In an address to students at the University of Notre Dame on February 7, 1968, a good man said this: “We need to make a national examination of conscience. Why do we need a national examination of conscience? Because suddenly we Americans seem to be panicking. It’s time to stop moaning and wringing our hands. It’s true; the country is in a crisis. We ought to thank God we are. Because then we always have something to test us—like a piece of steel that stays strong precisely because it is enduring great pressure.”
Those words (which could have been inspired by the Book of Sirach) seem prescient now, given the times we are living through. They were spoken by a man who was a dedicated public servant as well as a dedicated Catholic. That man—that “good man”—was Sargent Shriver, who died four years ago on January 18, 2011. He lived a long and eventful life, one that was devoted to his faith, his family, his country, and his world. He saw much in his 95 years, and he knew and experienced the wide arc of human experience, from sadness and sorrow to hope and happiness. He knew of what he spoke when he said that “it is well to be prepared for life as it is, but it is better to be prepared to make life better than it is.” That one sentence pretty much summarized the life of Sargent Shriver—he prepared as well as he could for life, and because of that preparation, he did his best to make life better for others with his own life.
He seemed destined for public life, for he had roots in American as well as Catholic history: he was a descendant of David Shriver, who was a participant and signatory of the Maryland Constitution and Bill of Rights at that state’s Constitutional Convention of 1776; and, when he was a boy, Sargent Shriver helped to serve Mass for James Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore, who was a friend of the family and occasional visitor to the Shriver home. Public service began for Robert Sargent Shriver in World War II—despite his initial opposition to America’s entering the war (as a founding member of the America First Committee), he decided it was his duty to serve his country. He rose to the rank of lieutenant in the United States Navy and as a result of wounds suffered in Guadalcanal, he was awarded the Purple Heart in addition to other service medals. Becoming a “Kennedy in-law” through his marriage to Eunice Kennedy in 1953 did not stop his work in public service: he passionately believed in it as much as anyone, and whether in or out of politics, he always found ways to help others. (A perfect example of this was his involvement along with his wife in the creation of the Special Olympics and other such programs to help those with special needs.) His government service was testament to that: founding Director of the Peace Corps under his brother-in-law, President John F. Kennedy, and founding Director of the Office of Economic Opportunity under President Lyndon B. Johnson in addition to creating “War on Poverty” programs such as Head Start, VISTA and the Job Corps. It was also under President Johnson that he served as United States Ambassador to France.
Sargent Shriver also tried his hand at presidential politics: in 1972, he stood in for Thomas Eagleton as the Democrats’ Vice Presidential nominee alongside George McGovern in their losing campaign against the Nixon/Agnew ticket (before Watergate changed the political landscape forever). And in 1976 he decided to run (though unsuccessfully) for the Democratic nomination himself. In a crowded field of fifteen, he only managed to garner less than two percent of the vote, totaling a little over 300,000 votes, running against such candidates such as Jerry Brown, Henry “Scoop” Jackson, George Wallace, Hubert Humphrey and Lloyd Bentsen (of the later “I knew Jack Kennedy” fame in 1988). They all lost out to an unknown from Georgia named Jimmy Carter. Though Sargent Shriver did not win, he did not regret it. He said: “Democracy after all is a high-risk undertaking. It means trusting the people rather than the experts; but it also means educating the people, challenging the people, inspiring the people. It means stimulating the people to think, to criticize, to question.”
That was a hallmark of the man; his idea of public service was to educate, challenge and inspire people. But most of all, he thought the duty of public service was to get people to think, criticize and question: his was not an unthinking citizenship. If politics mattered to Sargent Shriver, so did matters of faith. He could be involved in competition, be it athletic or political, but he was just as deeply interested when it came to education, faith and learning. Amidst the happy chaos of children and family life, he took the time to think, study and reflect on the deeper meaning of life with others, from priests and academics or to whomever he met. He was interested in things of God as well as man—he was a man of contemplation as well as action. He was a daily Mass-goer who had well-worn wooden rosary beads in his pocket. He was what he was—the private man and the public man was one and the same. His credo was simple: “The only genuine elite is the elite of those men and women who gave their lives to justice and charity.”
Though he lived in the world, he saw that world and its problems through the prism of faith and its lessons: “The roots of racism lie deep in man’s nature, wounded and bruised by original sin.” And in words that have special resonance for these times: “Respect for another man's opinion is worthy. It is the realization that any opinion is valuable, for it is the sign of a rational being.” Also: “The spirit of a nation cannot be maintained when one-fifth of its citizens are increasingly alienated, increasingly disaffected and increasingly vulnerable to irresponsible calls to violence.” And years before Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio became Pope Francis, Sargent Shriver echoed similar themes: “Peace is like war: If enough men want it, enough men can cause it. Each of us has the power to bring peace not only to the world, but to our hearts.” And like Pope Francis, Sargent Shriver also reached for the peripheries: “For the saints and sages of the great religions have always agreed that a peace that passes understanding can be reached only by compassion. This is the ideal that must illuminate, from the very center, all of our effort to bring a better life to our world, within our own country, and in the farthest reaches of the planet.”
I have a personal memory of Sargent Shriver, going back to that presidential campaign of 1972, when I was just a ten-year-old in the Bronx. I was just becoming aware of what politics was and what political life was all about from hearing my father and other adults in those days talk about Democrats and Republicans from JFK to Nixon. One day, my mother wanted to go shopping at Alexander’s, (the store everybody went to) which was on the Grand Concourse. On our way there, we came upon a big political rally that was being staged in a tiny park just across from the department store. Music, speeches, banners, excitement was everywhere: I couldn’t help getting entranced with my first experience in politics, and it was as up-close and personal as you could get. It was a rally for the McGovern-Shriver ticket; I could not be sure, but some man was speaking and it may have been Mr. Shriver himself (unfortunately, I could never be certain; being ten, I wasn’t that totally “tuned in” to politics as I’d later be). In a corner of the park, there was a lady giving away balloons (so I thought). I told my mother I’d go and ask for one. I did; but that day I learned my first lesson in politics: the lady smiled and said: “Contribution?” So I trooped over to Mom, she opened her purse and I went back to the lady with the balloons. So I got my Democratic Party balloon, and the Democratic Party’s coffers got fattened by a ten-year-old’s monetary contribution: a coin with George Washington’s profile on it.
I may not have actually seen or met Sargent Shriver, but in the years since that day I’ve come to admire the kind of public servant he represented, one who was also a man of faith. I admired him most of all because he loved and lived life to the fullest. For as he said, “Being accused of enthusiasm is something I’ll never live down.” He was the last of his kind and one we sorely need in our politics today, whether Democrat or Republican. Our politics are all the poorer when there are no Sargent Shrivers around to infuse public life with the ebullient “can-do” spirit of faith.