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Shriver or Schwarzenegger: Whose reinvention is working better?

PoliticsAEGSpecial Olympics

Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver, California’s most, ah, colorful former first couple, were back in the news this week.

On Tuesday, using his own life as an example of the American Dream, Schwarzenegger argued for immigration reform during a panel discussion at his USC institute. Also Tuesday, Shriver announced she’d return to NBC as a special anchor focusing on women’s issues.

Which raises the question: Whose reinvention is working out better?

Since leaving office in 2011 and being forced to reveal he had fathered a child with his family housekeeper, Schwarzenegger has tried to return to his former life as a cartoonish action hero.

It’s been bumpy going. He’s done a few cameos in movies like “The Expendables.” Plans for a Stan Lee collaboration on a comic book character called “The Governator” fell through. A memoir, billed as a “tell-all,” was panned as “almost completely devoid of self-examination.”

Recently, he said he’d be starring in a “Conan the Barbarian” sequel out next year. He’s struggled to stay relevant in politics, having endowed the Schwarzenegger Institute at USC, which has a very nice website and seems to be devoted to holding conferences and panel discussions to keep his name in the news.

Shriver, whose work as the state’s first lady revolved around various women’s causes and pet issues close to her family, such as Alzheimer’s and the Special Olympics, has taken on the persona of struggling mid-life everywoman.

It’s not an entirely apt fit, given her elite status as a member of one of America’s royal families and her fame. But that lousy husband of hers has given her a new kind of cred. She knows from broken families and broken hearts, and despite the whiff of elitism that attaches itself to any Kennedy, she has been trying to figure out this unexpected new chapter of her life in veiled but honest ways. 

Her blog is relentlessly upbeat, but she drops hints of her pain. One photo features a silver necklace with a ripped heart, its jagged edges stitched together with blood red cord. I tried in vain to find the word “Schwarzenegger” anywhere on her website. When she writes about her experience as California’s first lady, it’s as if she was elected to the job without having been required to be married to the man who was, in fact, the governor.

I don’t blame her for erasing him wherever possible. Was there a woman whose heart didn’t break for Shriver and her four children when my colleagues Mark Barabak and Victoria Kim reported in 2011 what her husband had done?

What I do blame her for is vouching for her husband on the eve of the 2003 election after six women told The Times he’d sexually groped them: “I’ve known this man for 26 years,” Shriver said. “I’ve been married to him for 17. He’s an extraordinary father, a remarkable husband, a terrific human being. He has the character to be governor, the temperament to be governor and he is a leader for all of you.”

Many believe her calming words helped sway the race in his favor.

Well, what would you expect a wife to do? Oh, that, for sure. But when it all came crashing down, she should have taken some responsibility for foisting him off on the public as a man of character.

Still, when all is said and done, I’m on Team Maria. I wish her luck in her new job. I hope she finds some good stories to tell.

As for Schwarzenegger, meh.

When he was governor, I used to see him riding his bicycle at Santa Monica beach. Surprised and delighted passersby would yell greetings. The last time I saw him, a few months after the scandal, a group of middle-aged women out for their morning power walk noticed him whizzing by on his bike, security at his side.

“That’s Arnold,” one said. “Ugh.”

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Twitter: @robinabcarian

robin.abcarian@latimes.com 

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