The Magazine

It's All About MARIA

Musings from California's Mom.

Sep 8, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 48 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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"When I think of California, I like to believe that WE [sic] are one big family," says Maria Shriver. She is the state's first lady and wife of Arnold Schwarzenegger, the beefcake governor who is expected to do another of his star turns at the Republican convention this week. Maria has acted on this idea of hers, of state-as-family, in a way that casts a soft but revealing glow on the government of California, and perhaps on the national government too, soon enough.

If California is a family, Maria gets to be mom, ex officio. The revelation came upon her only recently. She describes the painful parturition in her new book, Just Who Will You Be? The book climbed the New York Times bestseller list after its author made an appearance on Oprah. ("I cried," Maria told the host, as all Oprah guests must. "I still cry.") It's a very short book. The first line is this: "Just who I am has a lot to do with me."

For a while there, though, Maria didn't know who she was, and the consequences of her identity crisis have been far-reaching. The crisis followed her husband's election in 2003. She had been working for many years as a second-string on-air personality at NBC. In one of those weird, pointless spasms of scrupulosity that convulse television people at random intervals, her network bosses asked her to resign to avoid any potential conflicts of interest. This is when she started crying.

"Sometimes life happens to you," she recalls, "and-bingo!-your idea of who you thought you are just goes up in smoke. That's what happened to me." So she embarked on a "journey" to answer the question, "What do I want to be when I grow up?" She's 52. "I'd have to take the time to know what I feel," she writes, "in order to know who I am and who I want to be."

The journey is over, for now anyway. At its conclusion, you won't be dumbfounded to learn, she discovered that she, Maria, this lost soul, this searcher, was, down deep, really pretty terrific: a "free-spirited, adventurous, and creative person inside," is how she describes herself. She goes on: "I've been amazed to discover I'm actually a nurturing and spiritual person who seeks joy, peace, and meaning in her life." Who could have guessed? "That's who I am," she repeats, for emphasis. "What matters most to me now is what I expect of myself. What matters most to me now is that I know myself-what my heart feels, what my inner voice is telling me."

Here's where the state of California comes in. Not long after finishing her book, and as a consequence of her journey, Maria used her replenished vigor to launch "It's All About WE," a hydra-headed program and "call to action" aimed at Californians, which is good since they're paying for it. It's an unexpected role for her to pursue with such enthusiasm. As Maria made clear to Oprah and in her book, being a Kennedy (John F. Kennedy was her uncle) and a semi-famous TV star, being the mother of four kids and helpmate to the world's most famous mesomorph-none of these roles had been finally fulfilling for her. But the role she resisted most fiercely, at least at the beginning, was that of First Lady of California.

"'You've got to be kidding!' " she recalls thinking. " 'That's not me! I didn't grow up wanting to be First Lady of anything!' But there I found myself, and I didn't have a clue what to do."

Now at her journey's end, however, with her new identity as nurturer safely in hand, she has embraced the role and the title. In open letters to the people of California, she even signs herself as "Your First Lady." And "It's All About WE" is the first fruits of the new Maria. The phrase has been trademarked.

So what is it, exactly? I'm not sure. I've been studying it for several days. The name is as good a place to start as any. It's a play on the cliché, "It's all about me," obviously. This is supposedly what narcissists say. "He thinks it's all about him" and "It's not all about you" have become common insults, directed at a person so lost in himself that he fails to take account of other people. So Maria took the phrase, turned it upside down, and invented a rhyme with a new plural pronoun: "It's All About WE" instead of "It's All About ME." Okay? She wanted to emphasize that her program's communitarian nature is an antidote to self-absorption. I can't explain why she uppercased the "WE."