|| Shrivers enduring strengths were formidable in making the Peace Corps and the War on Poverty programs come to pass: powerful idealism, intellectual flexibility, an openness to new experiences and cultures, a superhuman capacity for hard work, an indomitable spirit, an allergy to bureaucracy, a belief in having fun at work, and perhaps, most important, an ability to attract and select outstanding staff.
A personal recollection of Shriver
I myself joined the headquarters Peace Corps staff in late 1963, immediately following my Volunteer service in the Philippines from 1961 to 1963. There was no finer place to work. I was surrounded by extremely bright, personable, committed people who inspired healthy competition to do the best work possible. I was especially fortunate to work in the Office of Evaluation, a unique to this day government operation that Shriver initiated. Evaluators, most with journalism backgrounds, went out to look at Peace Corps programs so they could report directly to Sarge what was really happening in the field, reports independent of the operational staff who had designed or managed them. The evaluators took pride in writing clear, convincing, sometimes lyrical prose. Sarge read every report and sprinkled his reactions liberally through the texts in bold pen, often directing senior staff members to take action immediately to fix problems noted. Evaluators awaited these report cards with great anticipation, learning quickly if they had made their case effectively. Everyone in the agency thrived on the prospect or the reality of having direct contact with Shriver. He WAS the Peace Corps and his daring, his idealism, his palpable commitment to the mission of the agency, his belief that anything was possible were infectious and inspiring.
A few weaknesses
The sum total of his strengths overshadowed or mitigated the mistakes that also characterized his leadership. The most patent of these for me was a reflection of his personal expansiveness, his seeming belief that you could never have too much of a good thing. As a Volunteer in a program that grew from 120 to 700 Volunteers within a year, with most not having any jobs, and as an evaluator in the agency when it was at its largest, I saw firsthand the downside of the poor programming or training or support that were fallouts of the rapid growth. I also may have witnessed one of Shrivers worst public performances during a visit to the Philippines (other more positive sides of the trip are in the book) when his appearance before a large group of frustrated and angry Volunteers was a failure in communication and understanding. And yet, we forgave him, for his faults paled against his strengths. And, there is a good deal of legitimacy to the argument that if he had not gone big at the start, its likely the agency never would have gotten off the ground and most likely never would have survived as the highly respected, independent agency it is today.
Not just the Peace Corps
Although the Peace Corps chapters are a magnetic draw for those of us who have served in the organization, there is much to learn and to enjoy in the rest of the book. The War on Poverty chapters are an excellent chronicle of the activist, turbulent 60s, of the challenges of trying to do at home in the backyards of elected officials what we were promoting overseas to empower people and eliminate poverty. Stossel amply covers the years in Paris as the US Ambassador, Shrivers unsuccessful attempts to become vice-president and president, the fascinating period in private law practice, his activism in nuclear disarmament efforts, and his leadership of Special Olympics. Along the way, the reader meets many of the leading figures of American and world history in the latter part of the 20th century.
Life with the Kennedys
An important theme throughout the book is Shrivers complex relationship with the Kennedys individually and as a clan. While it is clear how the connection benefited Shriver, it is also clear that despite his great service and loyalty to the family, he was treated quite unevenly by them, and his own political potential was thwarted at every turn by family rules about who was to get first dibs at opportunity in what order. The relationship with Bobby Kennedy, complicated by Shrivers working for Lyndon Johnson, is the most problematic. Yet, throughout his life Shriver remains stalwart and circumspect in his support and graceful under fire. The account of Shrivers management of the arrangements for President Kennedys funeral is absorbing reading; his performance is a significant tribute not only to his to his leadership and abilities but also to his importance in the family. By the end of the book, I was convinced that Shriver was the truest Kennedy of all i.e. the way he has lived his life is much more consistent with the traits and values ascribed to the real Kennedys because of their style, rhetoric and the Camelot imagery that ensued from the assassination rather than from their deeds.
The mans a saint!
Stossel gives substantial attention to the centrality of religion or faith throughout Shrivers life and refers often to his intimate knowledge of philosophy and theology. It is impressive that his devotion to his Catholic faith never seems to have ever bordered on sanctimony or evangelism. As Bill Moyers says in his foreword to the book, He is the Christian who comes closest, in my experience, to the imitation of Christ in a life of service. Whats more, Stossel quotes Colman McCarthy, a journalist who was a former Trappist monk and a former staff member at OEO, as saying that he believes that Shriver and his wife will one day be canonized for having touched so many lives in such positive ways. I must confess that about three quarters of the way through the book, the same thought about Shriver passed through my mind as I saw more and more the deep connection between the mans beliefs and his actions. At that point I also stopped and wondered if Stossel, like so many of us, had been seduced by the Shriver magic. In the last chapter of the book, Stossel acknowledges, there is always a danger, when writing about someone like Shriver, who has done so much for so many and who is sincerely motivated more by concern for the commonweal than by his own self interest, of sliding into hagiography. Stossel had adequate opportunity to write a balanced book, given the access he had to material not previously available, his long interviews with Shriver and family members in the late 1990s, interviews with colleagues over the years, and the exhaustive research he has done at various libraries and archives during the seven years the book was in progress. I believe he has succeeded, capturing the man and his times admirably.