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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.

Shriver suggests some questions that would be proper to ask her: "Is this well-run?" she wonders rhetorically about her "Modern House Call," a precisely orchestrated and orderly event that provides free dental work, health screenings and financial advice to hundreds of needy women. "Is it right to do it? Is it sustainable?" she says.

The interviewee tries to become the interviewer and the interviewee. So I play along and ask all the questions that Shriver suggests. I'm interested to know what she wants me to know, but also to watch her assume the role of questioner and answerer, as if she's conducting a sit-down with a ventriloquist-doll version of herself.

After running through the list -- yes, it's well-run and it's right to do it; it's not only sustainable but could be taken nationwide -- she declares without a hint of irony: "We're having a mind-meld."

Looking to the future

What's next?

One wonders why this is such a difficult question in Maria World. Shriver the storyteller gives hints in fragments and quips scattered over the years.

Membership in the closest thing to an America royal family comes with expectations. The first assumption was always that Shriver would run for office. "People have been asking that since before first grade," Shriver says at the arena in Long Beach.

She celebrated her fifth birthday two days before her uncle, John F. Kennedy, was elected president. Two uncles -- JFK and Robert F. Kennedy -- had been assassinated before she was 13. When she was 16, she was tagging along with the vice presidential campaign of her father, Sargent Shriver, now 94 and grappling with Alzheimer's.

She writes in "Ten Things" that people told her "to get out of denial, stop fighting the family tradition, and go into politics." Looking back, she really "did not like growing up in a political family," Shriver tells the audience last week at her annual women's conference.

She dreamed of anchoring a network television show, having become entranced by the reporting life while traveling in the press section during her father's campaign. Everyone thought that "she was nuts."

"We came from the run-the-program part of the family; the others came from the run-for-office part of the family," Shriver's brother Bobby says one afternoon at a benefit for Project360, an apparel and accessories company that supports Alzheimer's research and other causes. The company was co-founded by Maria's teenage son Patrick Schwarzenegger, whose six-pack abs have already become objects of tabloid fascination.

As Maria veered from the family biz, she demonstrated certain instincts. "She had judgment about people who were young, who were very talented and hardworking, but before they were famous," Bobby says. While working at a television station in Baltimore, she began an enduring friendship with another young woman with big small-screen dreams -- Oprah Winfrey. She also met her future husband, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who had been a champion bodybuilder and was launching an acting career, before he achieved international action-movie superstardom.

Bobby Shriver, now mayor of Santa Monica, remembers Schwarzenegger jumping at an impromptu invitation to Cape Cod, Mass. "He came without a suitcase -- it was a little hard to get him properly outfitted," he says. The four Shriver boys "hazed" the new boyfriend "a lot," Bobby recalls. A favorite tactic was dragging him out for night water-skiing.

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