The Life and Times of Sargent Shriver

    by Scott Stossel
    Smithsonian Institution Press
    May 2004
    704 pages

    Reviewed by Maureen J. Carroll (Philippines 1961-63)

    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 Shriver’s life underscores how remarkable he is and treats the reader to an instructive account of a life well-lived.

    Shriver’s youth
    Scott Stossel, a senior editor at Atlantic Monthly, has written a highly readable chronological account of Shriver’s 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 1950’s. 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 man’s 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 Eunice’s orbit. Next we find him in Chicago as Kennedy’s 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 Kennedy’s 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. He’s 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 Shriver’s leadership of the Peace Corps and the War on Poverty between 1961 and 1968, a short time in Shriver’s 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). Shriver’s 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.
         Shriver’s 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 Shriver’s 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, it’s 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, Shriver’s 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 Shriver’s 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 Shriver’s 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 Shriver’s management of the arrangements for President Kennedy’s 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 man’s a saint!
    Stossel gives substantial attention to the centrality of religion or faith throughout Shriver’s 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.” What’s 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 man’s 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.

    Maureen Carroll’s Philippines group arrived in Manila on a propeller plane on October 12, 1961 and they were the first Peace Corps Volunteers in Asia.
    A legendary PCV and RPCV, Maureen was among the earliest RPCVs hired by the Peace Corps in 1963, as the tours of the first PCVs came to an end, and she was the first woman evaluator hired by Office of Evaluation. She returned to the Peace Corps in the 1990s as the Country Director in Botswana, and later worked in Washington as head of the Office of Planning, Policy and Analysis and the director of the Africa Region before going, as all PCVs and staff do — “in, up and out.”