Sargent Shriver has died at the age of 95, seven years after withdrawing from public view because of Alzheimer’s disease. He was long regarded by many political reporters as a lightweight, but in fact was an intellectual heavyweight, a serious student of Catholic theology among other things. His career in electoral politics—as George McGovern’s second running mate in 1972 and as a presidential candidate in 1976—was not successful. But he helped to create and shape the culture of not just one but two American institutions of enduring value, the Peace Corps and Special Olympics. How many others in public life have left as lasting a mark?
“Sarge also kept up his support for all the institutions he had helped get started–and, if you think about it, there are still standing, and sometimes thriving, forty years later a number of truly beloved institutions Sarge Shriver helped to found–not only the Special Olympics, but also the Peace Corps, Upward Bound, Head Start, the less successful Jobs Corps, and not a few initiatives of the much-mocked War on Poverty.
“It is astonishing how many of these programs anticipated later writings on civil society. Many were designed to raise flying buttresses outside of government, involving ‘mediating structures’ (most notably, the urban churches and big business and the world of celebrities) and civil society. Much that Shriver had a hand in creating contained significant elements of ‘compassionate conservatism.’ A lot of big government liberalism, too–but with an arresting number of conservative elements.”
I met Shriver and Novak while working for the McGovern campaign in Michigan in 1972. I remember riding with them from Metro airport to an event in Detroit which I had advanced. The police stopped traffic for Shriver’s motorcade, as is the usual practice. Shriver good-humoredly but with emphasis said he wished they wouldn’t do this and that all the people inconvenienced were going to resent this jerk Shriver—or words to that effect. He was full of zest and energy, although he must have known the McGovern-Shriver ticket was headed for defeat.
The big issue in Michigan at the time was a federal judge’s order, later reversed on appeal, mandating cross-district busing of schoolchildren in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb Counties—a wildly unpopular plan. To assuage white working class voters upset about this and about urban crime, we planned an early afternoon event in Detroit featuring a white woman in a biracial neighborhood who had set up a neighborhood watch type program. I had set up the interview and it looked like we’d get good stories on the local evening news. But I neglected to find out one pertinent fact: school was cancelled that day for some reason. When we arrived at the event, we saw a group of black kids in a marching band going up and down the street. Not the visual we wanted for the evening news. But Shriver was unfazed. He marched up and down the street at the head of the band and had a terrific time. What a wonderful man!