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Sargent Shriver: A Muscular Idealism
Sargent Shriver: A Muscular Idealism
A Muscular Idealism
By BOB HERBERT
Published: April 23, 2004
Sargent Shriver is 88 years old, which is all the proof we need that time is flying. That he is not better known is a scandal.
Mention his name now, especially to young people, and you will most likely get a blank stare. His daughter, the TV personality Maria Shriver, who is the wife of Arnold Schwarzenegger and thus the first lady of California, is much better known.
Yet the author of a new biography of Mr. Shriver plausibly suggests that this idealistic and indefatigable man — who created and led the Peace Corps, founded Head Start, created the Job Corps and Legal Services for the poor, gave us Volunteers in Service to America, and was president and chairman of the Special Olympics — may have directly affected more people in a positive way than any American since Franklin Roosevelt.
Mr. Shriver came out of an era when it was considered shameful for able-bodied men to run and hide when the nation was at war. He was a heroic naval officer who served in the Pacific in World War II. The book, "Sarge: The Life and Times of Sargent Shriver" by Scott Stossel, gives us a glimpse of the reality of war in its description of a harrowing sea battle that erupted off Guadalcanal on the night of Nov. 14, 1942:
"The foremast was hit. Electrical fires erupted continuously, all around Shriver. Whole gun crews were killed by flying shells. The ship began to slow down, and more Japanese rounds ripped across the deck, killing an officer in the radar plotting room. Three rounds exploded in another battle station, killing a half dozen more men. Steam lines were severed, and the hot, hissing steam scalded numerous sailors. Ladders between decks got knocked out, making putting out fires and attending to the growing scores of wounded much more difficult. Shriver himself was wounded when metal shrapnel from an explosion lodged itself in his shoulder, a wound for which he was later to be awarded a Purple Heart."
Mr. Shriver, who has been married to John F. Kennedy's sister Eunice for more than 50 years, led the talent hunt for the new breed of public servants that staffed the Kennedy administration. You had to search hard, he felt, because those most suited for public office very often don't seek it.
The idea for the Peace Corps came up almost offhandedly during an address by Kennedy in the 1960 campaign. After the election the president asked Mr. Shriver to study the feasibility of such a program. Mr. Shriver has joked that he was the logical choice to create and lead the Peace Corps because everyone was sure it would be a disaster, and "it would be easier" for the president to fire his brother-in-law than anybody else.
A young Bill Moyers, who joined Mr. Shriver at the Peace Corps and eventually became its deputy director, said a crucial component of the corps was Mr. Shriver's deep commitment to the idea of America "as a social enterprise . . . of caring and cooperative people."
The Peace Corps turned out to be the signature success of Kennedy's New Frontier.
In 1964, as head of the Office of Economic Opportunity in the Johnson administration, Mr. Shriver came across studies that showed connections between poor nutrition, lower I.Q. scores and arrested social and emotional development. He wondered whether early childhood intervention "could have a beneficial effect on the children of poor people." Head Start followed in incredibly short order.
There seemed to be no end to the man's restlessness, energy, curiosity, creativity and optimism. Those qualities never waned through wars, assassinations, political setbacks or personal disappointments.
I talked to Mr. Shriver on the phone yesterday. "I think I'm one of the luckiest guys in history," he said. "From the time I was, say, 17 to the time I'm 88, I have been exposed to a galaxy of wonderful people, to challenging situations, to worldwide problems, sometimes to weaknesses and sometimes to strengths. And we made an effort during that time to find out what was true, and what was needed by way of improvement."
Mr. Shriver's commitment to public service has always seemed both joyous and total. In 1994, he told graduating students at Yale, his alma mater, to break all their mirrors. "Yes, indeed," he said, "shatter the glass. In our society that is so self-absorbed, begin to look less at yourself and more at each other. Learn more about the face of your neighbor, and less about your own."