is deploying her considerable charisma and political instincts both inside and outside "the Horseshoe," as the governor's inner sanctum is known.

As for her husband, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, Ms. Shriver helps to bridge the gap with the opposition so much that Democrats who want to get his ear often head directly to her.

"It's common knowledge that her office is the go-to place for a lot of Democrats," said Chris Lehane, a Democratic consultant in San Francisco. And in telling her husband when his message is getting lost and bringing together polarized politicians, Ms. Shriver is writing her own script, neither Hillary Rodham Clinton nor Nancy Reagan in approach.

Ms. Shriver speaks in the language of her best-selling books, touching on topics like Alzheimer's disease and death. "There's no job description for life, period," she said, when describing the need to resign from NBC News, where she was a correspondent. "It was the work I love and have always done, where my friends are, where my expertise is. It was, 'wait a minute, now what do I do?' It was a wobbly moment.

"But I was brought up hearing that people aren't interested in 'woe is me.' As my mother would say, 'moving right along now.' "

Among other things, she has moved on to women's issues. Despite much controversy and behind-the-scenes jockeying, the legislature signed off this month on Ms. Shriver's pet project - the California Museum for History, Women and the Arts. She plans to transform a nearly bankrupt history museum in downtown Sacramento into a sophisticated portrait of diversity and refutation of the vacuous Beach Boys blonde.

Like Minerva, the Roman goddess who graces the state seal (as well as a diamond necklace that was a gift from her husband), Ms. Shriver can be a warrior. She lanced last-minute accusations of her husband's sexual improprieties during the campaign, helping defuse the aftershocks particularly among liberal white women who make up 37 percent of the state's electorate. Ms. Shriver also reinforced the view that Mr. Schwarzenegger "is not a partisan figure, even in marriage," said Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll.

"She is as savvy as they come," said Gloria Romero, the state Senate's majority leader and Democrat from Los Angeles. "She has made him Terminator-tolerant, providing a cover for Democrats, especially women, who feel that if she can be married to him he must be O.K."

Early on, Ms. Shriver was widely credited with helping to persuade her husband to restore a cut in state programs for the developmentally disabled. Conferring often with "Team Maria" - staff members and friends like Nadine Schiff, a writer and producer: Jillian Manus, a literary agent; and Wanda McDaniel, a liaison to the stars at Giorgio Armani in Beverly Hills - Ms. Shriver is said to weigh in on key appointments, including that of Terry Tamminen, the governor's cabinet secretary, who worked with Waterkeeper Alliance, Robert Kennedy Jr.'s environmental group.

Ms. Shriver also hired Charlotte Schultz, the wife of former Secretary of State George P. Schultz, as the state's protocol chief.

"She is not in meetings taking over an issue like Hillary," said Bonnie Reiss, the governor's senior adviser, who first met Ms. Shriver in the late 1970's while both were campaigning for her uncle, Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts.

"But she has brilliant political instincts," Ms. Reiss continued. "She gives him feedback. She'll say, 'if I were a journalist. here's what I'd be asking.' She will say, 'your message on this and this is not getting across.' She sees how things play when she takes the kids to school. She'll hear from people. She's out there."

Brentwood may not exactly be Peoria. But as the political climate grows increasingly contentious, with the governor raising a $50 million war chest to promote ballot measures, Ms. Shriver has deftly played a behind-the-scenes role. "She is a great buffer," said Fabian Núñez, the speaker of the state Assembly, whom Mr. Schwarzenegger calls a big spender.

In the most telling example, when Mr. Núñez recently met with the governor, Ms. Shriver was in the room. A five-minute chat became an hour-long conversation that resulted in a politically useful play date - dinner at the Schwarzenegger mansion in Brentwood, with children and Don Perata, the president pro tem of the Senate, in attendance. Ms. Shriver made spaghetti and ribs for the kids and advised them on summer camp.

Earlier this year, she criticized legislators for not getting along, suggesting they needed a time-out. "You don't like your kids to fight," Ms. Shriver said in an interview. "You never would say to your kid, 'You can't play with the Democrats in the corner or the Republicans in pre-k.' You need to play with everybody."

Some critics of the governor, like the California Nurses Association - which has been at war with Mr. Schwarzenegger over his delaying a law to increase nurse staffing at hospitals - question how much influence his wife really has.

"He's thrown down the gauntlet and declared war on teachers and workers," said Judy Chu, a Democratic assemblywoman. "So where's the Kennedy influence?"

Unlike her predecessors as first lady - who include Sharon Davis, a sunny former flight attendant and public relations executive who warmed the image of her husband; Gloria Deukmejian, who grocery shopped for months unrecognized; and Nancy Reagan, who had a brief career as an actress - Ms. Shriver arrived with both the Kennedy imprimatur and a high-voltage career.

"She is a totally new model of a first lady," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political analyst and senior scholar at the University of Southern California's School of Policy, Planning and Development. Unlike Hillary Rodham Clinton, Professor Bebitch said, "Maria Shriver is not Maria Shriver Schwarzenegger."

Ms. Shriver has approached her new job in much the same way as her old one - in her words, as a storyteller. Ms. Shriver said she was struck when she walked into the Horseshoe for the first time and saw no photographs or references to California first ladies. "They were invisible," she recalled.

During the campaign, Ms. Shriver met with hundreds of accomplished women, and later spearheaded an exhibition called "California's Remarkable Women." Friends say she views the women's museum as a legacy. It first opened in 1998 as the Golden State Museum to showcase the state's archives and was on the verge of bankruptcy when the board approached Ms. Shriver as a potential savior.

Critics accused her of narrowing the museum's mission, and three board members resigned, partly at the prospect of more "remarkable women" like Elizabeth Taylor and Ruth Handler, creator of the Barbie doll. "That's why we have wax museums and Ripley's," said Tom Stallard, the founder of the nonprofit California state archive, who resigned.

The board is now salted with friends of Ms. Shriver. Anne Levin, a board member since its inception, said that when Ms. Shriver started talking about turning it into a women's museum, "there was no room for discussion. I was quite grateful for her energy and enthusiasm, but she is quite used to getting her own way." In the end, Ms. Levin added, Ms. Shriver was willing to compromise.

At a reception at the Capitol for the women honored by the legislature, Ms. Shriver spoke with honorees like Edna Aliewine, an 80-year-old community leader from Watts, and Dina Eastwood, a philanthropist whose husband, Clint, clutched his wife's pink suede purse.

Despite her upbringing in the public eye, Ms. Shriver remains intensely private, strictly controlling her image and public appearances. She keeps a rule of no more than one night a week away from home, spending most of her time with the couple's four children, ages 7 to 15.

She has tried to put the commute between Los Angeles and Sacramento in perspective for them, saying that thousands of children in military families see their parents far less frequently. "I explain to my kids, if you choose to be in an elected office or in the service, guess what?" she said.

Her emphasis on women's issues, noted Ms. Romero, the majority leader, lets Ms. Shriver stand by her husband, "but also make sure her values are part and parcel of the political discourse." It also stands to play well among Democrats and independents.

As he signed the museum legislation, Mr. Schwarzenegger gave copies to the bill's four authors, as is the custom. But there was a fifth copy. "That one he gave to her," Ms. Romero recalled. "He said, 'This one's for you, honey.' "

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