Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Remembering Sargent Shriver

One of the hard parts about reaching and then surpassing the middle age mark is watching the people who you admired the people who were your heroes and role models pass. These were the men and women who you looked up to, the people you wanted to be like when you grew up.

When Teddy Kennedy died I wrote a series of posts about what he meant to me. Teddy spoke to my heart, Teddy inspired me and made me want to be a Democrat, and Teddy gave me the confidence to be a Liberal. Teddy and his brothers received all the attention and the passion but there was another who did much of the work and did more to move this nation forward than almost any man of his time. That man was Robert Sargent Shriver. The Kennedy men were passionate spokesman for the vision Sarge Shriver made it happen. The Kennedy’s spoke about change, Sargent Shriver was the change. With his death the only connection we have to that glamorous and golden era are Jean, the last sibling and Eunice the last in-law.

Sargent Shriver was a founding member of America First, a controversial organization dedicated to keeping the United States out of the war raging in Europe but he felt a duty to his country and volunteered for naval service even before the bombs were dropped on Pearl Harbor. Nation and honor came first to men like Sargent Shriver. A few years ago his daughter Maria testified before congress that even though her father was often lost to Alzheimer’s he attended Catholic mass every day and still recited the rosary and yet he did not know who she was, another example of the character of this man, his faith was one of the guiding principles to his life well led and to his life of good works.

After the war he went to work for Joseph P. Kennedy and ran the Chicago operations for the family and after a seven year courtship he married probably the toughest and strongest Kennedy of them all Eunice. JFK often said that if Eunice had been a man she would have been the one elected President not him.

During the presidential primaries of 1960 Shriver was assigned the two toughest states for Kennedy to run in, states where Kennedy being a Catholic was a negative but two states that JFK had to win in order to get the nomination. JFK won both West Virginia and Wisconsin and thus the nomination.

President Kennedy knew that if America was truly going to be a super power and truly lead the world into the post war era it needed to improve its image around the world and it needed to reach the hearts and minds of the people of the world. The President turned to Sarge Shriver to create and run the Peace Corp. Along with a young aide, Pennsylvania’s future Senator Harris Wofford, Sargent Shrive created one the most successful foreign policy tools in this nations arsenal and one that is as effective today as it was 49 years ago. I think the Peace Corp has been over looked by the Nobel Committee because it is a government funded organization. If the Peace Corp is all Sargent Shriver is remembered for that would be quite a lot.

After JFK’s assassination President Johnson asked Mr. Shriver to stay on with the Peace Corp and appointed him to a position of Special Assistant (they are referred to as Czars now). In this new role Shriver created the Office of Economic Opportunity and from that position he led Johnson’s “War on Poverty”. He created Head Start, Vista, Job Corp and Community Action.

Outside of government he created Upward Bond, Foster Grandparents, The Special Olympics, Legal Services, and The National Clearing House for Legal Services, Indian and Migrant Opportunities and Neighborhood Health Services.

As a reward for his efforts and hard work President Johnson appointed Mr. Shriver Ambassador to France. In 1968 that positions was much more important and critical than it is today. The French were smitten immediately by this dashing new diplomat and his very bright and very Kennedy wife. After a brilliant and at times tumultuous and heartbreaking 10 years of service to his country an exhausted Sargent Shriver decided to return to private life in 1970.

His time out of the spot light lasted a little less than 2 years. In 1972 the Democratic Party was in trouble. Its convention was fractious, its nominee was weak and its VP nominee admitted to the most horrible thing of all; he had undergone psychiatric treatment for anxiety and depression. After party standard bearer Sen. George McGovern decided he needed to replace his running mate he turned to Sargent Shriver in the hopes he could bring some of the Kennedy charm and gravitas to the ticket. Mr. Shiver was touring the Soviet Union at the time and had to make an emergency flight back to Washington D.C. in order to make the press conference. By all accounts he was an excellent candidate and served the cause of his party well. In 1976 Sarge made a short lived run for the nomination himself. After that Sargent Shriver left active politics except to support members of his family including his Republican son-in-law Arnold Schwarzenegger.

He became a partner in a law firm specializing in foreign affairs and international law, served on the board of Rockefeller University, was elected President of Special Olympics and then Chairman of the Board and an investor in Baltimore Orioles.

That is quite a life.

One of the last public appearances Sargent Shriver made was at the funeral of his beloved Eunice. I will never forget the imagine of this great and noble man who was now so frail and so confused clutching on to the arm of his son-in-law Arnold and waving a sad and urgent goodbye to the hearse that was carrying the body of his wife. Even through the haze of this vile disease he knew he had to say goodbye to Eunice and the only way he could do it was to wave he knew he was saying goodbye to her for the last time. It was one of the most heartbreaking and touching things I have ever witnessed.

Sargent Shriver was a member of the “greatest generation” and one of “the best and the brightest” he was a patriot, a statesman, a liberal, a pragmatists, a loyalists, an activist, a member of the establishment, a reformer, a technocrat, a visionary, a Kennedy and he was his own man. I don’t know if we will ever see another man like Sargent Shriver again. His family is as old as this country his ancestor signed the Maryland Constitution and Bill of Rights in 1776. He was a product of a boarding school education and graduated from Yale and Yale Law School. He could have easily settled into a life at an elite law firm but thankfully he did not.

Are there men or women like Sargent Shriver with us today? I suspect there is not, I hope there are.

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