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Atlantic Unbound | April 9, 2004
 
Interviews
 
The Call to Service

Scott Stossel, the author of Sarge, talks about the life and legacy of Sargent Shriver

.....

book cover

Sarge: The Life and Times of Sargent Shriver
[Click the title
to buy this book]

by Scott Stossel
Smithsonian Institution Press
704 pages, $32.50.

campaign-trail legend from 1972 places Sargent Shriver, the dashing Democratic candidate for the vice presidency and the former director of the Peace Corps and the War on Poverty, in Youngstown, Ohio, chatting up voters in a working-class tavern. Shriver is his usual genial self, and seems to be connecting with the assembled steelworkers, who will form part of a vital voting bloc in the general election. As the merrymakers call for another round, people shout out the names of their favorite beers. Not to be outdone, Shriver eagerly joins the chorus: "Make mine a Courvoisier!" For Congressman Tip O'Neill, who had been traveling with Shriver, this faux pas was the last straw. "That's it," said O'Neill, stepping away from the bar. "I'm getting back on the plane and going back to Boston. There's no hope here." (Indeed, there wasn't. Richard Nixon was reelected in a landslide that November.)

But this story is more than just another bleak vignette from the doomed McGovern campaign or one more illustration of the cultural divides that were then shredding the New Deal coalition, (or of the political radioactivity of things fancy and French). Perhaps most importantly it reveals how, although Sargent Shriver was a charismatic and extremely accomplished public servant whom more than one former colleague has hailed as the living American who has changed the most lives worldwide for the better, he may never have reached his full potential as a national political leader—in part because he was not a savvy political gamesman.

Given Shriver's prodigious accomplishments, the idea that he might have achieved even more sounds preposterous on its face, but as Scott Stossel documents in his new biography, Sarge, it's not without a poignant grain of truth. Stossel's book, which draws on extensive archival research, and numerous interviews with Shriver and his friends and family, throws into sharp focus the life of this remarkable man.

After marrying Eunice Kennedy in 1953, Shriver would be, for good or for ill, an appendage of the larger Kennedy clan, often forced to weigh the interests of "the family" against his own. For the most part, rather than overshadowing Shriver, this association gave him a platform on which to forge a vision of public service that outstrips even the familiar Camelot mythology in its sense of possibility and ability to inspire. But to a certain extent, becoming a Kennedy also meant subordinating his own political ambitions to help further those of his in-laws.

After heading up the "talent hunt" that filled the Kennedy Administration with the aggressive, idealistic thinkers who would become synonymous with the Kennedy era, Shriver created the Peace Corps, a globe-spanning international-volunteer service that still exists today. At the Peace Corps (and later as the head of the War on Poverty in the Johnson Administration), Shriver displayed a brilliant idiosyncratic leadership style composed of equal parts charisma and near-chaotic innovation. (Stossel's book is filled with tales of journalists, scholars, and business leaders who fielded out-of-the-blue phone calls from Shriver, a man they had never met, only to hop the next plane to Washington in order to accept a job that had been created for them at the Peace Corps or the Office of Economic Opportunity, which oversaw the War on Poverty.)

Shriver was, in the ardency of his liberalism, his idealism, and his Catholicism, perhaps more "Kennedy" than the Kennedys themselves. Yet the fact that he was not a true Kennedy led to some intramural tensions over the years, a factor which may have cost Shriver the vice-presidential nomination in 1968. That, in turn, Stossel argues may have kept the Democrats out of the White House that fall. (After his unsuccessful bid for the vice presidency in 1972, Shriver ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1976, but lost to Jimmy Carter in the primaries.)

As Shriver, now eighty-eight, slips into Alzheimer's disease, a look back at his storied career offers a glimpse into a time when domestic liberalism and optimistic internationalism ruled the day.

Scott Stossel is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The New Republic, and elsewhere. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with his wife and daughter.

We spoke in Boston on March 26.

—Benjamin Healy

["Knifed," an excerpt from Sarge, appeared in the April, 2004, issue of The Atlantic.]



Author photo
Photo credit

Scott Stossel

 
You've been working on this book off and on for about seven years. What was it like coming to know such a public figure in such personal detail, and over such a long period of time?

I didn't know him when he was in his forties, fifties, sixties, or seventies, but at age eighty-eight he has more energy than I do now in my thirties. It's sort of infectious, and you can't help but like and be impressed by him. He's handsome, smart, charming, articulate, and compassionate. And a lot of that comes across when you're interacting with him. Temperamentally, I'm very different from Shriver. I'm much more of a skeptic and a cynic than he is, whereas he's sort of the quintessential idealist. So a lot of times we would have arguments. He's a very ardent and devout Catholic, and I'm sort of a reluctant agnostic, and that alone created this huge chasm between the two of us, and I felt myself trying to project across that gap.

He's seen people blown apart in war; he sees how horrible human nature is and how awful people can be to one another. But because of his faith, and his sanguine view of human nature, he has this indomitable hope. Whether it's a function of his temperament, or of his profound belief in a God who orders the universe, somehow he's managed to make a lot of seemingly impossible plans come to fruition. All along people didn't think he could accomplish the things that he ended up accomplishing—like the Peace Corps, Head Start, and a whole host of programs associated with the War on Poverty. You look at his record, and you see that he's capable of accomplishing unbelievable things through sheer force of will.

It is possible to tell a story about Shriver that's more sour on him—saying he blew his political opportunities, or that he was naïve, or that he made bad decisions and was a bad administrator. And there's an element of truth to those criticisms. But if you look at what he actually accomplished, it was just one damn thing after another.

How is Shriver relevant to today's political realm?

Ever since I started researching the project, it's been astonishing to me how little known he is relative to how much he did. A part of that is a function of the fact that in American history—at least in American political history—it's the elected officials who tend to be remembered most. I think Shriver was marginalized a little bit because he never held elective office. Second, the Kennedy family, because of its size and power, ended up casting a lot of people around them into the shadows, even though Shriver arguably may have done more to affect more people in a positive way than any other American since FDR. Yet people tend not to think of him. Instead they think of RFK, Ted Kennedy, and JFK. I think that's tragic, and it's what part of this book seeks to rectify—to let him stand on his own in the spotlight. There's no need to push aside the Kennedys or anything like that—everyone knows who they are and what they've accomplished. But Democrats are looking for programs that are going to energize the American imagination the way the Peace Corps did, and they're looking for a personal style that will animate youth. That makes him relevant today.

The range of people he's come into contact with is amazing. I can't think of very many books where interviews with Mickey Kantor and Arnold Schwarzenegger would turn up in the same bibliography. And yet a pretty strong consensus view of Shriver emerges in your book. Did everyone paint the same positive picture?

Ninety percent of the people who have come in contact with him for any extended period of time talk about what a winning effect he's had on them. It's near universal, and it goes from Mickey Kantor to Arnold to Soviet apparatchiks to all kinds of other colorful figures. There were crotchety conservatives in Congress in the 1960s who loathed everything Shriver's wing of the Democratic Party stood for and loathed everything he wanted to legislate. But they were charmed by him and sometimes went along with him because they trusted him. Lyndon Johnson, who had a great eye for political talent, saw how Shriver charmed Congress. You can find people who had more jaundiced views of Shriver. There are the perennial charges that he was naïve or an intellectual lightweight. And there were people who thought he was too slick a salesman, because he knew how to generate and mobilize public opinion and get things done.

I didn't interview anyone who came out and said this, but in the archives, you'll come across people who were ground down by his leadership style. They found his idealism to be just too much, either too grating or too driven. He was so hard-working and expected so much of himself and of those who worked around him that you really needed a thick skin to work with him. He liked encouraging disagreement and debate, and if you didn't have that thick skin, you didn't last long. People who worked close to him once said, "He has great concern for human nature, but not necessarily for the human who's standing next to him." That is true to an extent. Many people have said similar things about many saints. But it's amazing the number of people who have said "He changed my life," and the number of prominent people who have said "He changed my worldview."

As you write in the book, religion was a big part of Shriver's private and public personas. When people talk abstractly about "religion in politics" today, they're usually talking about the kind of evangelical protestantism associated with the religious right. How do you think the role of religion in politics has changed over the years?

It's interesting. Because I'm not a Catholic, I tried to approach Shriver's faith from a sort of sociological perspective. How does his religion, or how does his faith, inform his worldview? How does it inform his politics? When he was campaigning in the '70s, abortion was the percolating issue. He was always trying to negotiate these things. Shriver's very interesting in that he's always been devoutly pro-life—anti-abortion. But he's also been a devout Democrat on almost every other issue down the line. It was easier pre-Roe v. Wade to pull that off. Today the Catholic Church is less of a monolithic political force on the Democratic side than it used to be. You used to have all these urban Catholic immigrants who were collected in neighborhoods and who became part of the Democratic political machine. Now, more of them have sided with the evangelicals.

He comes out of this tradition of the gospels, and the teachings of Dorothy Day, and the value of lay Catholics doing good works. And his dedication to public service through politics and policy intersects with that religious component of his personality. It's endlessly fascinating. I viewed it as an outsider, almost enviously. I'd ask him sometimes, "How could you not be afraid in the Peace Corps—you know, flying around to these places in a one-engine plane being flown by a five-year-old through a storm? Everyone would be hiding under their seats and you'd be sitting there laughing and having a gin-and-tonic." He'd say, "Well, it wasn't that I wasn't afraid. It's that I know when it's time for me to go, it will be God's will. And so be it." It'd be great to feel that way, and I wish I could. I don't, but I admire it and respect it, and I think it drove him to accomplish a lot.

Arguably Shriver's most far-reaching accomplishment was the War on Poverty—at least that's the time when he had the most people and resources at his disposal. And yet, it's also become emblematic of a certain kind of bygone (and some would say failed) type of active government. To what extent were the successes and failures of the War on Poverty bound up with Shriver's personal leadership qualities?

If you look at it objectively, you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who would say that the War on Poverty didn't decrease poverty in this country. But it has become one of those politically charged issues. Reagan, fairly early in his first term, said, "We fought a war against poverty. Poverty won." Conservatives loved to attack the War on Poverty. It's funny how it tends to get lumped in with all of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs, like Medicare and Medicaid and education bills, and cast as this big government program that didn't end up achieving its goal. But the reality is much more complex than that. Some of the programs were very specific, trying to inculcate certain attitudes in people which, like incentivizing work, and discouraging cash handouts, and so on, were very much along the lines of what Republican welfare reform would be thirty years later. Statistically the truth is that from 1963, just before the War on Poverty was declared, until 1972, poverty declined from 20 percent to 11 percent. It's pretty much stayed there ever since. Part of that was caused by economic growth, but I think part of that was also the result of the lasting legacy of those programs. As for whether the success or failure of the War on Poverty was bound up with Shriver himself, I think it very much was -- because of his ability to imprint himself on people and on institutions. He ended up kind of inscribed in the DNA of the War on Poverty. It had its origins in the Kennedy administration, and Lyndon Johnson legislated it, but Shriver brought it all together and led the charge. Just to use one example, you would never have had anything like Head Start without Shriver at the helm. Same thing with Legal Services for the Poor. It took someone like him to recognize its value. It's also likely, though, that his dislike of bureaucracy and of the routine administration of things may have hurt the programs somewhat; they were pretty badly disorganized in their first years of existence. Shriver was stretched way too thin trying to run the Peace Corps, head the War on Poverty, and raise five kids. Someone with more astute political antennae might have averted some of the pitfalls.

I'm almost reluctant to bring up the Kennedys because of the way, as you describe, they've overshadowed Shriver in some sense.

It's all conjecture, but a number of people would say, and have said, that Shriver's marrying into the family was a Faustian bargain, meaning that in a sense he had to mortgage his soul in order to join the Kennedys—and that what he gave up was greater than what he gained. I think that's a plausible argument because, if you look at the 1950s, Shriver's star was rising rapidly in Chicago. Everyone out there assumed he would soon be the next governor or senator, and from there—who knows? But he ended up putting his ambitions aside to work for Jack Kennedy in the 1960 election, then working in the Peace Corps, and one thing led to another, and his own political career never really materialized. There are a few specific occasions I document in the book, in 1964, 1968, 1972, and 1976, where his electoral opportunities were impeded by the Kennedys in some sense. It wasn't like they were out to get him, but their ambitions or what they needed were just different from what he needed.

But at the same time, everything he did accomplish might not have happened if he hadn't been associated with the Kennedys. He would never have become connected with the Peace Corps, which is his signature accomplishment and the main accomplishment of the New Frontier. By extension, he never would have become Lyndon Johnson's poverty czar, because he wouldn't have been in the Kennedy Administration. And if he'd run for office in Illinois, he might not have had the national profile to be picked as George McGovern's running mate or to run for President in 1976. Furthermore, it's interesting that he did decide to work on the Kennedy campaign in 1960 rather than running for office himself. He always had a sort of built-in ambivalence about electoral office—maybe his heart just wasn't in it.

If you ask him, he'll always say that while his relations may not have been as good with, say, Bobby Kennedy, he feels proud to be associated with his wife's family, and that the Kennedys are amazing. It's a mark of his personality that he was somehow able to be a loyal family man, yet retain his own distinct identity.

In your Atlantic piece and elsewhere, you write about how the Kennedy family helped to scuttle Shriver's nomination as the Democrats' candidate for Vice President in 1968. How was the family able to act monolithically like this, as a fully formed "they"?

Well, it's a journalistic shorthand to lump everyone into one group. It's easier to talk about the Kennedys as if they're just this monolithic "thing." And to a certain extent that is an accurate characterization—they are very good at circling the wagons and doing things as a family when they're attacked by outside forces. But the family isn't as monolithic anymore. People get into the pattern of saying "the Kennedys." But a lot of it is still a holdover from Joe Kennedy. When he was in charge, he was such a forceful personality. He was the patriarch of the family, and 99 percent of the time everyone deferred to or took very carefully into account what he wanted—and everyone knew what he wanted. Once he suffered his stroke in 1960, and died later in the decade, things became much less clear in terms of who was in charge. There was a Kennedy wing in the Democratic Party involving a lot of the Kennedy relatives and a lot of Kennedy aides who had certain things in common. They all promoted the political health of the family, and they all wanted certain center-left political gains. But it was also much more complex than that. In their political arena, "they" may not have wanted certain things to happen—Sarge's running for President in 1976, for example—but that doesn't mean they disliked him personally. So they could go on playing tennis, or sitting on the porch, or having cocktails while their kids all played together. That's what's so peculiar about this family that's so large and has so many fingers in different political pots. It's unavoidable that any time one of them wants to do something they might be bumping into another relative's aspirations.

If Shriver had ever ended up as President, do you think his skills would have transferred to the Oval Office? Would he have done a good job?

It's a really interesting question. In the foreword to my book Bill Moyers said, Yes, he could have. I really do believe that it's very likely that if Shriver had received the vice-presidential nomination in 1968 the Democrats would have won. And who knows what would have happened after that? We might have gotten out of Vietnam, had no Watergate. The entire last forty years of American history would look completely different. He was not a lightweight intellectually. He's an incredibly smart guy. He was also a tough guy; he wasn't a shrinking violet by any stretch of the imagination. He was a loyal patriot and a veteran. You wonder if he were presiding now, after 9/11, would he have taken the "tough on terror" approach or would he take a more multilateralist approach, extending olive branches everywhere. According to Shriver's worldview, it's important to build a peaceful network of countries, both powerful and weak, and to demonstrate that America is a benevolent force in the world and a force for good—not antagonistic or unilateral.

Are there any public figures active today who remind you of Shriver?

He has such an uncanny combination of good looks, well-spokenness, and faith. You know, I think John Edwards strived to do some of that—good speaker, good looking guy, kind of that optimistic streak to him. I'm sure there are others out there, but no one springs to mind right now. As for John Kerry and George Bush—certainly not. I think a lot of politicians have the kind of charisma Shriver has, but it's a lot harder to find someone who combines that with the call to public service. I mean, if you think of recent cabinet members, it's not like Tommy Thompson gets you all uplifted and inspired.

In some ways, he would have made a great President, but I don't think he would have ever been elected President. It's almost axiomatic. People who are really good at running for President have something in their personality that makes them not so good at being President. So I'm sure there are plenty of people out there who have those Shriverian qualities, but they're not running for public office.

That makes sense in a way, because Shriver didn't initiate a campaign of his own until the mid-1970s.

He was really a public servant, not a politician. He was miscast sometimes as a politician. Once the '60s were over, the Great Society and New Frontier kind of died. But Shriver was still singing from that song book, and everyone else was using a different one—it sounded dissonant.

And starting in the 1970s, there was definitely a shift in the way political leaders seemed to view themselves. Part of it, I suppose, is that it was no longer the case that everybody had gone to the same prep school. But at the same time, it seems like an important political species might have been lost. What's the difference between then and now, in your view?

In his early months of the War on Poverty, Shriver had much more of a free hand to operate. These days, there are many more watchdog organizations—which is a good thing—and Congress scrutinizes everything much more carefully. Congress is also far more clearly polarized now than it was then. Whichever party is in control is always investigating the other. I don't want to say it was strictly better back then and get into golden era-ism. But there is something to the notion that politics is a bit sharper-elbowed than it used to be. Politicians are also more insecure now than they were back then, and they might not look so favorably on some bureaucrat or civil servant outshining them. I don't think they'd let someone like Shriver get into that position. JFK was self-confident enough that he wasn't worried about that.

Shriver also seemed comfortable with a bit more of a heterodox approach, reaching out to, say, business leaders, for ideas in a way that probably wouldn't happen today. We tend to identify business so much more as a selfish special interest, rather than as an entity whose self interest could align with the public interest.

Again, there's a danger of golden era-ism here. There was of course some polarization back then, too, and some liberal antipathy toward business. And there were some crooked businesses. But you're absolutely right that the dynamic has changed. From the flush of victory after World War II into the early 1960s, everyone felt like they were still in the same boat after having pulled through the war. But something broke in the late 1960s and continued to fracture the rest of the way through the 1970s. If you look at the polls, Americans' trust in all institutions—government, religion, the military, the media—has declined and never really come back since then. Things now just seem far more polarized, and there's far less common ground in terms of what everyone wants to accomplish as a nation. These days you get the sense that businesses are out for one thing, government and politicians are out for another thing; poor people want one thing, rich people want another thing.

I'm not sure quite how to ask this, but would Sargent Shriver be possible today?

I don't think so exactly, because the times are so different. But you hear his kids, all of them, talk about how important it is to serve. Bobby is kind of a record producer and wheeler-dealer out in Hollywood, but he's always doing work with Bono and trying to get funding for curing AIDS and relieving Third World debt. Timothy Shriver is head of the Special Olympics, and he's constantly talking about being called to serve. The most striking comment was by Mark Shriver—he really sounded like his dad. He ran for Congress in 2002 and lost the primary for a congressional district in Maryland. They asked him, "So, you lost. What are your feelings?" He said, "Well, you lose. It's a huge ego blow, but you have to get up and you have to keep going. You have to keep serving." So Shriver managed to ingrain that in his children, at least.

Whether it can actually extend beyond that, I don't know. You think about what Shriver and his generation have witnessed in their lifetime. They saw the end of World War I as little kids. They saw the Depression and they saw FDR establish the New Deal, which, along with World War II, lifted the nation out of poverty and depression. Then they saw the Axis powers defeated by the Allies. They defeated totalitarianism, and then they saw a sort of golden age. They came back from the war and embarked on this post-war golden age where the economy was growing and people were coming back and the Baby Boomers were born. Their whole experience up until the 1960s was "We can do anything." We can defeat communism, we can defeat totalitarianism, we can end a Depression, we can put a man on the moon—so it really was the tenor of the time. Shriver distinctly, I think, had this sunny disposition from birth. The early 1960s were a perfect intersection of time and personality for him. The whole Peace Corps only came into being after John Kennedy made some sort of throwaway comment about it in a speech. And all these people wrote to him and said, "You really should do that." It seems unlikely you'd have something like that happen today, and that suggests that there really was something different about the early 1960s.

Maybe one of the reasons my temperament is so different from Shriver's is generational. I was born in the middle of Vietnam, I remember sitting around as a little kid watching the Watergate hearings, then the hostage crisis and the oil crisis and the malaise, and stagflation, and, later, Iran Contra, the Clinton impeachment, and so on. Shriver represents a certain kind of a faith in government and a faith that it can get things done—something I have no personal experience of, except through history. What would happen if Sargent Shriver came around now? I don't know. Maybe it would take five Sargent Shrivers to mobilize the country and shake it out of its cynicism.


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Benjamin Healy is a staff editor at The Atlantic. His most recent interview was with Matthew Miller.

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