FROM star television journalist to first lady of America's richest state, Maria Shriver has played any number of roles in her active life. But Monday night may have been the first time that she assumed the role of political grief counselor.
The occasion was billed as a "Women for Obama unity cocktail reception" at the home of longtime Democratic activist and former studio head Sherry Lansing. Many of the guests were firm supporters of Hillary Rodham Clinton. Shriver, a backer of Barack Obama, was there to help convince them that disappointment need not lead to defection.
Lansing and her co-hostesses -- including Nicole Avant, Lena L. Kennedy and Kimberly Marteau Emerson -- had anticipated about 75 guests, so there was valet gridlock when more than 100 showed up.
Women in cocktail attire -- some of whom had ignored the advice to wear flats -- spilled across the grassy terrace behind Lansing's canyon mansion. The hills framed a perfect Pacific sunset that was even kinder than candlelight.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, one of Clinton's early backers, was set to attend the event but couldn't because of a broken ankle suffered during a walk with U.S. Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher (D-Alamo) last Friday near Lake Tahoe. Instead, she addressed the crowd by telephone, urging unity but agreeing that Hillary for VP is still a "no-brainer."
Emerson, whose husband, John, is a longtime friend of the Clintons, took the stage next. She told the crowd that she will "proudly honor Hillary's campaign" next week as a Clinton delegate at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. But she made it clear: She's also proud to support Obama. "I think I can do both."
Then Shriver addressed the standing-room-only crowd. She looked out over the audience, which included many old friends. Actress Christine Lahti was there, as was Democratic fundraiser and children's rights activist Daphna Ziman. L.A. City Councilwoman Wendy Greuel mingled in the back. City Controller Laura Chick found a seat next to one of her old City Hall advisors, Karen Constine, who served as Gray Davis' appointment to the California Film Commission. Elena Stern, another veteran of city politics, sat with colleagues from the children's advocacy group Para Los Ninos.
"I've thought a lot about the word unity," Shriver told the women. "The more I thought about it, I realized that before you can get unity, you need reconciliation. I know how hard it is to come to an evening like this while you had a different story in your head that had a different ending."
She said she understood that the Clinton supporters were "grieving." Shriver, of course, comes from one of America's great political families, and the hard knocks of electoral give-and-take are part of her DNA.
"I equate a loss like this to a death," she said.
She said she remembers what it felt like in 1980, when her uncle Sen. Edward Kennedy lost an insurgent campaign in the Democratic primary to incumbent President Jimmy Carter.
"I held grudges from the 1980 campaign for way too long," she said. "It didn't serve me well or advance healing."
For all the passion and political pragmatism on offer Monday night, a number of women in the crowd appeared still in doubt. It's been a long, hard-fought campaign, and it's clear that many of the committed Clinton supporters are going to Denver unsure of how they feel about Obama.
"There are a lot of gaps that still need to be closed," said Hillary supporter Beth Gulas.
Shriver rearranged her planned address to the women after she learned that Feinstein would not be able to be there. (She also thought it would be a good diversion after tearfully dropping off her daughter for her first year of college.)
She fondly greeted the women, who included Jamie McCourt, Victoria Hopper (Dennis' wife), U.S. Rep. Diane Watson (D-L.A.), County Supervisor Gloria Molina, longtime Hollywood publicist Judi Davidson, political consultant Donna Bojarsky, former agent Vicki Light, artist Joanna Staudinger and onetime California first lady Sharon Davis.
Shriver told the crowd that she remembered how her father and uncle would criticize opponents in private. "They would say, 'We don't like so-and-so.' Then suddenly, the race is over and we all have to love so-and-so."
It's not easy. But it's necessary, Shriver said.
And she issued a warning:
"I know many of the people on McCain's campaign," she said. "A lot of them worked on my husband's campaign. I can tell you they're tough and they're organized. You must focus on the repair work. If you don't work to heal the rupture, the fight will be all that's remembered. . . . No one did that in 1980 and we all know what happened: We lost that election.
"There are no perfect politicians," she said. "There is no perfect race, and I've been involved in a lot of elections. Some are really painful. That's politics."