Eunice Kennedy Shriver is likely to be most remembered for her blood relations, especially her politician brothers John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, and Teddy Kennedy.
In California, she has a lesser-known but crucial role: as the state's most important mother-in-law.
As her work for the governor of California makes clear, her relatives were successful in no small part because they had the good fortune to be related to her.
Eunice’s son-in-law, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, has described her as his mentor and strongest political supporter. He’s not exaggerating. Without her, there never would have been an Arnold governorship.
This close if unlikely relationship—between an Austrian bodybuilder and a president’s sister—began the weekend they met, 32 years ago, at a tennis tournament in memory of Bobby Kennedy in Queens. Schwarzenegger played doubles with Rosey Grier, charmed his future wife, Maria Shriver, and earned a post-tournament invitation to Hyannis Port. There, as the story has long been told, Schwarzenegger made a flattering if crude remark to Eunice about the derriere of her daughter. At that moment of truth, Eunice laughed uproariously. Within months, Schwarzenegger was doing events for the Special Olympics, which Eunice had founded.
Arnold and Maria married in 1986. The bond between Eunice and her son-in-law grew deeper. Schwarzenegger’s father was long dead. His mother lived in Austria. So Eunice and her husband, Sarge, the Peace Corps founder and 1972 Democratic vice-presidential nominee, became his American parents, and he engaged them in the kinds of long conversations about serious things that he’d never had with own parents. Schwarzenegger loved listening to Eunice in particular, because she was provocative and occasionally outrageous. Among the topics the in-laws argued about were, according to Scott Stossel’s biography of Sargent Shriver, the “theology and ethics of Conan the Barbarian.”
Eunice was impressed by her son-in-law, and urged him to consider public service. “Eunice was always hoping that her children would go into politics. She always wanted to see that,” Schwarzenegger recalled in a 2006 interview with me. “Now I come along. She saw my interest in politics, and she was always supportive, saying I should learn and read about issues, and pick one issue…She said her brother Jack always picked one issue, and ran with that for months.”
Schwarzenegger’s first issue was physical fitness. After the election of President George H.W. Bush, the then-movie star sought an appointment as head of the president’s fitness council. But White House aides worried that Schwarzenegger's public smoking of cigars and his previous use of steroids made him the wrong choice for a fitness panel, according to records on file at Bush’s presidential library at Texas A&M. The records also show that groups concerned about movie and television violence were lobbying the White House against the appointment.
These interests might have stopped Schwarzenegger—but they couldn’t stop his mother-in-law. According to the records, Eunice engaged in an aggressive lobbying campaign on behalf of her son-in-law, with repeated letters and calls to Bush and top aides. (Eunice was less than impressed with Bush’s then-chief of staff, John Sununu, and her instincts were right—Sununu didn’t last.)
Finally, Bush overruled some of his own aides and gave Schwarzenegger the job. In a handwritten note, the president made clear whose recommendation had carried the day: “Eunice, a guy really must be good if his mother-in-law says great things about him!”
Eunice’s work for her son-in-law’s career never really stopped. She helped him as he built a national afterschool program and led a successful ballot initiative campaign to provide funding for such programs in California.
In 2003, as Schwarzenegger weighed whether to join the recall campaign to replace California Gov. Gray Davis, Eunice urged him to make the run—even as her own daughter opposed the move. “You cannot hold him back,” Maria Shriver, in a 2005 talk-show appearance, recalled her mother telling her. “Don’t complain. Get out there and help him.”
Eunice took her own advice. During Schwarzenegger’s first big public appearance of that campaign in the Orange County community of Huntington Beach, Eunice appeared—without prior notice to the star’s disbelieving team of advance men—and began working a rather raucous crowd of wetsuit-wearing surfers and bikini-clad sunbathers on the beach. A few weeks later, she assembled the campaign’s team of education advisers, convincing several Democrats to help her son-in-law, even though he was seeking the recall of a governor of their own party.
Charles Reed, chancellor of the California State University system, later recalled receiving a call one morning during that campaign.
“This is Eunice Shriver. Do you know my son-in-law is running for governor?”
“Yes,” Reed replied.
“Do you know that my son-in-law has education as his top priority?”
“Do you know my son-in-law needs help and advice?”
Reed found it impossible to say no. After Schwarzenegger won, his mother-in-law showed up at the Capitol and worked legislators of both parties. “How can an Irishman be a Republican?” she asked the then-Assembly Republican leader, Kevin McCarthy, during one visit that left McCarthy, now a member of Congress, thoroughly charmed.
When Eunice was back home in the Washington D.C., area, Schwarzenegger received what he described as a steady stream of notes, suggestions, and encouragement from his mother-in-law, mostly by fax. (She knew far more about California than you might think; in a family full of Harvard men, she had graduated from Stanford.)
In 2005, Eunice had what was described as a mild stroke during a California visit and was hospitalized. When the governor went to visit her, she chewed him out for the weakness of his campaign for four measures on a statewide ballot that November. (She was right again—all four of Schwarzenegger’s measures would lose.)
Many people, her Austrian-born son-in-law among them, have observed that if Eunice had belonged to a later generation, she might have been a candidate herself. Instead, she expertly assisted her brothers with their campaigns. In the nation’s most important political family, she may have had the best political mind.
Or to put it another way: Eunice Kennedy Shriver wasn’t famous because of her politically successful relatives. As her work for the governor of California makes clear, her relatives were successful in no small part because they had the good fortune to be related to her.
Joe Mathews is a journalist, an Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation, and a contributing writer at the Los Angeles Times. He previously served as Justice Department reporter for the Wall Street Journal and as a city desk reporter at the Baltimore Sun. He is the author of The People's Machine: Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Rise of Blockbuster Democracy.