Maria's Race Against Time

As her new Alzheimer's series hits HBO, California's high-octane first lady opens up to Lynn Sherr about her family's struggle with the disease, her political ambitions—and her crazed motherhood juggling act.

I first met Maria Shriver in 1980, when I was a political reporter for ABC News and she was ringing doorbells in Maine for her Uncle Teddy Kennedy’s presidential campaign. Since then, we’ve both—how does she put it?— repositioned our lives, which in her case meant becoming a broadcast journalist herself, ultimately reporting and anchoring for NBC News. She was forced out of that job in 2004, after her husband, Arnold Schwarzenegger, was sworn in as governor of California.

“I lost my job when Arnold became governor,” she told me, explaining that what the network saw as a conflict of interest meant she had to “carve a new identity for myself.”

“I wish I’d become first lady 10 or 15 years ago, because my parents would have so enjoyed it, and they would have had so many suggestions.”

At 53, she has accomplished that with panache: raising four children; writing a bevy of bestselling books; hosting the wildly popular annual California Women’s Conference; and co-executive producing a four-part series called The Alzheimer’s Project, starting this Sunday on HBO—a companion book of the same name also launches that day—to explore the disease that has already overtaken her father, one-time vice-presidential candidate R. Sargent Shriver.

But for all her new titles, Maria Shriver is still, metaphorically speaking, ringing doorbells—putting out the word, getting out the message, telling the world what she thinks is important. When we spoke by telephone earlier this week, she was, as usual, in motion: As I took notes, she pedaled away on her LifeCycle, its telltale beeps punctuating the background—all part of her personal regime to keep Alzheimer’s at bay.

You’ve spoken very eloquently about the fact that your father doesn’t even recognize you now, but that you can live with that.

Yeah, I would say I’ve had a character transformation with both of my parents. You know, my mother [Eunice Shriver] has had several strokes now, my father with Alzheimer’s. And it runs simultaneous to having teenagers and having the job of first lady, losing my other job, trying to craft a new road for myself. And I’ve spoken about my own journey because I think that so often women are presented with everybody looking like they’ve got it all together with no problems.

You know, you see women on the cover of the magazines—they have three kids, their bodies are incredible, they have no stress. I mean, we present these perfect images of well-known women to other women, which I think actually makes women feel bad. And makes them feel like, “What the hell’s wrong with me? I can’t do all these things and everybody else seems to be able to do it.”

So I’ve tried to speak as authentically as I can, that I don’t have it all together, that the road is bumpy, and I don’t have any shame in sharing that. I find that people are so grateful that you say, “Well, I’m having a very difficult time with my parents getting older.” Or, “My parents are struggling and I’m struggling, too.” Or, “I’ve lost my job.” And all of those things—instead of saying, “No problem, I’ve got it all together.”

Do you call yourself a feminist?

Well, I do, but I think that word is outdated, and I don’t think it’s a word that particularly my daughters identify with at all. And so I’m searching actually for the word to describe myself. I consider myself a bit of a hybrid. But I look at my mother, and even though I don’t think she would have used the word, I think of her as a feminist, an independent working woman who felt she deserved to be in the room with the men and was as smart as the men. I was raised by a woman who I think felt that had she been born at a different time, her life might have been different.

Do you think she wanted to run for office?

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Yes, she told me she would have. But she grew up in a family that was very male-dominated. And I have four brothers, a lot of male cousins, and my mother was very adamant that I be treated like the boys, do everything the boys could do, and see myself on an equal playing field to the boys.

Will you run for political office?

No. No. Perhaps that’s the way I’m different from my mother. That’s not who I am, at this point in my life.

You talk in the film about Alzheimer’s being hereditary. Are you afraid of getting it?

Absolutely. I think anybody in their 50s or 60s or 70s should be concerned that they’re going to get Alzheimer’s, whether you have a loved one with it or not. Everybody should be terrified.

What do you do about it?

I try to keep myself cardiovascularly healthy. I thought that the information [in the documentary] tying your cardiovascular health to your brain health was really interesting. So I try to be conscious of what I eat for my heart, with the idea that what’s in my heart can go to my brain...[But] I like cookies, any cookie you put in front of me—animal cookies, sugar cookies, anything crunchy.

You’re convinced that there is a cure [for Alzheimer’s] coming along?

I am, but you know, “coming along” could be five years, 10 years. I think the bigger overall thing would be that this Congress understands that the brain really is the next frontier. And that we’re doing all these things to keep our bodies healthy, but very little about the brain. And that we really need to look at the brain like we looked at the moon.

You were very public in supporting Barack Obama. How do you think he’s doing?

He’s fascinating. I looked at the headline the other day talking about the Supreme Court, where he said “empathy” would be a key quality that he would look for. And I sat down with my kids and I said, “I don’t recall another president ever saying that empathy is a job qualification.” And I thought, “I’m so thrilled that my children can hear the president of the United States say empathy is a job requirement.” Have you ever seen that?...

For a man—the leader of the free world—to stand up and say, “I’m looking for someone who understands the law, who can interpret the law, but who is empathetic.” I don’t recall many men in public life using that word.

How about Teddy Kennedy?

Oh, yeah, he is an incredibly compassionate man, an empathetic man, and I think that has ruled his work, and I think that is why he is lionized as unique. This is a man who has been through a lot and understands what that word means. And I think that we’re better off as Americans with leaders who understand those words.

How is he doing?

I think he’s doing well. Everybody says, [anxiously] “How’s he doing, how’s he doing?” As you know all too well, [patiently] “It’s, well, good today…”

Sunday is Mother’s Day. Any favorite stories about your mother?

I have so many stories. She is the only living woman ever put on a dollar coin—a commemorative Special Olympics silver dollar. The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development was named after her because she was instrumental in having it founded under Uncle Jack [President John F. Kennedy]. And on Saturday, she's being inducted into the National Portrait Gallery. I don't know what it means, but I think it's cool.

I wish I’d become first lady 10 or 15 years ago, because my parents would have so enjoyed it, and they would have had so many suggestions. And they would have been here and pushing me in all different directions. Mother came to both of Arnold’s inaugurations, but the last year and a half have been incredibly challenging for her. Had she been 15 years younger, she would have been fully immersed in what I’m doing out here. And it would have been such a great joy for her.

It’s very generous of you to be so concerned about her feelings.

She gave me life. I don’t have this, [mock snarling] “Oh, my mother, grr.” Maybe because I’m an only girl, who knows? But I think she loved—loves—politics, and I think she would have loved to have been by my side. She would have been an incredible chief of staff to me.

Would you have done that?

No. But I’m just saying, she would have been in my ear. When she could, she was in my ear 24/7, telling me this, that, or the other.

What kind of advice?

Incredible advice. She was a “get onto yourself, move it along” person. She’s tough, and she’s of the school that says, “I don’t want to hear a yip out of you, just make it worthwhile, get to work, do something, and keep doing something.” She wasn’t a person who would sit and say, “How do you feel?”

You have described her as a “self-sufficient, high-octane machine.”

She is. And I’ve also come to the realization that I am not her. My mother, with all of her determination and feminism, always was a proponent and champion of motherhood. And she started Special Olympics in homage to mothers who couldn’t find programs for their children, and she saw that in her own mother. And she went to bat for all those mothers ’cause she was a mother. You know, she collects mother and child Madonnas. And she always felt, how you raise your children is very much the measure of who you are.

Would she have wanted you to run for office?

I don’t know, you’d have to ask her.

She created tremendous difference in the role she played. I don’t think she could have been a greater architect of change had she been in politics. She did what’s right for her, and she did what was right for the world. But at the end of the day, when it all kind of boils down to what’s going on in your own home, she has done a great job. And I tell her that every time I talk to her, every time I see her, and I think you can never tell a mother enough that she did a good job. ’Cause I think no matter who the mother is, you always worry about that. And I always try to tell her that as a mother she did a good job.

Do your children tell you that?

No. [Laughs.] They tell me that I’m so weird. Funny-weird, but weird.

You’re not weird!

No, I don’t think I’m weird. I was talking to my daughter the other day, and I said, “It’s really important to have people around you who make you laugh. Who are the people around you?” She said, “You don’t make me laugh, I laugh at you.” So I said, “Well, that counts.” I mean, the mothering of my children, which I think was a lesson from my mother, was really my life role, so I think, you know, I mean, that’s a work in progress.

Lynn Sherr is a former ABC News correspondent, author of Failure Is Impossible: Susan B. Anthony in Her Own Words and Tall Blondes, a book about giraffes. She is also co-editor of Peter Jennings: A Reporter's Life. Her most recent book, a memoir—Outside the Box: My Unscripted Life of Love, Loss and Television News—is out in paperback.