Image: Maria Shriver Visits Red Cross Releaf Center In El Cajon
Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger's wife, Maria Shriver, has said she intends to return to her NBC News job.
updated 11/16/2003 8:20:46 AM ET 2003-11-16T13:20:46

Maria Shriver is destined to be a glamorous California first lady given her family pedigree, fashionable looks and Hollywood patina courtesy of her husband. At the same time, the television journalist could be raising the bar of accomplishment for political spouses.

SHRIVER, 47, HAS said she intends to return to NBC News from her campaign leave of absence, which would make her the first California governor’s wife to hold a paying job. She’ll be raising four children, ages 5 to 13, in Los Angeles while her husband works mostly in Sacramento.

Behind the scenes, Shriver, part of the Democratic Kennedy dynasty, could also be a quiet but critically important influence on Republican Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“She comes from a political family where women have a significant role — Jackie Kennedy, Ethel Kennedy, her own mother. ... They may not have been elected, but they have impacted the men they’re married to,” said Barbara O’Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and the Media at Sacramento State University.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Shriver said she has yet to figure out how she will juggle all the demands on her time, but she stressed that her children are her most important commitment.

Shriver has plenty of experience balancing family and career. In a 2000 book, she recounted asking Cuban leader Fidel Castro to reschedule an interview that would have conflicted with taking one daughter to her first day of school.

As her husband’s Nov. 17 inauguration approaches, she has begun to sketch out ideas about her service as first lady.

“For me, it’s one more role,” she said. “I don’t look at it as a quote ‘first lady’ role. I look at it as a citizen role. ... I approach this as a journalist - really,” she said. “I ask myself at the end of the day, what did I accomplish?”

Shriver’s value to Schwarzenegger during the election, both publicly and behind the scenes, was undeniable.

After the actor-turned-candidate was accused of lecherous behavior toward women, groping them on movie sets or making unwanted advances, Shriver stepped forward with forceful and unswervingly loyal campaign speeches.

“I wouldn’t be standing here if this man weren’t an A-plus human being,” she told one gathering of women.

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She was equally good at strategy, summoning both her expertise as a journalist and her background as a child of politics. As a teenager, she watched her father, Sargent Shriver, campaign as George McGovern’s running mate in 1972. Her mother, Eunice, is a sister of President John F. Kennedy.

Rumored to be initially hesitant about the effect Schwarzenegger’s political aspirations would have on their lives, Shriver ended up a key team player.

“She was like the secret weapon of the press office,” said Todd Harris, a campaign spokesman. “She understands both sides of this business better than anyone on the planet and she was able to provide insightful guidance for those of us dealing with media issues.”

Shriver was credited with a staff shakeup in the campaign’s crucial early days and with crafting a theme for Schwarzenegger.

“Arnold is a change agent; Arnold is strong enough to make a change and compassionate enough to understand what the state needs,” was the message she helped hone, her brother Timothy Shriver told The New York Times.

Schwarzenegger began his election night victory speech with a tribute to his wife, telling her: “I know how many votes I got today because of you.”

But those who assume Shriver will have the same impact on California’s political course may be off base.

While acknowledging that she will be her husband’s most trusted counselor and confidant, veteran GOP strategist Ken Khachigian said that doesn’t mean she’ll be a policy-maker.

“If I could be so bold as to use a term that might not be PC, I see it more as pillow talk,” Khachigian said.

Just as in the campaign, however, Shriver is likely to swing into action if things go off course.

“If his staff is not serving him well, she’ll probably be one of the first to see it and correct it. She’ll be a good troubleshooter,” Khachigian said.

Former Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican and Schwarzenegger adviser, acknowledged that Shriver is sure to play a major role as first lady — to a point.

“I’m sure she has strong opinions because she is a strong woman and she, in her own right, has achieved star status as a newscaster and reporter,” Wilson said. “But I think she also understands he was elected as a Republican and he has strong views, too.

“She is well aware he will take positions her uncle Ted (Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.) would not like.”

Some of Wilson’s former staff members will serve in the new administration, and O’Connor, of the Sacramento State institute, said she believes Shriver’s influence could “counterbalance” them, but only if she has time.

“She’s raising four children, actively raising them from all accounts,” O’Connor said. “There’s only so many hours in the day. If she’s also reporting and trying to be first lady of California, they’re going to have to clone her.”

© 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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