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If Sargent Shriver had run for governor of Maryland ...

Patrick McGrath Churchton, Md.
Sunday, January 23, 2011; C05

In the stories about R. Sargent Shriver this week, it was often mentioned that he was a second choice to be George McGovern's running mate in the 1972 presidential election and that he ran unsuccessfully for president in 1976. Shriver never did win election to any public office, but his career, and Maryland history, might have been significantly different if he had decided to run for governor of Maryland against fellow Democrat Marvin Mandel in 1970.

In April 1970, Shriver had just returned to Maryland after two years as U.S. ambassador to France. That only added to the glamour of the Kennedy in-law, who had been much praised for his work establishing the Peace Corps and running LBJ's War on Poverty. And with Ted Kennedy still under the cloud of Chappaquiddick less than a year earlier, Shriver was at that moment the most viable political star connected to the days of Camelot.

Shriver would have faced significant challenges if he had decided to run. Despite his family's long history in Maryland, going back to pre-Revolutionary War days, he had not been active in Maryland politics and would have faced "carpetbagger" charges. And Mandel had amassed a campaign war chest reported to be more than a half million dollars - a lot of money in those days.

Still, Shriver was a "Kennedy-by-marriage," Central Casting handsome and possessed of charisma that Mandel did not have. And Mandel notably had not won the office of governor in a statewide election. When Spiro Agnew was elected vice president in 1968, the Maryland Constitution did not provide for a lieutenant governor. It fell to the state legislature to pick Agnew's successor, and as speaker of the House, Mandel had the votes. But in 1970, Mandel, the state's first Jewish governor, had not yet demonstrated an ability to win votes outside his heavily Jewish Baltimore district.

Some Democrats formed committees and generated publicity to encourage Shriver to get into the primary race. And some thought that Shriver could win with a vigorous campaign and strong support from the Kennedy family. Shriver did tour the state to test his support and then had a highly publicized meeting with Mandel in the governor's office. I was part of a large media contingent gathered outside the door. When the meeting ended, Shriver was no longer considering a run.

Last October, I had the opportunity to talk to Mandel, and I asked him what happened in that meeting. He was his old, coy self, not really giving an answer. When I mentioned his financial advantage over Shriver, he smiled but didn't really confirm anything. He said, "We had a long discussion, and when it was over, he wasn't a candidate."

Nevertheless, it is interesting to wonder what might have happened had Shriver won in 1970. Most obvious, there wouldn't have been a corruption investigation of Mandel and the two long trials that further blighted Maryland's reputation after Agnew's resignation from the vice presidency. And "Governor" Shriver - now elected to prominent office, not appointed by Kennedy or Johnson - would surely have been a more potent political figure nationally.

If he had been reelected governor in 1974, he would have been a seasoned candidate by 1976. Rather than losing in the presidential primaries to Jimmy Carter, who knows?

It is just speculation. What might have been? But it would be fascinating to know what really was said at that long-ago Shriver-Mandel meeting.

The writer is a former reporter with WTTG-TV Fox 5 in the District.

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