"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."
I've noticed also that the grammatical problem-using the subjective pronoun "we" as the object of a preposition-doesn't seem to faze her, even though it makes solecisms inevitable. "We can be a state powered by WE," Governor Schwarzenegger has been forced to say on a few public occasions. English is his second language, of course, so maybe nobody notices, but Maria, who has written a great deal about WE, isn't a stickler about these things, either. You can tell by reading her stuff. She insists that she was a "TV journalist" in her earlier career, and the prose in her recent columns bears this out. "It is important," she wrote last fall, "for ideals that encompass service, such as compassion and caring, are woven in roles of leadership."
Even so, "It's All About WE" has a lot to do with words. It's heavily word-dependent, you might say. Maria's first lady web page, featured prominently on the State of California's website, would generate reams of paper if you were dumb enough to print everything out. There are pages upon pages of pictures too. They show Your First Lady surrounded, -Ceausescu-like, by amputees, derelicts, Special Olympians, oldsters, soldiers, farmers, and children of every human variety. They are all smiling at Maria. And the words tell why.
"Maria Shriver has transformed the role of First Lady," we read on her website,
issuing calls to action that have resounded across the state and have transcended party, gender, and economic lines. She believes "It's All About WE" and in the transformative power of working together to achieve a positive legacy for California. . . . "It's All About WE" represents Shriver's boldly creative, nurturant, and entrepreneurial vision.
Read it as often as you like, you'll get only hints of what it is that "It's All About WE" actually does. Hints may be all there are. Under "It's All About WE," Maria "partners with" (new verb, meaning: "shakes down") dozens of large corporations, most of whom do business with the state, to pay for an annual Women's Conference attended by 14,000 women. At the conference Maria awards "Maria's Minervas" to deserving "California women," including her mother, Eunice Shriver, who lives in Maryland. The food booths are sponsored by Lean Cuisine.
"WE" also sponsors "the most complete source of school gardening resources in the State." It provides a website for charities that need volunteers. It "provides disaster preparedness" tools-booklets mostly, including a "customizable children's story designed to teach children how to be disaster prepared in a fun, non-threatening way." It sponsored an event called WE eat, WE play, WE prepare, and WE serve, "to communicate information that teaches families how to connect to each other." It encourages visits to the California Museum for History, Women, and the Arts, in Sacramento, where "WE dream." (Dreaming in Sacramento?) It "provides individuals with developmental disabilities a chance to excel in jobs that give them satisfaction"-an up-to-date version of the old program, "Hire the Handicapped."
In fact everything about "It's All About WE" is up-to-date. That's why it's so instructive to those of us outside California. Like so many west-coast innovations, it is state of the art, the modern welfare state in its spiffiest form. With boundless optimism, Maria has shown us the next phase of governmental do-goodery, now that welfare reform and bottomless budget deficits have made Great Society grandiosity unthinkable. It exists with Maria's other journey in the realm of feelings and intentions, where saying makes it so. And nothing actually gets done. It's a "call to action" because action itself is too expensive. It "promotes," "partners," "facilitates," "supports," "creates opportunities," "provides tools." If it doesn't do much good, it doesn't do much harm, either, and it keeps a lot of people occupied who, in an earlier age, would have been busy nationalizing the banks or computing manufacturing quotas for drill bits and shirt buttons.
We should thank Governor Schwarzenegger's wife for showing us the soft socialism of the Golden State at the dawn of the 21st century. This may be the coming thing. For as Maria herself has said, "If Barack Obama were a state, he'd be California."
Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.