Oprah: Even in our most private conversations, I haven't ever asked you this question: Was that Kennedy picture as happy as it appeared to be?
Maria: Oh, yes. Absolutely. We're a bonded family. Even though it was tumultuous at times, there is a very tight relationship between all of us. My cousins are like siblings and best friends. Not only do I talk to my brothers almost daily but I talk to several of my cousins weekly. We're very connected. Yet there was not a lot of talking among us about how we were feeling. We just kept going.
Oprah: Were you aware of what you all looked like to the rest of the world?
Maria: Not when I was a child. Growing up, there was a definite division between the parents and the children—to the point where many of us who are now grown think of ourselves as children when we go to the Cape. The adults ran the whole thing. My grandmother Rose was the matriarch. And even though he'd had a stroke, my grandfather Joe was an imposing figure. They lived in the big house, and when we went there, we wore our best clothes. My grandmother was always immaculately dressed, and she'd correct our grammar and quiz us. She was intellectual. She was revered by the entire family. So I was conscious of being in a large family with a hierarchy. Even now, when my parents walk into the room, I stand up. Our family is old-fashioned in that way.
Oprah: Were you aware of your family's legacy?
Maria: Yes. I don't think you could have lived through my uncle's assassination in 1963 and not been aware.
Oprah: But did you know what that meant to the rest of the world?
Maria: Yes, but only because others told me. To this day, people still come up to me and talk about how my family impacted their lives. They tell me that they've gotten involved in public service or joined the Peace Corps because of one of my uncles. When I became First Lady of California, people came up to me and said, "I hope you're going to be like your aunt Jackie." Others were angry because they thought I'd brought the Kennedy legacy to a Republican: "Shame on you," they'd say. "You should be mortified."
Oprah: And then there's the image: Camelot.
Oprah: I was at Tina Turner's house over Christmas, talking to her about Barack Obama. She paid no attention to me. But when Caroline Kennedy came out for Barack Obama, I got a phone call from Tina. She said, "Oprah, I heard everything you said to me. But if Caroline says it—and because of what her whole family represents—then I'm for Barack." I thought, "I was sitting at your dinner table, and you don't even know Caroline!" [Laughs.]
Maria: Yes, I'm aware that my family has that image. I'm also aware that people are sometimes reluctant to talk to me when they first meet me—like you were.
Oprah: Do you accept that?
Maria: I've spent a lot of my life trying to make people comfortable, even though I'm not exactly sure why they aren't.
Oprah: It's the difference they perceive between themselves and the image of your family that they've come to believe in. It's about measuring up.
Maria: I don't work anymore at trying to make sure others like me. I've given up on that. This is who I am.