Politician-Activist Sargent Shriver: He's the Real Ideal

Sargent Shriver, subject of a public television documentary, in 1972 when he was Democratic candidate for vice president, running mate of George McGovern.
Sargent Shriver, subject of a public television documentary, in 1972 when he was Democratic candidate for vice president, running mate of George McGovern. (Corbis Via Pbs)
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 21, 2008

Eras and epochs seem to take turns being trashed, with the decade of the 1960s getting way more than its share of scorn. It was a time of tragedies and villains, yes, but obviously a time of great heroes, too. One of them, often overlooked, is properly celebrated in a public TV documentary tonight: "American Idealist: The Story of Sargent Shriver."

Shriver, now 92, was officially "R. Sargent Shriver" on the great stage of social change half a century ago, though some of us never knew what the "R" stood for (Robert). We did know that he was the first man to lead the Peace Corps, one of the golden strokes of an age in which America seemed a land not only of opportunity but of lofty dreams and goals. Scoffed at by some in the old political establishment (even, in a film clip, by outgoing President Dwight D. Eisenhower), the Peace Corps survived as a remnant of Camelot at its most inspired.

Shriver's accent, the narrow lapels of his tailored suits and a dauntless kind of vigor (or "vigah," as President John F. Kennedy pronounced it) contributed to the impression that Shriver was a Kennedy by blood, but it was by marriage: He and Eunice Kennedy were wed on May 23, 1953, with Eunice eventually giving birth to a Kennedyesque five children. There were times, as the documentary recalls, when being a de facto Kennedy was a decided advantage for Shriver, but others when it was, in the argot of the times, a bummer -- as when Shriver had to decline being Hubert Humphrey's running mate because the Kennedys feared Shriver's popularity might some day interfere with Teddy's political ambitions.

Bill Moyers, who contributes reminiscence, calls Shriver "the best all-around politician I've ever seen," but in addition Shriver did seem to be that rare thing, a politician with stubbornly high ideals -- instilling in followers what Moyers calls "a sense of almost infinite possibilities." So it was that Lyndon Johnson saw in Shriver the perfect man to run the ambitious war on poverty, a war declared by LBJ to help bring about the "Great Society" that Johnson insisted was within our grasp.

Probably the rarest piece of memorabilia in the documentary is an excerpt from the recording of a phone call that LBJ made to Shriver, still running the Peace Corps, in an effort to persuade him to take on the new job. "I'm just giving you a billion dollars more to work with," Johnson says as only Johnson could. He taunts Shriver by saying that maybe he doesn't have "the glands" to take on such an enormous task; Shriver finally capitulated and became special assistant to the president.

The war proved essentially unwinnable, however, especially once Southern congressmen, some still openly segregationist, got hold of it and, says the narrator, "terrorized" it. Instead of investigating the causes of American poverty, such warped old-timers as Sen. John Stennis (D-Miss.) instead launched investigations into the programs themselves, among them the seemingly unassailable Operation Head Start, which helped impoverished and disadvantaged kids. Some 12,000 benefited from Head Start in Mississippi alone before the program there was coldly closed down.

Perhaps heroes and villains were easier to spot then; Shriver seemed clearly to think in socially heroic terms and to be the target of the ignorant. The Special Olympics, another legacy that has flourished in ensuing years, was born in the Shrivers' big back yard, we are reminded. As for the War on Poverty, it was finally done in decisively by another war, the one in Vietnam, and the '60s became a blood bath in more ways than one.

In fairly recent footage, Coretta Scott King (who died two years ago) speaks warmly of Shriver and his role in the civil rights struggle, making the documentary appropriate viewing for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. In 1960, King was arrested by small-town officials in Georgia and given the preposterous sentence of four years at hard labor for a traffic violation. There was every reason to fear for King's life. Shriver urged then-candidate JFK to take the political risk of making a phone call in King's behalf, a move that reportedly infuriated Bobby because it could have meant the loss of votes in the still-Democratic old South.

Kennedy interceded enough to get King released -- under what were, for King himself, frightening circumstances; with no explanation from the men who escorted him, King was driven out of town and into the woods. Understandably, he imagined the worst.

Among those contributing comments for the report -- written and directed by Bruce Orenstein -- are authors Scott Stossel and Adam Green, Kennedy aide Ted Sorensen and journalist Colman McCarthy. Faces from the era seen in old footage include CBS News veterans Eric Sevareid and Daniel Schorr and, in that iconic clip in which he announced the death of President Kennedy in Dallas, Walter Cronkite.

Funny how, no matter how many times you relive that moment, it still gives you chills.

American Idealist: The Story of Sargent Shriver airs tonight at 10 on WETA (Channel 26).

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