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Sargent Shriver and the politics of life


With checkbooks opened and spirits high, more than 400 voters in Maryland’s 8th congressional district in suburban Washington hovered around Mark K. Shriver, the favorite in the Sept. 8 Democratic primary election. But for many in the crowd, the star of the Saturday afternoon sun-splashed outdoor rally in Potomac, Md., was not the candidate but his father, Sargent Shriver.

An unwilling show-stealer, the 86-year-old Maryland native -- in the 1920s he was an altar boy for Baltimore’s Cardinal James Gibbons -- had opened the expansive lawn of his estate for the fundraiser.

Gabbing with the youthful congressional candidate was a political moment. A chance to talk to Sargent Shriver -- the first director of both the Peace Corps and the Office of Economic Opportunity, and, with his wife Eunice, creator of the Special Olympics -- was close to a spiritual moment, to be with a man of grace and goodness whose life of service has arguably touched more lives than any living American.

After hours of adulation from former Peace Corps volunteers, parents of Special Olympians and field workers in the poverty programs begun in the 1960s, Shriver would leave for still more, at a Washington hotel that evening where another large crowd came to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Peace Corps and the first director’s role in starting the program. (Apparently still filling a need in the world and the nation, the Peace Corps has experienced a jump of 17 percent in applications since late January.)

Shriver, physically hale, intellectually alert, an attender of daily Mass and a carrier of a rosary with well-worn wooden beads, he can look back on four decades of public service and a record of successful innovation unmatched by any contemporary leader in or out of government.

The list of programs he started, defended and expanded, and which remain in place as necessary and productive while seven presidents have come and gone, is long: Peace Corps, Head Start, Job Corps, Legal Services, Upward Bound, Community Action, Foster Grandparents and VISTA. Special Olympics, which Shriver and his wife of nearly 50 years have nurtured since 1968, and which their son Timothy, a Catholic University of America Ph.D., now runs, revolutionized and humanized the care of mentally disabled children and adults. It is the world’s largest sports program, in more than 150 countries where 750,000 volunteers work annually with some 1 million Special Olympic athletes.

A moment, if I may, about my own connection.

In the summer of 1966, broke and jobless, I was roving the country writing articles on civil rights and the antiwar movement. Several ran in the National Catholic Reporter, then 2 years old but already attracting readers looking for vibrant stories ignored by the corporate media. Shriver, an NCR subscriber, had read a piece of mine on one his poverty programs in Harlem. It had a couple of critical comments. By phone, Shriver tracked me down -- I was spending a week at the NCR offices -- and said, spiritedly, he had a job opening for “a no man because I already have enough yes men.” Come to Washington, he said, and we’ll talk.

It was a life-changing moment, but I told myself: It’s a long shot he’ll hire me. I knew almost nothing about the Peace Corps, and even less about the poverty programs that Shriver, pushed by President Lyndon Johnson, was then revving up. Months before, I had left a Trappist monastery, after five isolated years of living without newspapers, magazines or television, and earning my keep by milking Jersey cows and shoveling their manure.

In Washington the next day, we went to dinner. For four hours, not a syllable passed between us about the Office of Economic Opportunity -- called OEO -- the Peace Corps or anything else of political Washington. Instead the talk was of Dorothy Day, whom Shriver had invited to speak at Yale during his student days in the late 1930s. It was of philosophers and theologians: Leon Bloy, Jacques Maritain, Romano Guardini, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Pope John XXIII. It was of writers: Tolstoy, Thomas Merton, Flannery O’Connor.

As it happened those were among the writers I had been reading in the monastery. I was able to keep up with Shriver, though I did get lost when he began talking about the nuanced differences between the early, middle and late Maritain.

Shriver asked questions about the Trappists. He said he could probably handle the silence, early rising and manual labor well enough, but the obedience would be a killer. Then he exclaimed, welcome aboard, you’re hired.

For the next three years, I helped with speeches and traveled the country with Shriver as he opened health centers in Watts in Los Angeles, Head Start programs in rural Mississippi, VISTA sites in Appalachia, Job Corps centers in Texas where George Foreman was an enrollee, Legal Services offices on Indian reservations, plus Senate and House committee hearings where Shriver shook the congressional money tree to pay for it all.

At the poverty program in Washington, I discovered that I was not the only person with a background in religion. It was joked that Shriver had hired so many former priests, nuns and brothers that OEO really stood for Office of Ecclesiastical Outcasts. In both the Peace Corps and the poverty program, he recruited an odd-lot team of energetic liberals: Edgar and Jean Kahn, public interest lawyers; Charles Peters from West Virginia who went on to found The Washington Monthly; Mavourneen Deegan, a Georgetown University nurse; Bill Moyers from the Johnson White House; Mary Ann Orlando, a political strategist; Donald Dell, a former Davis Cup captain; Joseph English, the first psychiatrist ever to be hired by a federal agency; Anne Michaels, a Jewish-Hindu filmmaker; and others of unconventional stripe. To liven staff meetings, which were already lively enough with Shriver throwing out an average of one new idea per minute, outsiders were brought in. One was Fr. Daniel Berrigan, mostly known in 1966 as a promising poet and who had toiled one summer as an English teacher in an OEO migrant worker program in Colorado.

From the beginning, I saw up close Shriver’s political skills. He had overcome the early opposition against the Peace Corps. The Wall Street Journal, dealing in the same one-note sarcasm that is its editorial-page tone today, had carped: “What person can really believe that Africa aflame with violence will have its fires quenched because some Harvard boy or Vassar girl lives in a mud hut and speaks Swahili?”

Beneath the political acumen, and the personal ebullience, was another force: the groundedness of Shriver’s spiritual side. His expressions of faith -- daily Mass, a prayer life, reading scripture -- were not poses of piety. It’s largely forgotten now but Shriver, after teaming with George McGovern in the 1972 presidential race, tried for the presidency himself in 1976. In the primaries he won only Mississippi, but not before being the only candidate -- among Jimmy Carter, Jerry Brown and Morris Udall -- to issue a paper unique to American politics, then and now. If elected, he pledged, “I shall establish a Council of Ethical Advisers, similar to the Council of Economic Advisors. Most presidential problems have ethical, not just financial, scientific, military or political dimensions. Frequently the more important question is, ‘Should we do it?’ not ‘Can we do it?’ ”

In recent months, Shriver has given speeches to the New York Bar Association and to students at Yale, making calls at both sites for expanded commitments to solving social problems with nonviolent solutions. “More than ever,” he said in New Haven, Conn., “we depend on one another for our very existence. We are not just Americans or Jews or Muslims or Catholics or rich or poor, famous or obscure. Yes, some of us still wear these labels today, during our short existence on earth. But we must bequeath to our children and grandchildren a world of stark choices: peace or death. As for me, for my children, my wife, and my friends, I choose peace. Calls to war can take us only so far. I say what our nation needs now is a call to peace and service -- peace and service on a scale we have scarcely begun to imagine.”

In his Special Olympics office a few days ago, I had another conversation -- one of hundreds these 35 years -- with Shriver. I can’t recall ever visiting with him, no matter the occasion, that he didn’t exclaim how blessedly fortunate he was, as a husband and father, to have a loving wife and devoted children. This is worth noting, because it is a rarity for peacemakers in the world to be peacemakers in the home. Gandhi was cruel to his wife and four sons. Tolstoy was mean-spirited to his family. Martin Luther King Jr. was a wretched husband, Dorothy Day an indifferent mother.

That Shriver has had a happy home life, and seen each of his five children embrace other-centered, not self-centered, lives, is one reason he was able to say once to a Peace Corps reunion audience: “The politics of death is bureaucracy, routine, rules, status quo. The politics of life is personal initiative, creativity, flair, dash, a little daring. The politics of death is calculation, prudence, measured gestures. The politics of life is experience, spontaneity, grace, directness. The politics of death is fear of youth. The politics of life is to trust the young to their own experiences.”

Shriver has not only practiced the politics of life but, as crucial, brought life to politics.

Colman McCarthy, a former Washington Post columnist, directs the Center for Teaching Peace. His recent book is I’d Rather Teach Peace (Orbis).

National Catholic Reporter, August 30, 2002