Kennedy kin Maria Shriver readies for life after California governor's mansion

After spending years interviewing some of the world's top political figures and celebrities, former TV journalist Maria Shriver spends her time these days serving as the First Lady of California. And her philanthropic efforts play a major part of that role.
By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 2, 2010

LONG BEACH, CALIF. -- The flotilla of publicists, assistants and advance people orbiting California's first lady like to refer to themselves as "Team Maria." They inhabit a time-space continuum some of them call "Maria World."

In Maria World, Maria Shriver does the narrating. She wants to tell her story, to own it, to define it, to define herself. She emotes onstage and in best-selling books, speaking and writing poignantly about personal moments, bringing audiences and readers to tears with moving, well-crafted testimonials about overcoming her fears, the pain of losing her mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, and the trials of motherhood.

Her engaging voice and enduring star power combine to forge a highly marketable, though still-evolving, model -- part motivational speaker, part Alzheimer's research and women's empowerment activist, part pop psychologist and advice guru. Her life story underpins it all, lending instant credibility and visibility. But, for this onetime television reporter and anchor, relinquishing control over the storytelling can be unsettling.

An innocuous question -- "What are your plans when your tenure as first lady ends in January?" -- sets her off one afternoon during an interview at a health-care event that she's organized in advance of the final installment of her much-lauded annual women's conference here. Shriver's eyes flash. Her jaw hardens.

"Everybody asks me all day, 'Are you leaving? What are you going to do next? Are you going to run for office?' " she says, leaning against a railing in a pyramid-shaped arena at California State University at Long Beach. "That's why I don't do interviews -- because people ask me that question all the time."

It's curious -- and kind of sad -- to hear Shriver, 54, complain about being interviewed. She spent the greater part of her adult life seeking comment and chasing interviews, landing some big names in her long network TV career, such as Philippine President Corazon Aquino, Jordan's King Hussein and Cuban strongman Fidel Castro. In her 2000 book, "Ten Things I Wish I'd Known Before I Went Out Into the Real World," she reminisces fondly about "crawling on all fours under a table" at Cannes to beat the competition to an interview with Robert De Niro. She and her producer laughed about it. De Niro didn't.

Shriver's present-day reconsideration of the merits of interviews makes Team Maria stiffen. Later, the Team will make apologies -- "Maria hates talking about herself." But, for now, the Team looks, well, uneasy.

Shriver has, as they say in the TV biz, "presence." Her cheeks rise enviably, forming two corners of an isosceles triangle with a sharply pointed chin at the tip of a face that is all angles. Bone structure, she's got. She dresses casual cool, showing up for a walk-through at the health-care event in stylish slate-colored cowboy boots and returning the next day in black leather boots and a purple tee with ribbon embellishments, her long mane tamed by a plastic clip.

Friends and relatives invariably describe her as monumentally compassionate and charming, giving and driven, and they almost always add "tough." She "eats people up and spits them out," says Shriver's friend, Jillian Manus, a high-octane literary agent and a guiding light of the "Broad Squad" of successful women.

Timothy Shriver, head of the Special Olympics, an organization founded by their mother, describes his only sister as "a hugely powerful human being." In their matriarchal family, "Maria's at the head of the table." He and his three brothers form the "column of ducks following the matriarch."

At this moment in the arena in Long Beach, the matriarch grasps for control of the uncontrollable. The fundamental conceit of an interview is that the interviewer decides what to ask. But Shriver wants to assemble ducks in rows. "That's enough," she snaps at the photographer Team Maria has sanctioned to join the interview. He's far from a paparazzo, but Shriver affects the demeanor of the besieged starlet ambushed outside a Los Angeles nightclub.

In fact, asking a question that Shriver doesn't want to answer can almost be interpreted as an act of aggression. "People are always trying to get you off what you're trying to do," she says. They'll pester, " 'When's the next book?' " she says. "People are very focused on what's next. I'm trying to focus on the achievement of this day."

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