The founder of the Peace Corps and leader of the War on Poverty has died. His biographer reflects on a remarkable legacy.
One of the more surreal moments during the seven years I worked on my biography of Sargent Shriver occurred fairly late in the process, when I was invited out to his house in Potomac, Maryland, for dinner one night. By this point, in the summer of 2003, Mr. Shriver had begun his descent into Alzheimer's, which was affecting his short-term memory and sometimes gave him trouble precisely identifying people at first. But his long-term memory was still good, and his analytical faculties remained for the most part intact, and he was always excellent company. So I was looking forward to meeting him that night and hearing his thoughts (which generally remained astute) on some chapters I had recently sent him.
He greeted me in the living room with his usual warmth and enthusiasm, eyes alight with pleasure. "Well, it's good to see you, you look ter-rific,"
he said, giving me a hearty handshake. I asked him how he was doing.
"Fantastic," he said, escorting me to the liquor cabinet at the far end
of the room. "Let me tell you about something great." And as he poured
our drinks, he told me about what was on his mind.
Also by Scott Stossel:
Eunice the Formidable: Eunice Shriver thoroughly terrified her husband's biographer--and inspired his profound admiration. A reminiscence.
"Knifed": In 1968 the Kennedy family essentially blackballed a brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, who was very close to being chosen as Hubert Humphrey's running mate. In doing so, they may have accidentally thrown the election to Richard Nixon.
"Listen," he said. "This is the most amazing thing. There's this guy who is writing a book about me, and I've been reading chapters of it. It's spooky"--that was a favorite Shriver word--"how much information he's got about me. It's uncanny!"
My heart sank; this was catastrophic news. As I had labored month after month on the book, and one year had become two and then three and then seven, one of my fears was that someone would beat me to the punch. I mean, after all, here was one of the great underappreciated figures of modern American history--founder of the Peace Corps, commanding general of the War on Poverty, vice presidential candidate, and so much more besides--and no one had yet written a full-length biography of him. But now someone else was. And here was Shriver--using one of the signature motivational techniques he'd perfected while running the Peace Corps--goading me into working harder by letting me know that a competitor was tilling the same terrain. If I didn't want to get beaten, I'd better work faster, and better.
"Is that so?" I said weakly, eagerly waiting for him to finish filling my tumbler with scotch. I was going to need the drink.
Yes, he said, and he went on to regale me with some of the "amazing"
tidbits this writer had unearthed, and all the hundreds of people he
had interviewed, and my mood got bleaker and bleaker--this other guy
seemed to have almost everything I did. How had I not gotten wind of
this earlier? Great, I thought bitterly. Seven years of my life wasted.
And then as Shriver went on, enthusiastically detailing what this other
writer was doing, the light dawned: That other writer was me. Or,
rather, Shriver didn't realize that I was me. Momentarily befogged by
his Alzheimer's, he was telling me about my own book.
Shriver may have helped more people around the world than any twentieth century American who wasn't a president, politician, or Martin Luther King.
I let him go on for a few more minutes, just to make sure I was right. (Also, what an unusual opportunity: to get an uncensored opinion of your work from someone who doesn't know that the work is yours--and from someone whom, furthermore, the work happens to be about.) Then, as gently as I could, I steered him toward awareness. "Mr. Shriver," I said. "You're talking about my book, right? In that section on the founding of Head Start, do you think that I've managed to reconcile the conflicting views about where the idea originated?" And then something slipped into place in his mind and Shriver, with the grace and social skill that is characteristic of some Alzheimer's patients and that was even more characteristic of him, smoothly moved the conversation forward, and for the rest of the night--over drinks and dinner and coffee--he discussed the relevant chapters with lucidity and great enthusiasm.
For me, such moments are what stand out most memorably from my years of working with him on the book: Even as the disease robbed him of his memory, and sometimes of his logic, it did not rob him of his spirit--warm, ebullient, devout, inspiring--which was essential to all that he achieved.
One day in the summer of 1997, during the first week I spent intensively interviewing him at his summer home in Hyannis Port, we got to talking about his German ancestry, and about the summers he'd spent in Europe as a schoolboy in the 1930s. And that got him talking about his love of certain aspects of Germanic culture, which in turn got him talking about how years ago he and his son-in-law-to-be, Arnold Schwarzenegger, had bonded over their shared roots in that region of the world. We were sitting on the veranda overlooking the Atlantic Ocean (in my tapes of those interviews, his voice is sometimes inaudible over the sound of the wind blowing and the water lapping), and he suddenly stood up and said he had to go get something. Next thing I know, he's reappeared wearing the authentic leather lederhosen Schwarzenegger had brought him years ago from Austria. Shriver had, as he ruefully noted, put on weight since he received the gift, so he sort of had to jam himself into them, and was spilling out a little over the top, and his eighty-two-year-old legs were poking out the bottom of the shorts, and he had to leave the leather shoulder straps unfastened, and he generally looked ridiculous. Yet when we continued the interview, he still in his lederhosen, talking about how his eighteenth-century forebears had fled the wars of Europe, he was completely unselfconscious and, as always, charismatic.
At that point I was only beginning to get a handle on all that Shriver had accomplished, but I would soon come to grasp how it was that a guy who would so enthusiastically and unselfconsciously don such ridiculous garb for a biographer he barely knew could be such an effective leader. In fact, during the years he led the Peace Corps, it was sometimes precisely that sort of behavior that made him so effective, especially in winning the affections of people in Peace Corps countries abroad, because he would throw himself with such abandon into the folkways and traditions of the local culture. (This was vitally important for America during the years when the Cold War threatened to go hot.)