Shriver urges people look past derogatory term, see Special Olympics' humanity

In San Juan, Puerto Rico, Timothy Shriver, chairman of Special Olympics International brings hope -- and laughter -- to the athletes competing in the Special Olympics Latin American games.
By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 19, 2010

SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO -- Apologize to Tim Shriver. Say "sorry."

Such is the new act of contrition for the American public figure.

Rahm did it. President Obama did it. Even Bill O'Reilly, serving as proxy for a pal, did it -- sort of.

The apologies come publicly and privately, mea culpas for colloquial jabs about "retards" or quips that equate Special Olympians with ineptitude or remarks that equate "retarded" with stupidity. All this apologizing -- the serialization of regret -- feels like something bigger than a mere linguistic fight to Shriver.

It feels like a Moment.

"It's not so much that the word is such an important thing, but it's finally a chance to talk about humiliation," Shriver says from the back seat of a sport-utility vehicle as it snakes through traffic between events at the Special Olympics Latin American games late last month. "This 'thing' has gotten more attention for the underlying issues than anything. A Rosa Parks moment or a March on Washington moment -- this population hasn't had that anywhere."

Here in San Juan, volunteers from Colombia and El Salvador bustle to get their pictures taken with him; back home, advocates praise his tenacity. Yet, others deride him as a fussy, politically correct "word cop," especially when he complains about "retard" showing up in the movies and television. He sinks his chin into his palm, there in the back seat, and sighs about his detractors: "Artistic license. Blah, blah, blah."

Shriver -- chairman of Special Olympics International and son of its founder, Eunice Kennedy Shriver -- arrived in Puerto Rico nine days after his cousin Patrick Kennedy announced that he would not seek reelection as congressman from Rhode Island; almost six months after spending his 50th birthday attending the funeral of his uncle, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. For the first time in half a century, soon no Kennedy will hold a seat in Congress. And Shriver, who once couldn't imagine going into the "family business" of national power, will soon be the only member of the clan serving in a high-profile position in Washington.

"Am I really?" he says one afternoon in his downtown Washington office after returning from San Juan. "Geez. I hadn't really thought of that."

He had just ended a call with his cousin, Caroline Kennedy, talking about all the anniversaries coming up in the next few years, all the "50 years since" markers. The Cuban missile crisis, the Bay of Pigs, the founding of the Peace Corps. His father, Sargent Shriver, now 94 and grappling with Alzheimer's, was the driving force behind the volunteer program's creation and its first director.

In profile, Shriver's bloodlines are clear: thick, dark hair, parted at the side, a sharp nose. There's a book on the shelf: "The Kennedys: America's Emerald Kings: A Five-Generation History of the Ultimate Irish-Catholic Family." He hasn't read it.

"My overflow shelf," he says. "Do you want it?"

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