WASHINGTON – Maria Shriver's (search) defense of her husband's honor during a scrappy recall election may have helped Arnold Schwarzenegger (search) get elected governor of California, making history in the process.
A professional journalist and celebrity in her own right, Shriver is expected to bring her style, pedigree and stalwart support of her spouse to her new role as first lady of the most populous state in the union.
“She has to carve out a public position for herself," said Gil Troy, McGill University history professor and author of "Mr. And Mrs. President: From the Trumans to the Clintons." "The question is what kind of public position will she carve out, and how much room will the people of California give her to experiment."
The answer to those questions, according to Susan Estrich (search), a Democratic strategist and member of Schwarzenegger’s transitional committee, is "No one knows, including her.
"She was talking to NBC about going back to work. She was also talking about going to her children's school, and back to her volunteer work," Estrich said. "Is she going to be able to balance those roles? I don’t even know if she knows yet. I do know this — she is 100 percent behind whatever it takes to support her husband."
When allegations of sexual misconduct threatened to thwart the last days of Schwarzenegger’s gubernatorial campaign, Shriver’s Oct. 3 speech before a Republican women’s group in Newport Beach illustrated her own gravitas as a public speaker, and as an asset to her husband’s political career, said some observers.
"She is absolutely stupendous in forums, she is so earnest and confident and believable – it’s her business to be that way — but I also think it's genuine," said Barbara O’Connor, a California State University professor of political communication.
"She is incredibly bright and I think her energy and support of her husband helped to quash many of the late campaign charges," O'Connor added.
The niece of the late John F. Kennedy, Shriver is the daughter of Eunice Kennedy (search) and R. Sargeant Shriver, who together founded the Peace Corps. She is also a well-known correspondent for "Dateline NBC" and occasional substitute for Katie Couric on the "Today Show." Shriver started out her journalistic career as a reporter in Philadelphia before moving to Los Angeles, where she became a correspondent for CBS News' morning show.
Shriver and Schwarzenegger met in 1977, when Schwarzenegger was still a bodybuilder and budding actor. He went on to become a Hollywood action hero, making a name for himself first in 1982's "Conan the Barbarian" and then sealing his celebrity in 1984's "The Terminator." The two married in 1986 and have four children, two boys and two girls.
Despite different party affiliations, Schwarzenegger reportedly has a warm relationship with his in-laws, and has taken advantage of their political acumen. Her political birthright will also come in handy for Shriver, whom experts say will bring to her new role not only the strength of a loyal and supportive spouse, but also that of a formidable political ally.
“I think she brings the perfect resume for a governor who needs to build coalitions and bridges between the two parties,” said O’Connor. “She is the crowned royalty of the Democratic Party and she grew up with most of the icons of the Democratic Party — most of which appeared on stage with her husband."
Schwarzenegger's link to the Kennedy clan may pay off as he tries to negotiate with the state Legislature, dominated by liberal Democrats in safe seats.
"He’s got to get along with people who idolize the Kennedys — that’s not a bad position for [Shriver] to be in,” said Estrich.
But Troy warned that Shriver's support for her husband betrays the curse of the Kennedy women, many of whom have had to put on a brave public face while their husbands were accused of misconduct with women.
"The Kennedy women have been caricatured as the long sufferers of randy men,” he said. "[Shriver and Schwarzenegger] are half a scandal away from that, so I say, proceed with caution.”
Troy also cautioned that Shriver, who is used to the celebrity — and control — of her own high profile career, might be forced to modify her persona, or at least conform to the traditional expectations of the role of first lady.
"My advice is to start safe, start charitable, start community-oriented,” said Troy. “Carve out a role for yourself as a do-gooder, and as a do-gooder you could end up doing a lot of good.
"But to be perceived as a micromanager, she will be doing harm to both her and her husband," Troy said.
Bill Whalen of the Hoover Institute said that the Shriver-Schwarzenegger marriage is balanced and reciprocal. Shriver gets as much strength from Schwarzenegger — who as an immigrant had to "kick down doors" to get to where he is — as she gets from him.
"She completes him — that’s the best way to look at it," he said.
Richard Semiatin, a professor at American University, guessed that Shriver will find a way to reconcile the protocol and obligations of first lady, with her own career and the positive influence she has already on his politics.
“I think she will be a less conventional first lady,” he said. “But in California, that’s OK.”