Wednesday, July 04, 2012

New Books Remembering Sargent Shriver, One of the Last of a Vanishing Breed

"Break your mirrors... Serve, serve, serve, for in the end it will be the servants who save us all."

This is what a Catholic public servant and statesman used to look like.

Sargent Shriver passed away in 2011 at the age of 95, after a long and difficult struggle with Alzheimer's. At one time he was well-known as one of the Kennedy in-laws, married to JFK's sister Eunice. He was a man of prodigious energy, with a long and distinguished career in civil service. As he once put it, "Joe Kennedy isn't in the habit of having incompetents around. I wouldn't have lasted three months if I didn't have some ability."

A man of deep and abiding faith, a daily communicant, he provided the driving inspiration behind the creation of the Peace Corps, and directed that organization at the same time he was also running Lyndon Johnson's "War on Poverty." He's also known for his work at the National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice, his work on integrating Chicago's Catholic schools, founding the Job Corps, VISTA, Head Start, and serving as President of the Special Olympics, which was started by his wife Eunice. He was a signatory to the 1992 document A New Compact of Care: Caring about Women, Caring for the Unborn.

To but it bluntly as this blogger did, he represented the time when When Liberals Had Balls, Made Sense And Wore Ties.

Among all the members of the Kennedy clan, you might say that "Sarge" and the rest of the Shriver family have acquitted themselves over the years with the most decorum and the most impressive accomplishments. Sargent Shriver helped run JFK's presidential campaign and also organized his funeral. Despite the poisonous relationship between Bobby Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, Shriver, in his openness and integrity, was admired and trusted by both men. At one time, during his 1964 campaign, Johnson was seriously considering having Shriver on the ticket as the vice-presidential candidate, unbeknownst to Shriver. As reported in the new book by Scott Stossel, Sarge: The Life and Times of Sargent Shriver, when Bobby got wind of this, in a rare moment of tension between them, he confronted Shriver in Hyannisport, grabbing him by the lapels and hissing, "Let me make something clear. There's not going to be a Kennedy on this ticket. And if there were, it would be me!"

It wasn't such raw ambition, though, that drove Shriver so much as his faith-driven imperative to pursue social justice - to serve. He was know for saying things like "It's the most rewarding thing to be a civil servant," and "It is well to be prepared for life as it is, but it is better to be prepared to make life better than it is," and challenging each of us to ask ourselves "What have I done to improve the lot of humanity?"

It's sad, and even tragic, that this kind of idealism is considered corny, sappy, and provokes eye-rolling today. It's sad to see how much the libertarian-inspired hatred and distrust of government taken hold of the popular mindset in this country. It wasn't always this way. People didn't always hold contempt for public service, I'm old enough to remember that. Unfortunately, as the hopes of the Sixties crumbled into the ugliness, disillusionment, and failures of the Seventies, even the mention of LBJ's "War on Poverty" causes people to wince today, and the work and reputation of men like Sargent Shriver in needlessly and unjustly tarnished.

Even back in those days there were people who described him as a "boy scout" in his do-goody-good liberalism. By 1972, the otherwise progressive-minded National Lampoon magazine cruelly satirized him with their spoof entitled "Sargent Shriver's Bleeding Hearts Club Band."

(Lyrics sung to the tune of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band)

Just a dozen years ago today,
Sgt. Shriver taught the clan to play
Once they played for Bobby and for John
Now they’re guaranteed to raise a yawn
We now reintroduce to you
The act we’ve blown for all these years,
Sgt. Shriver’s Bleeding Hearts Club Band.
We’re Sgt. Shriver’s Bleeding Hearts Club Band,
The martyred brothers’ kith and kin.
We’re Sgt. Shriver’s Bleeding Hearts Club Band,
Sit back and watch the votes roll in.
Sgt. Shriver’s bleeding, Sgt. Shriver’s bleeding,
Sgt. Shriver’s Bleeding Hearts Club Band.
It’s wonderful to be here,
It’s certainly a thrill.
You’re such a dumb electorate,
We’d like to take you home with us.
America, come home!
We don’t really want to stop the war,
But that’s what you’ll all be voting for.
You’ll forget amidst this stupid sham,
We’re the ones who got you into ‘Nam.
So let us introduce to you
The once and future Tommy—who?
And Sgt. Shriver’s Bleeding Hearts Club Band.
Well, whatever one might make of that, it's interesting to note that Sargent's son, Mark Shriver, has written his own book, A Good Man: Rediscovering My Father, Sargent Shriver, sharing his reflections on the significance of his father's life and on their relationship. He's keen to point out that his father was a "good man," if not necessarily a "great man." By that, he means to say that great men are known for their power, or their wealth, and are hailed in the press for one reason or another... Good men are good in the small corners of life, as devoted husbands, fathers, and men of faith. They treat the more invisible people in life like waitresses and airport workers the same way they treat big shots, even when the cameras aren't on them.

Please listen to this America Maganzine podcast interview with Mark Shriver here, in A Man for All Seasons.

Mark Shriver described the three principles driving his father's life as Faith Hope, and Love. As a student at Yale he once invited Dorothy Day to speak there, and he took seriously the injunction to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and house the homeless.

In an anecdote I found interesting, Mark related a speech that his father gave at Xavier University in 1966. I think it would be considered quite poitically incorrect today; a view on church and state that's way out of line with where we are now in 2012, when culture war issues have become encrusted around reproductive, gender, and orientation issues. The poor have somehow been forgotten.
Just three or four years ago it was practically impossible for a federal agency to give a direct grant to a religious group. People said there was a wall between church and state, but we said that wall was put there to keep government out of the pulpit, not to keep the clergy away from the poor.

That wall protects belief and even disbelief. It does not exclude compassion, poverty, suffering, and justice. That is common territory, not exclusively yours, or mine, but everybody’s, with no wall between.

And so we said “Reverend Mr. Jones, or Father Kelly, or Rabbi Hirsch, if you’re not afraid to be seen in our company, we’re not afraid to be seen in yours, because we are all about Our Father’s business.”