FLORIDA, September 22, 2012 — Sargent Shriver was a public servant.
Today, many of our public officeholders are career politicians, and all too few truly care about the world around them. They could learn a great deal from Sarge’s legacy. We all can.
Sarge built a career of placing people above partisanship. From his role in the War on Poverty to forming the Peace Corps, the idea was always to lend a helping hand. His son, Mark, recently wrote a book about this, aptly titled “A Good Man.”
In a detailed discussion with me, Mark described his father’s efforts to combat poverty, claim the presidency, care for his family, and far more.
Joseph F. Cotto: During Sarge’s life, his devotion to public service was only outweighed by responsibilities to his family. How do you think that he was able to balance his personal and professional lives?
Mark Shriver: I think Dad was able to balance his personal and professional lives and his countless friends from all walks of life because of his deep faith. He went to Mass every day of his life, got on his knees, and asked God for help and direction. His faith helped him to realize that every day is a gift that should be cherished, and that realization gave him boundless energy and joy. Paradoxically, it also slowed him down to appreciate every moment and every human interaction — he had this incredible energy, and yet he had the ability to be in the moment, with whomever he was with. What a combination!
Cotto: In his efforts to bring about international goodwill, your father founded the Peace Corps. Toward the end of his life, was he happy with its progress?
Shriver: At its height (15,000 volunteers), the Peace Corps was twice as big as it is today, but Dad thought it should be even bigger. He believed the Peace Corps was profoundly important, not only because of the good work accomplished in the host countries but also because of the impact the experience had on the volunteers themselves. I know he would be incredibly proud that his grandson, Teddy, is serving in Peru today, but he would be agitating the powers that be to increase funding for the Peace Corps.
Cotto: On the domestic side, Sarge played a key role in developing the War on Poverty. It still stands as one of the federal government’s most controversial public assistance projects. What were his opinions about its legacy?
Shriver: Dad was proud of all the initiatives created through the War on Poverty: Head Start, Legal Services, Job Corps, Foster Grandparents, and VISTA, to name just a few. He was proud of the bipartisan support those initiatives received: Nancy Reagan was a proud supporter of Foster Grandparents; Governor George Romney was the national co-chair of VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America, the domestic Peace Corps); Senator Orrin Hatch was a strong supporter of Job Corps. He was also proud of the results: The rates of poverty among seniors and children decreased by 10 percentage points from 1965 to 1975 and the War on Poverty played an important role in that decline. I am confident that he’d be encouraging the leaders of those programs to achieve better results today but he also would be out there pushing for more funding for programs that help the poor.
Cotto: Though he tried mightily, your father was never able to clinch the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. Quite often, things like this can haunt politicians for the rest of their lives. How did he handle the loss? Was he satisfied with the experience of running for president nonetheless?
Shriver: Dad did not win the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 1976 and, of course, the McGovern-Shriver ticket suffered a landslide defeat in 1972 to the Nixon-Agnew ticket, but he never voiced bitterness or anger about those two defeats. Many people have mentioned to me Dad’s words to George McGovern on election night 1972: “George, we may have lost the election but we didn’t lose our souls.” I think that’s how he looked at life; he did the best he could with the gifts and opportunities God had given him and tomorrow was another opportunity to do the same.
Cotto: Throughout your book, you write about Sarge’s deep sense of direction and meaning in life. What, in a summarized sense, do you believe that this was rooted in?
Shriver: I think it was rooted in faith. Dad was a devout Catholic and he saw his Catholicism as a call to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and shelter the homeless. But he didn’t care what religion you were; if you wanted to help the poor in this country or abroad, or help people with developmental disabilities, he wanted to work with you. His faith, which was an inclusive faith perspective, gave him that sense of direction and meaning throughout his life.
Cotto: Some politicians find their greatest rewards in speaking to a crowd or standing in front of a camera. What kept your father attracted to public service for so long?
Shriver: I don’t think Dad’s greatest reward was ever speaking to a crowd or standing in front of a camera; in fact, it was probably the exact opposite. Sure, he had an ego, but it was grounded in a desire to help the poor and disenfranchised. I know that sounds corny but I really believe it. He was energized and motivated by his faith and that kept him engaged right up to the end. Other politicians get burned out because it’s so often about themselves, but with Dad, that was not the case.
Cotto: These days, America’s political climate is very different than it was during Sarge’s heyday. As a former Maryland state legislator, why do you suppose things have become so polarized?
Shriver: I think it’s unfortunate that our leadership at so many levels appeal to us by stressing what makes us different from our neighbor, rather than appealing to what unites us. It’s harder to show what unites us, what brings us together, and to focus on that. It’s much easier to separate and vilify people in order to garner support. There is, however, so much that brings us together — I wish our leadership would focus on that commonality. We’d make so much more progress that way.
Cotto: How has your father’s life shaped your career as a public officeholder and advocate for children’s causes?
Shriver: I think most children look at their parents as role models. If they see their parents joyful and engaged in their work, then they become attracted to that line of work. That was definitely the case with me — my mother and father never missed a day of work because they were so excited about what they were doing. Seeing that type of commitment inspired me to go into the field. I am not nearly as talented as they were, but I am trying!
Cotto: Many people are skeptical about politics and politicians as of late. Do you think that a person like Sarge could feasibly rise to prominence today?
Shriver: I am hopeful that someone with Dad’s commitment to helping the poor or those who don’t have a seat at the table, like people with development disabilities, would rise to prominence. It’s difficult — there are so many voices in the public arena right now that it is hard to be heard, but I am optimistic.
Cotto: Is there anything that most probably do not know about your father, but should? If so, would you mind sharing it?
Shriver: I think the thing you have to remember about Dad is that he did great work on the world stage, but he was an even better husband, father, and friend. He was serious when he had to be but he was also so joyful. Whenever I had friends over for dinner, Dad would engage in thoughtful, insightful conversation but also tell fun and entertaining stories. After dinner, he’d invite everyone for a drink and a cigar. The man loved life and was so much fun to be around.
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