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Maria Shriver Emerges as Husband’s Chief Defender

Times Staff Writer

First, Maria Shriver was seen as the spoiler -- the one person with the power to veto a run for governor by her husband, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and she was expected to use it.

Then, when Schwarzenegger surprised the political world and announced he was running after all, Shriver turned into the public backer. On the steps of the Los Angeles County registrar-recorder’s office in Norwalk the day he filed papers to run, she declared: “I think he is a serious, compassionate, smart, calm man,” pausing for a half-beat after “smart,” taking aim at the naysayers and late-night comics who deride her husband for a lack of governing experience and his thick Austrian accent.

Now, after several weeks of being the offstage actor -- nowhere on the campaign trail but a constant presence at her husband’s campaign office, weighing in on key decisions including the hiring of senior staff -- Shriver is embarking on a more public role.

A star of NBC’s TV news division, now on leave, Shriver emerged Friday as her husband’s defender, implicitly shielding him from charges that he disrespects women.

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“I know that I would not be where I am today in my career, as a woman, without his support,” she told backers at the opening of a new volunteer center in Santa Monica, while protesters outside denounced Schwarzenegger for crude remarks he is reported to have made.

Today, she will be the surrogate for her husband, registering voters outside a Sacramento store and appearing without him at two fund-raisers, one in Redding and another in Yuba City.

“Here we go!” she said to one of her closest friends, Wanda McDaniel, after Schwarzenegger announced his intentions.

“I wish I was covering this story,” she said, wistfully, McDaniel recalled her saying. “In fact, I wish I was covering me.” Instead, she has crossed from her preferred role of chronicling the news to participating in it. Whether she will cross back if her husband becomes governor of California remains to be seen.

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“I would say it’s not prohibitive,” said NBC News president Neal Shapiro, who calls Shriver a smart, versatile interviewer and “a huge asset.”

Shriver declined several requests to be interviewed for this story, but suggested family members and friends to interview and quizzed at least one of them afterward.

At 47, she is a combination of old school and new. The niece of President John F. Kennedy, she made her own career and earns a seven-figure salary, but now finds herself treading a traditional path well-worn by other women in her family -- helping a political spouse win an election.

“It’s ironic she picked someone so outside the family business and now he’s going into the family business,” said Roberta Hollander, a CBS producer who mentored her and became a close friend.

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Aware of how brutal the political spotlight can be, “she understood the personal sacrifices,” says Bonnie Reiss, a senior campaign staffer and longtime friend of the couple. “But she’s also someone who will support her husband’s dream.”

Shriver never had any illusions that life with Arnold Schwarzenegger would be easy.

“I would have had to have been deaf, blind and incredibly stupid not to see that he was more than a handful,” she wrote in a slender volume of life lessons, published in 2000, and titled “Ten Things I Wish I’d Known -- Before I Went Out Into the Real World.”

She met Schwarzenegger in 1977 and fell in love with him immediately. She was 21, just two months out of Georgetown University. He was 30, an Austrian immigrant with an inflated physique, promoting the still offbeat sport of bodybuilding.

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Schwarzenegger had agreed to play in the Robert F. Kennedy Pro-Celebrity Tennis Tournament in Forest Hills, N.Y., as a gag. Over the weekend, he managed to charm the Shrivers, a close-knit family who have managed to escape much of the tragedy and scandal that have plagued other branches of the Kennedy clan.

Upon meeting Eunice Shriver, he told her, “Your daughter has a great body,” according to Maria’s older brother Bobby, 49.

That day, Maria Shriver impulsively invited Schwarzenegger to fly with her family to Hyannisport, Mass., the Kennedy family retreat. Schwarzenegger jumped on the plane with nothing more than the tennis togs on his back.

It was obvious Shriver had a crush on him, and over the course of the weekend, her brothers teased her and tested him, subjecting him to the sporting rituals cherished at the Kennedy compound but foreign to the Austrian bodybuilder. He was game for anything they made him do.

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“He went water skiing at night,” Bobby Shriver said.

She liked his playfulness, his outrageousness -- the things that made him charismatic as well as controversial, family members and friends say.

“The average guy who’s going to be nice and careful and friendly is kind of a bore,” said her younger brother, Timothy, 44.

“I think the stuff about the outrageous comments -- that’s his personality,” he added. “She rolls her eyes 12 times a day at stuff he says.”

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More serious have been stories over the years alleging that Schwarzenegger made sexual advances -- some unwanted -- to women he encountered. The stories, recounted in a lengthy article in Premiere magazine in 2001 and elsewhere, appear to have gotten Shriver’s attention.

“They had their discussions about that,” said Timothy Shriver. “The way it ended up is they’re fine, and their marriage is fine.”

One thing Shriver learned from growing up as part of the Kennedy family was how to treat sexual rumors about your husband, relatives say.

“Honestly, our whole lives, everybody we knew had that rumor,” Bobby Shriver said. “So what? Everybody says they slept with someone. I don’t thinks she pays that much attention to it.”

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“Arnold is funny, energetic, determined, smart, he’s out there,” said Timothy Shriver. “And I think for Maria that’s kind of how she wants to live her life. She wants to be out there.”

The couple have built a life around their four children -- Katherine, 13; Christina, 12; Patrick, 9; and Christopher, 5 -- and Shriver is “the epicenter of that family,” McDaniel said.

Between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. on weekdays, Shriver has said, she shuts off phones in their 11,000-square-foot home in a gated area of Brentwood to concentrate on the children and their homework. Sundays, the family attends Mass at St. Monica’s Catholic Church.

She has a close and loyal group of girlfriends, dubbed the “kitchen cabinet” by Schwarzenegger -- although the one thing that Shriver apparently cannot do is cook.

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Nick Chavez, her hairdresser of 10 years, calls her a low-maintenance client who will cuddle with her children while wearing an Armani gown and having her hair styled at her home before major events.

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say anything bad about her,” said Chavez. “And I know -- I’m a hairdresser.”

Friends say Shriver has yet to indulge in Botox or any cosmetic surgery and will sometimes joke when told of someone who has been nipped and tucked: “Haven’t they heard of sit-ups?”

In Schwarzenegger, friends say, Shriver saw a kindred soul. He was reinventing himself outside his native Austria as she was inventing herself professionally outside her family.

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She had wanted to be a television news anchor since her high school days in 1972, riding in the back of the plane with the press corps covering her father, Sargent Shriver, as he ran for vice president on George McGovern’s ticket.

She was fascinated by the impact the reporters had, particularly the television reporters. After college, she worked her way up, enduring the news director who told her his newsroom wasn’t for “rich little dilettantes” and the agent who told her to change her nasal voice and lose 25 pounds before he would even consider helping her. (She did both.)

On local television in Baltimore, she became friends with another up-and-coming television personality, Oprah Winfrey. (Campaign sources have talked for several weeks about the possibility of a Shriver and Schwarzenegger appearance on Winfrey’s program sometime between now and the election.)

More than a decade ago, with some trepidation, she gave up commuting between her Los Angeles home and her East Coast weekend anchoring duties and took on a reduced workload, doing 10 to 15 stories a year -- as opposed to the usual 20 to 30 -- so she could spend more time parenting.

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The cutback may have stalled her ascension to a position anchoring a prime-time news magazine, according to her agent Richard Leibner, but she has still risen to the top ranks at NBC as contributing anchor to the NBC News magazine show, “Dateline.”

Now, she has immersed herself in the campaign, involving herself in every part of the process -- staffing, voter registration, image-making.

Few in the campaign would speak on the record about the delicate topic of where a political wife, especially one as prominent as Shriver, fits.

Her background as a member of a famous liberal, Democratic family could complicate efforts by the campaign to consolidate support among Republicans, said Arnold Steinberg, a veteran Republican strategist not connected to the campaign.

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At the same time, she can bring “tremendous positive energy” to the campaign, he said.

Some strategists familiar with the campaign see Shriver, despite her upbringing around veteran politicians, as more of a novice than she sees herself.

“It’s like the guy who’s seen every Dodger game for the past eight years and now wants to be the manager,” said one Republican strategist who asked not to be named.

Other strategists not connected with the campaign say they would thrust her more front and center.

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“I would put her out on the road, moving around,” said Bill Carrick, a prominent Democratic political consultant. “Arnold in particular has problems with women voters, and she’s a strong potential surrogate for women voters and Democrats in general. She can give Democrats a comfort level with Republicans they don’t normally have.”

Senior campaign aides say Shriver’s view is crucial on important decisions.

She was deeply involved in the hiring of strategist Mike Murphy, who helped direct John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2000, said campaign officials who also say that along with her cousin, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., she helped assemble environmental advisors for the campaign.

Timothy Shriver said his sister’s main concern is making sure Schwarzenegger “doesn’t get buffeted by changing opinions.”

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“She understands who he is -- his commitment to social justice, economic discipline, a competitive free market, his interest in education. She wants to make sure what goes out is him,” he said.

“I don’t think she has veto power, it’s not that kind of relationship. But there’s nobody on the planet he respects more than her.”

But her friends and family point out that part of her value to Schwarzenegger is being the least self-interested person at the table.

“One hundred percent of her agenda is Arnold -- she doesn’t want a job in policy,” said Bobby Shriver. “You cross Arnold, and Maria will cut your head off. Whether it’s agents or campaign managers, if anyone does something to Arnold she doesn’t like, watch out.”

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