The Last Liberal: Sargent Shriver’s life and times
Sarge: The Life and Times of Sargent Shriver by Scott Stossel (Smithsonian, 761 pp., $52.50)
ONE DAY, early in the summer of 1970, I read in the New York Times that Sargent Shriver was opening an office in Washington to help elect Democrats to Congress. Shriver had just returned from a tour as ambassador to France and was eager, the story implied, to join the political battle against Nixon and Agnew. “Sounds like fun,” I told my wife over morning coffee. Three hours later, the phone rang, and it was Shriver, inviting me down to Washington to write for him.
He explained–when I visited him the next day at Timberlawn, his Maryland home, out Rockville Pike from Washington–that he had been reading my book The Experience of Nothingness during his last days in France. He read some of it aloud to me right there, and asked me if I would be willing to come and write for him: We would be on the road all summer, right through Election Day, he explained, which meant I would need to take a semester’s leave of absence from the university in the fall, but my family could live at Timberlawn in the pool house during the campaign.
I said yes. When a little later I was introduced to Eunice, she smiled and said Sarge would be tough on me. “Give you five dollars if you’re still here Election Day,” she tossed her hair in the way parochial schoolgirls used to do. It was a marvelous adventure, those five months. There were people working in the office on K Street, there were advance teams, press secretaries, and sometimes an old-time Kennedy (or Stevenson or Humphrey or Johnson) hand for advice and company and schmoozing. And then there was Sarge and me. We did thirty-eight states, and I forget how many campaigns–pretty close to a hundred, I think.
I remember Sarge almost killing himself by taking a dare in South Dakota and allowing a bunch of the Democrats there to seat him on one side of a big inner tube near the shore of the local lake, with a rope tied to its other side, the rope then strung out about thirty feet to a power boat. When the men with drinks in their hands roared off at high speed, I was sure Sarge was going to lose both his legs in the boat’s wake.
I also remember campaigning in Oakland, and Ron Dellums telling Sarge in front of the crowd that Oakland was so tough that even the muggers went in twos. We also put in a stop for another freshman, this time for the California Assembly, John Vasconcellos–who stays in touch with me to this day–and met in Sacramento with Jerry Brown, too. We baked in the desert at 110 degrees in Palm Springs, deplaning from a four-seat Cessna flown briskly by a woman pilot who wore a white jumpsuit with a flying tiger emblem on her buckle. We did Vegas, Albuquerque, Toledo, anywhere anybody wanted a headliner for a chicken dinner fundraiser. There were movie stars or athletes to join us at almost every stop. There were always Peace Corps veterans, or Job Corps veterans, or Upward Bound leaders. There was an army of Shriver people everywhere.
Sarge liked to have three or four index cards, block-printed with felt-tip pens, for each of the nine themes of the campaign. The main facts, a story or two to illustrate, a funny line or two, a throat-tightener, a punchy ending, or a lead into the next sequence. He would vary these sequences, depending on the crowd or occasion. He thought a good speech ought to move an audience through several different moods, from hilarity through sadness and on to resolve. He liked to keep things fresh. Every day he would hand me new clippings with facts or stories to “work in.”
HE ALWAYS WANTED a “touch of class,” as well, by which he meant a quotation from a theologian, philosopher, or classic figure–particularly something with the aura of the Catholic tradition. In this, he reminded me a bit of Eugene McCarthy, already a friend through our Commonweal ties. Both McCarthy and Shriver were Catholics not only by birth but intellectually and knowledgeably, in the way that the Kennedy brothers never were, and both thought the Catholic tradition shed an intellectual light on American perplexities that nothing else rivaled.
Shriver always hired someone–Colman McCarthy, Mark Shields, a legion of others–to play the role I held: someone to talk to about Teilhard de Chardin and Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa and Thérèse of Lisieux and Peter Maurin and G.K. Chesterton and Danilo Dolci and the Worker Priests of France and Cardinal Suhard. Shriver loved the vein of Catholic thought that wanted to “reconstruct the social order,” “put the yeast of the gospel in the world,” “feed the hungry, comfort the afflicted.” He thought of the Catholic faith as a culture-changing force, a shaper of civilizations, an inspirer of great works, a builder of great institutions that bring help of all kinds to the needy in all dimensions of need.
Some people always thought this passion was a Kennedy thing. Shriver had a certain nobility of soul regarding the Kennedys, and I never heard a negative word cross his lips. But Shriver had a sense of his own lineage, needing vindication by nobody else. His family had helped to launch Maryland on the side of Independence, had fought on both sides of the Civil War, and served gallantly in every American war.
Long before he got involved with the Kennedys, he had excelled in prep school (in fact, he bested there, by far, Jack Kennedy), at Yale, in the Experiment in International Living (which took him to Europe every summer until 1939–he was on the last ship to leave France the day the war broke out), in the Navy, at Yale Law School, at Newsweek, and in fact at everything he had tried to do.
He had joined the Navy after Yale and emerged a hero from a decisive battle off Guadalcanal. He was from the beginning handsome, dashing, athletic, self-confident, full of fun and zest, a restless thinker, and a man with an instinct for the grand and truly great, and an acute sense of destiny. Well before he met the Kennedys, he was preparing himself for high ambitions, certainly a governorship or Senate seat. Why not? His faith wanted him to, his family expected it, he had been granted great opportunities to prepare for such things, and his inner energy and expectations longed for them.
He was McGovern’s second choice to run for vice president in a doomed campaign, and that was as close as he got to the highest peaks of national ambition. He never became president, or governor, or senator. To some, that may seem a curious failure for a man with so much talent and considerable success at every lower level.
WITH SARGE: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF SARGENT SHRIVER, Scott Stossel has written a really good biography. I hadn’t expected it to be; so many such books aren’t. But there are many things Stossel tells that I never learned while working for Shriver in that 1970 campaign, or as his speechwriter again during his candidacy as vice president in 1972. On that occasion, the moment Senator Eagleton withdrew his candidacy, I guessed that McGovern, for whom I was then working, would turn to Sarge, so I instantly began writing his acceptance speech; and I showed up unbidden at Timberlawn the morning the news became public. All the old Kennedy speechwriters were there the next day with drafts of an acceptance speech for Sarge. He read them all, and chose mine.
From Stossel I learned the details about the Shrivers (and Shreibers) of Maryland; and about Sarge’s mother and her influence on him; and how the great Cardinal Gibbons often used to come to stay with his family for days at a time (and during his final illness) and called them the best Catholic family in Maryland. From Stossel I also learned the dramatic story of his courage and decisive leadership as gunnery officer of the battleship South Dakota, which very nearly went down under furious bombardment off Guadalcanal. After that, Sarge trained to gain command of a submarine, but on assignment day, he overslept–much to his cold fury at his bad luck. (He was later to learn that all six of his companions who received commands perished at sea.)
The story of Sarge’s long, difficult courtship of Eunice, Stossel tells most affectingly through passages from letters. Eunice was such a strong, determined, active, personally driven woman that it speaks extremely highly of Sarge that it was precisely for these qualities that he loved her. That he pursued her so long and so singlemindedly, when other women were falling all over him, is also a great story in itself. That marrying her meant living in the shade of the Kennedys was a burden to him, and yet one he had reflectively and deliberately assumed. He felt the blessing of God in it.
He also took real pleasure in helping his wife to be the leader she is, and he put himself at the service of her dreams in helping with the Special Olympics. Only a Kennedy and a Shriver could have made that happen. It meant mobilizing legions of athletes and movie stars and journalists and publicists and health workers and volunteers. The vision came from Eunice (who from her teenage years longed to help the most needy) but the organizational skill, salesmanship, and jack-of-all-trades talents of Sarge made it happen.
MOST PEOPLE HAVE FORGOTTEN, if they ever knew, that Sarge was almost Lyndon Johnson’s choice for vice president, instead of Hubert Humphrey. Johnson liked and admired Shriver and knew he could be his salesman on Capitol Hill–and also a hedge against the ambitions of Bobby Kennedy. He entrusted Sarge with the War on Poverty. Again, it may not mean much today, but the French loved Sarge when he was ambassador to France. He was everywhere, and glamorous, and intellectual, and all the things the French admire.
In his late-starting 1972 race for the vice presidency, the cause was hopeless. But Mickey Kantor, Mark Shields, Jeanie Mains, Doris Kearns, and a host of talented volunteers poured out to join him. McGovern assigned us the task of winning back the Catholic ethnic vote that Nixon had so knowingly cut into in 1968. We saw a lot of Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Youngstown, Cleveland, Toledo, Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, occasionally St. Louis, and then around and back again. Toward the end, when the crowds were huge and enthusiastic, we began to feel–unbelievable as it now seems–that the press must be wrong, and the campaign might have a chance of winning. What the crowds were actually saying is that they weren’t going to vote for us, but we shouldn’t take it personally, because they really did like Shriver.
At a factory gate, on one occasion, I watched one of the advance team hand out flyers in a see-through blouse, a miniskirt, high boots, and a big red “Abortion” button. Turning away from her in disgust, the older workers weren’t meeting Shriver’s eyes, and I saw two spit on the ground in anger–this in a factory in Joliet, Illinois, from which the Democrats should have gotten, maybe, 114 percent of the vote. It wasn’t Sarge’s fault. But such experiences of the Democratic party that year, not respecting its own base, were enough to make a neoconservative out of me.
Most people also forget that Sarge ran for president in 1976. Once again, as in 1970 and 1972, Teddy Kennedy and his professionals didn’t rally round. Just before the crucial Massachusetts primary, Stossel relates, after he sat down from a rousing St. Patrick’s Day talk at a big luncheon in Boston, Teddy Kennedy got a sharp rebuke from Eunice, because not once had Teddy even mentioned Sarge’s name or urged the faithful to help him. We knew back in 1970 and 1972 that Teddy and his guys were carping about Sarge’s speeches–once Sarge even threw in a mention of Teilhard de Chardin just to torment them a little. Sarge kept doing things his way, and even today, a number of his best lines keep getting picked up, like his 1970 “culture of life, culture of death” speech.
STOSSEL IS MISLED on a related point by Mark Shields’s telling of the famous anecdote about Sarge, in a crowded ethnic bar, buying drinks for all the workers and then, at his turn, after all the shouts for various American beers, calling out: “Make mine a Courvoisier.” Sarge knew exactly what he was doing. He thought if he ordered a beer, everybody there would know he was a phony. He respected other people for being who they were, and he was damned well not going to pretend to be what he wasn’t. He admired the hard work, the family life, the faith, the hopes of these guys. But he didn’t think they wanted him to be exactly like them. It wasn’t Tip O’Neill’s way of campaigning, and Sarge may have had it wrong. But he did it his way, and I liked him the more for it.
Even here Stossel, to his credit, gets to the essence of Shriver, for he keeps pointing out how much the guys in the bars actually liked Sarge. Stossel isn’t so good on why the same guys weren’t so sure about the national Democrats any longer–not after McGovern said he would apologize to the North Vietnamese. And not when they listened to Shirley MacLaine going on and on (and there seemed to be ever more radical voices in the national campaign, and fewer and fewer familiar local pols and party “bosses”). The new guys had forgotten that one radical’s “party boss” was some regular’s source of patronage and garbage service.
After 1976, Shriver turned his attention back to charities and public life, including (in his law work) all sorts of activities to link civil society in Russia to the outside world. (Once, his young son, whom he took on a trip to Russia, chased a ball down the hall, opened a door, and found Russian agents inside minding tapes that were picking up everything the Shrivers did.)
Sarge also kept up his support for all the institutions he had helped get started–and, if you think about it, there are still standing, and sometimes thriving, forty years later a number of truly beloved institutions Sarge Shriver helped to found–not only the Special Olympics, but also the Peace Corps, Upward Bound, Head Start, the less successful Jobs Corps, and not a few initiatives of the much-mocked War on Poverty.
It is astonishing how many of these programs anticipated later writings on civil society. Many were designed to raise flying buttresses outside of government, involving “mediating structures” (most notably, the urban churches and big business and the world of celebrities) and civil society. Much that Shriver had a hand in creating contained significant elements of “compassionate conservatism.” A lot of big government liberalism, too–but with an arresting number of conservative elements.
In Sarge, Stossel describes the conversation in which many of Shriver’s friendsadvised Sarge not to reveal the early signs of Alzheimer’s (which set in three years ago), and Shriver replied, “Reagan had a much worse affliction than I did. Hard-core conservatism. Whatever I’ve got now, I never suffered from that.” I cannot believe Shriver would mean any comment like that cruelly, but it is, in fact, how he often thought of conservatives. Sarge could understand liberal Republicans; many of his Yalie friends were such–he could see the tony similarity that certain Republicans and certain Democrats share in good spirits, which leads them to believe that they are not ideological. But people like Reagan seemed to them beyond the pale.
Yet for Shriver, this was not entirely a matter of social class. His ancestors helped found the Maryland Democratic party, and though he would never confuse politics with religion, his politics were quite equally a thing of faith. Those outside that faith seemed to him afflicted. Sarge would experience them as strangers, odd fish, and would feel sad for them. In a political campaign, he would lambaste them with zest. One on one, he would try to charm them, and do his best to try to understand them, as if they were another species.
I used to wonder, over many years, what would happen if Sarge ever came to see the flaws in the Democratic party’s way of construing taxes, poverty, crime, welfare, and abortion, and so became a conservative. There were many aspects about his life that could have led him in this direction. His business experience prevented him from being a full-blown leftist on economic policy.
On abortion, he and Eunice were always flat out of accord with their party–but not ready to break from it or even to insist on their voices being heard. I always expected Sarge to have more sympathy than he ever actually showed with those former liberals who had been mugged by reality and become neoconservatives. I even thought, sometimes, that he might join us.
But, the truth is, he really was a Democrat, a party man, all the way down. His loyalty was one of the reasons he was a great man–and also one of the reasons he was never as great in politics as he should have been.
Michael Novak is George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute.
Published in The Weekly Standard on May 24, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 35