I APPROACHED THIS BOOK with high enthusiasm and a bit of trepidation. I regard R. Sargent Shriver as the finest public servant I encountered during my long professional life in Washington DC, and I was eager to delve into this in-depth biography. Yet, I was fearful that like other of my late 20th century heroes, he might be revealed as a lesser man than I thought him to be. The trepidation was totally unfounded. This comprehensive, detailed rendering of Shrivers life underscores how remarkable he is and treats the reader to an instructive account of a life well-lived.
Scott Stossel, a senior editor at Atlantic Monthly, has written a highly readable chronological account of Shrivers life from his birth in 1915 to the present. The early chapters about his family history, his education, his first romantic love, and his Naval service in World War II provide rich and predictive detail that underscores the importance of early influences and experiences on character and accomplishment. In 1934 Shriver was among the first young Americans chosen to go abroad through the Experiment in International Living, then a fledgling organization committed to the notion that if young people from different countries could be exposed to other cultures, the mutual understanding that would be generated would inhibit war. At Yale University he began his regime as chairman of the Yale Daily News by describing the editorial board under his leadership as Christian, democratist, and Aristotelian. We are optimists, he wrote. We believe that things can be accomplished; that those who have ideals and are willing to work for them can often attain their ambitions; in short, that the world is not too much with us but by sincere and untiring effort can be made a better place to live in . . . . There is delight in accepting responsibility in a world of men who shun it. Shriver wrote these words at the ripe age of 20. As Stossel says, the content and the style of the declamation were pure Shriver and certainly prescient of the way he has lived the rest of his life.
Shriver meets the Kenndys
And what a life it has been determined in great part for good, and perhaps a bit of ill, by becoming a Kennedy family member in the early 1950s. During the immediate post-war years in New York City, Shriver worked at a law firm (he hated it!) and at Newsweek as an assistant editor. He met and fell for Eunice Kennedy, who was at best desultory in her response. Then Joseph Kennedy, the patriarch of the clan, summoned him to a breakfast meeting and asked him as an editor to look over a family memoir about Joseph Kennedy, his oldest son who had been killed in the war. Shriver tells Kennedy that the memoir is not publishable. Kennedy, impressed by the young mans candor and probably sizing him up as a future son-in-law, offers him a job with Joseph P. Kennedy Enterprises. Shriver gets conflicting advice about aligning himself with the Kennedys, but he does ostensibly as a means of staying in Eunices orbit. Next we find him in Chicago as Kennedys ears and eyes at the Merchandise Mart the largest piece of real estate in the world. He plays a major role in turning about the fortunes of the market and over the space of 12 years in Chicago builds a reputation and a following for his civic work, most notably in race relations and education, that stand him in good stead for a political career of his own perhaps as Governor or even as a US President someday.
But fate intervenes when Jack Kennedy wins the presidency of the United States. Shriver had finally married Eunice Kennedy in 1953, following a seven-year courtship. As a family member, he of course plays a major role in the campaign. Some say that through his relationship with Mayor Richard Daley, he was responsible for the win in Illinois that clinches the election. He also got Jack Kennedy to call Coretta King when Martin Luther King is incarcerated, solidifying Kennedys standing within the black community. Shriver goes on to run the Talent Hunt for the Kennedy administration, and following the inauguration returns to Chicago, most likely to launch a Senate campaign. Hes home only one-day when he gets a call from the President to return to DC to launch the Peace Corps.
Peace Corps and the War on Poverty
Stossel devotes half of the chapters in the book to Shrivers leadership of the Peace Corps and the War on Poverty between 1961 and 1968, a short time in Shrivers long life, but undeniably his very finest hours in a lifetime of sustained, extraordinary public service.
These chapters convey vividly the faith and optimism of the times as well as of the man, and chronicle in detail the establishment of new, often controversial government programs (Peace Corps, Community Action, Head Start, the Job Corps, VISTA, Legal Services). Shrivers selling of these programs on Capitol Hill is textbook material. It may be surprising to Peace Corps veterans to know how little support Shriver had from the Kennedy White House to establish the Peace Corps as an independent agency. It is Lyndon Johnson who personally intervenes with Kennedy to keep the Peace Corps separate from the Agency for International Development. As a result of that victory, Shriver got even less support from the White House in getting the legislation passed.