Wednesday, January 19, 2011

"At the end of every day, starting when he was in high school, he would ask himself, in effect, What have I done to improve the lot of humanity?"

"The root of Shriver's self-conception was as a lay Catholic who always tried to model his life after the ethics of Jesus as expressed in the Gospels. This has not been a passive pursuit. Always he was asking himself, Am I living my life as Christ would want me to?

"What he derived from his faith was less the solace of Lord's presence, or the promise of transcendence in the hereafter (though he did derive both of those qualities from his faith) than a kind of mobilizing vision for action here on earth..."
Those are the words of Scott Stossel, biographer of R. Sargent Shriver, in a touching tribute to the one-time Peace Corps and War on Poverty chief who died on Tuesday.

Shriver was one of my favorite political figures of the last part of the twentieth century, maybe because he was so not-political. He seemed never to calculate how to advance his own personal political ambitions. And, in truth, he didn't really have to do so. His brother-in-law, with Shriver's help, was president and after John F. Kennedy's assassination, he seemed to be the one Kennedy family member Lyndon Johnson actually liked.

But, in many ways, both during the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations and afterward, Shriver behaved in ways I suppose most of us would have wanted to behave had we been given similar opportunities.

In 1972, George McGovern chose Shriver to be his second vice presidential running mate after the first one, Missouri senator Thomas Eagleton, was disqualified for having earlier undergone shock treatments for depression. McGovern, just days before asking Eagleton to leave the ticket, had famously remarked that he was behind the Missouri senator, "1000%." Backpedaling so public and abrupt probably eliminated whatever minute chance McGovern might have had in a year when, no matter what Americans' misgivings about the Vietnam War, a "peace candidate" had no chance of becoming president.

For McGovern, Shriver was a consolation prize. He had really wanted Ted Kennedy for his running mate. But Kennedy, just three years after Chappaquiddick, demurred. McGovern seemed to figure if he couldn't have a Kennedy on his ticket, the next best thing would be a Kennedy brother-in-law.

During the fall campaign, Shriver came to the Ohio State University campus in Columbus, where I was a sophomore. Speaking on the west grounds of the old Student Union, Shriver proved to be an enthusiastic and joyous candidate, even though this was his first run for a major office. I stuck my hand through a throng of people to try to shake his. Without being able to actually see him, I'll never know, but I think he did briefly clasp my hand the way candidates do when moving quickly through a thrall of people.

In the end, not even Shriver, with his compelling can-do attitude, could prevent the defeat, one of the worst in presidential history, suffered by the Democrats that year.

Shriver made a brief bid for the presidency himself in the next cycle, but his candidacy never got much traction. A Shriver campaign button is among my modest collection of political memorabilia.

No one knows what a Shriver presidency would have been like, of course. Except for this: He would have met the challenges with optimism and with that sense of joyous responsibility to others that were his trademarks.

No comments: