By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 2, 2010; C01
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."
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
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.
In 1985, the year before her marriage to Schwarzenegger (a star-studded gala that featured Uncle Teddy dancing with Grace Jones), Maria got her biggest break, being tapped to co-anchor the "CBS Morning News" program with Forrest Sawyer. The show flopped. The Washington Post's Tom Shales wrote that Sawyer was "partnered on the program with Maria Shriver's hair. Shriver does not look as if she cares about the answers to many questions except 'Where's my brush?' and 'What time will Arnold be home?' She sucks in her cheeks and deflates her face, looking a little like one of those cartoon characters who got slipped a dose of alum."
In an interview, Sawyer says that "the network execs were tugging and pulling, and it's hard to know what's happening and why." Shriver's "political savvy" helped him triangulate the chess moves, he says.
When the show was pulled, Shriver was "pissed off" and "felt sure my career, if not my life, was over," she writes in "Ten Things." Shriver looks back on her reaction as "overly dramatic," just as she sometimes calls herself a "drama queen" and a "whiner."
In 2003, having established herself at NBC, there was more drama. Schwarzenegger decided that he wanted to run for governor. Shriver didn't want him to, but eventually embraced the campaign.
Her friend, Manus, the literary agent, remembers a spontaneous campaign stop that Shriver insisted on making at the Stanford Shopping Center in Palo Alto. "That's what Democrats do," Manus, an active Republican, remembers her friend telling her. "You should have seen people's faces! They would say, 'I'm absolutely voting for Maria!' I'd say, 'Don't you mean, Arnold?' And they'd say, 'Maria!' "
Schwarzenegger's victory celebration was "an out-of-body experience," Shriver says. She smiled at his side, but her inner voice was saying, "What in the name of God just happened? This is a disaster."
Two months after Schwarzenegger's inauguration, Shriver quit her job as a "Dateline NBC" reporter because of concerns within the network about her serving in public office while being a journalist. "She felt like, 'What the hell happened?' " Bobby Shriver says. "Whenever I see [former NBC chief] Jeff Zucker, I tell him, 'You're so smart? You're the guy who fired Maria.' He says, 'No, I didn't.' And I say, 'Yes, you did. You made a lot of dumb decisions, but that was the dumbest.' "
So, at age 49, the Kennedy kin who didn't want to go into the family biz was suddenly in the family biz -- all the way. You can just hear her saying it to herself: "What's next?"Media circuses
It's a cloudy Saturday morning in Southern California. The radio has tired of Lindsay Lohan, but is warming to Charlie Sheen. Yes, she's going to rehab again; no, he's not.
Lohan mania escapes Shriver. She scoffs when asked what she thinks about all the hubbub. "What sorts of stations are you listening to?" she asks. When I tell her the Lohan story was all over KNX 1070 News Radio, the respected CBS station, she merely shrugs. Shriver was so piqued by the media circus surrounding the death of Anna Nicole Smith that she said she called NBC and said that she would not be returning to network news.
Back at the pyramid in Long Beach, a guy in a T-shirt that says "Floor Leader" is poised at the bottom of a steep staircase waiting for Shriver's second visit, this time with her husband and the media in tow. A door swings open at the top, and Schwarzenegger saunters through in a blue blazer with red, white and blue-striped lining. He's heavily entouraged -- a couple of military commanders, security ("They're California Highway Patrol," one woman says. "Sooo much better-dressed than Secret Service."), the seriously upstaged mayor of Long Beach, Shriver and another teenage son, Christopher Schwarzenegger, in track shorts and a T-shirt. He obliges Mom as she brushes the hair out of his eyes.
Schwarzenegger, Shriver and their posse stroll down the steps, moving slowly as the crowd shuffles about below, gawkers sliding past the rows of dentist's chairs and the counseling table for the "un-banked" poor who don't have checking accounts, angling for the best view. Schwarzenegger keeps things light, joining Shriver for a group hug with an elderly community activist. "I see a lotttt of sweet sugar here!" he says flirtily.
An elderly woman manages to stop the governor for a few moments and hands him an envelope to pass to Shriver, but she's right behind him and he makes a quick handoff. On the outside, the woman, Cynthia Sims, has written "Governess." Shriver smiles. "Yes, that's me," she says, chirpily. Women, in particular, are drawn to her. She has a gift for making them feel comfortable, dissolving the awkwardness that can sometimes envelope a celebrity encounter.
Growing up in a political family may have been a burden to Shriver, but her pedigree is part of what makes her public love her. "She's beautiful. And she comes from such a great family," gushes Sandra Calvio, a volunteer. "Comes from a long line of Kennedys!" says Denise Johnson, who has come by for a few free services. "Her whole family has been giving to the public for generations," says Dell Goodrick, a volunteer dentist.
Shriver's image beams down from a large banner across the aisle. It has been almost seven years since she became first lady of California. On her first day, Manus recalls, "a handful of us were sitting in the first lady's office. [Shriver] looked around and said, 'There is nothing here.' There was no paper, no pens, no ledger. . . . She looked at us and said, 'What do we have to work with?' "
Shriver, once again, would have to decide "What's next?" She wasn't going to be telling the story -- she was the story. "The short answer is: brutal," Timothy Shriver says of the emotional effect of the transition on his sister. "The longer answer is that she tried to use it to help people."
Before her first year in office had ended, she found herself accused of a "power grab" when she tried to reinvent a struggling history museum to focus on women. Shriver eventually agreed to a broader focus, but the controversy lingered.
Tom Stallard, one of three board members who resigned in protest, says he admires Shriver, but "we were hoping for her help, not realizing that it would come with a complete change in direction."
Shriver responded to the criticism by writing a column, touting attendance gains and dismissing any notion of a "sinister power grab."
"I am a journalist and facts are a part of my life," she wrote.
The storyteller clings to her old identity, even as she is establishing a new one.The messenger
A year ago, at the Special Olympics Winter Games, Shriver was watching as one of the athletes struggled to be heard over the buzz of an audience that chatted and mingled, essentially ignoring the woman's speech. When she finished, Shriver grabbed the microphone and took control: "All of you just missed one of the great examples of courage. She had the guts, the strength to stand here and tell her story," Timothy Shriver remembers her saying.
"You could hear a pin drop in the room after that," he says.
The story that Shriver was so irked about the audience missing was unfiltered. Straight from the athlete's mouth to the ears of the few who listened. Shriver relishes that same opportunity.
As a journalist, she tells the crowd at her women's conference, she was the "messenger of other people's truths." What's next for her seems more likely to be more about her truths. More than 14,000 women pack the Long Beach Convention Center for the conference -- they arrive in power suits and pumps, too busy checking BlackBerrys to be impressed by Goldie Hawn sauntering into the arena or the lines of limousines and chauffeur-driven town cars.
Shriver super-sized the conference, once a sleepy affair, leveraging her mega-wattage friendships to assemble a list of speakers and panelists that includes the two most recent first ladies -- Michelle Obama and Laura Bush -- not to mention Oprah and Mary J. Blige, former Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O'Connor and ABC News anchor Diane Sawyer.
The conference -- which supports Shriver's "We Programs," which give out scholarships and have distributed more than $1 million in micro-loans to women-owned businesses -- is a heady blend of life-/career-counseling and commerce. When the women aren't getting advice from Suze Orman ("the Lady Gaga of Finance") or Kym Douglas ("the MacGyver of Beauty") and others, they are stuffing shopping bags and swiping credit cards in a vast hall set up with hundreds of booths hawking everything from jewelry to an $8,000 gadget that combines a crystal rod and computer software into a "tool for awakening positive vibrational change." In the bookstore, women feast on offerings from the Kennedy Diaspora Industrial Complex, with titles from Shriver; her cousin Caroline Kennedy; and her daughter Katherine Schwarzenegger.
Many at the conference wonder what will happen to the event when Shriver leaves office. There's that question again -- "What's next?"
In her speech, Shriver says she knows that it's time to make choices, but she's "afraid" to move forward without her mother's advice. The women in the hall -- affluent, ambitious, successful -- are, in some respects, the world's greatest focus group. Shriver asks herself the question that she can't bear hearing from others. It's almost as if she's thinking aloud. Perhaps, she says, she'll do her "own women's conference."
Right on cue, she gets her answer. The audience cheers her on.