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The State

Maria Shriver Recasts 'First Lady' as a Powerful Role in California

What her friends see as beneficial projects, her critics see as self-promotion

December 25, 2005|Peter Nicholas and Robert Salladay | Times Staff Writers

Another of Shriver's projects has been a complete makeover for the history museum, a financially struggling facility a couple of blocks from the Capitol. Museum leaders feared it would go bankrupt and hoped Shriver could save it.

She embraced the idea of saving the museum, but her idea was to transform it into an institution dedicated to California women, a concept that spurred the resignation of three board members.

After women legislators said they would not support the first lady's concept, Shriver backed off, promising instead a women's museum within the broader California history museum.

Shriver got legislative approval for her rejiggered plan. The governor signed the "urgency" bill in March, putting it into effect almost immediately.

The bill effectively removed an independent public citizen from the museum's board in favor of a Schwarzenegger appointee. Also under the new law, the museum is permitted to conduct its operations in secret.

Former museum board member Charles Palm said he sees no reason the board's dealings should be private.

"Why should a museum board which is designing a program that supports and promotes the history of the whole state be private?" he asked. "Those meetings involve a public enterprise in a public building."

Today, although it is still too soon to know whether the museum will prove a popular attraction, the Shriver brand pervades the facility.

In addition to the gift shop featuring Shriver's books and other items she's involved with, one of the new exhibits consists of two Armani dresses, meant to show what a future female California governor might wear. Shriver's close friend Wanda McDaniel is an Armani executive -- and also a new member of the museum board.

"First woman governor day and evening wear provided by Giorgio Armani," the exhibit reads.

The museum's governing board is now filled with friends and political associates of Shriver, including Nancy McFadden, head of PG&E's government relations department; Nadine Schiff, a writer and producer; and Manus, who also serves on the women's conference board.

There are fewer dissident voices to cause the first lady any more trouble of the kind she faced when she wanted the museum revamped.

Inscribed on one of the museum walls is a quote from her father, who never lived in California: "Break your mirrors, yes indeed, shatter the glass. In our society that's so self-absorbed, begin to look less at yourself and more at each other," the quote reads, in part.

Laurence Leamer, author of a biography of Schwarzenegger and several books about the Kennedy family, said the quotation will one day disappear.

"It's a means to memorialize her father," Leamer said. "But the likelihood is that when Arnold leaves Sacramento, those quotes are going to come off the walls. Because they're based on her family and they are not Californians."

But to Leamer, the problem is deeper than that. The first lady's efforts, he said, reflect "a kind of Kennedy-Shriver grandiosity in the way things are done. She loves her father very much and wants to memorialize him and the good her family has done, and it all gets mixed up in the state's business."

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