Mark Shriver’s moving and thoughtful book about his father, Sargent Shriver, who died in 2011, is both an homage and an exploration. In writing it, Mark discovered that the key to his father’s life was not so much the man’s acknowledged greatness as his underlying goodness, sustained by an abiding faith.
Sargent Shriver, who married into the Kennedy family, served in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. “My life in a famous and often star-crossed American clan,” the younger Shriver writes, “would not be without its trials and disappointments, but I had as my father a man who not only was faith-filled and disciplined, but who also insisted, in large part because of his faith, on the grace and joy in life.”
Even those Americans who remember the 1960 presidential campaign may have forgotten how controversial John F. Kennedy’s religion was for a portion of the electorate. There was real fear in some quarters that the United States’ first Catholic president might bring the nation under the dominion of the pope. More than 50 years later, the remembered legacy of the Kennedy administration includes the creation of the Peace Corps; the tension of the Cuban missile crisis; the glamour and promise of the Kennedy milieu, known as “Camelot”; and the devastating assassination in Dallas. For many people, the fact that the Kennedys and their extended family members were practicing Catholics has slipped into the background.
Mark Shriver brings out the strength and substance of faith in his father’s life and work, writing about this unapologetically and with a kind of wonder. “I saw it every day I was with him, though I couldn’t articulate it this consciously and — at least for me — usefully until after he died.”
He recounts, too, his father’s many accomplishments, among them the founding of the Peace Corps under Kennedy and later the establishment of the fundamental elements of Lyndon B. Johnson’s war on poverty: Head Start, Job Corps, VISTA and Legal Services. He also details the hyper-energetic antics and athletics of the Kennedy family, such as intensely competitive games of football and water polo involving adults as well as children. “No one ever drowned or even lost a tooth, as far as I can remember, but there were bloody lips and scrapes and plenty of shouting matches.” It is illuminating to learn that when Mark’s older brother Bobby fell, began to cry, and was told by his uncle and namesake Bobby Kennedy, “Kennedys don’t cry!” Sargent Shriver picked up his son and said, “It’s okay, you can cry.! You’re a Shriver!”
Not a Kennedy, yet very much a part of the Kennedy tribe (Mark’s mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, was the president’s sister), posed one of many challenges for Mark as he grew up. He acknowledges being very angry in adolescence. Although he does not recall conversations with his father about the anger, “his work and his demeanor kept me hoping that I would find a more peaceful place to be able to make sense of what I had been born into.” One path to that “peaceful place” was provided by the steadfast daily presence of his father’s love. Mark remembers what he calls “that look,” the special way that Sargent Shriver always looked at his wife and at his children. “I knew that look and understood that, regardless of any obstacles I might face, an incredible foundation of love and support was there for me,” he writes.
There may be no greater test of the relationship between parent and child than the crucible of adult dementia. Sargent Shriver suffered from Alzheimer’s disease for 10 years, through the illness and death of his beloved wife in 2009 and then for 17 months following that loss. Mark writes honestly about his embarrassment about his father’s “Alzheimer’s habits,” including incessant nose-blowing, but also remembers his father smiling beside him in a church pew, suddenly putting a hand on his son’s knee and saying quietly, “I love you.”
Perhaps the most telling story from this period is about a conversation Mark had with his father in a more lucid moment. Mark asked how it felt to be struggling with this disease, what it was like to lose one’s mind. His father answered, “I’m doing the best I can with what God has given me.”
This book makes abundantly clear that during a lifetime of service to his family, to his country and to his God, Sargent Shriver’s best was very good indeed: loving, dedicated, joyful, sacred in its deepest intent. One might reasonably suggest that to offer a fitting tribute to such a human is also the work of a good man. It comes as no surprise that Mark Shriver was equal to the job.
Rediscovering My Father,
By Mark K. Shriver
Henry Holt. 273 pp. $24