Sarge: The Life and Times of Sargent Shriver, By Scott Stossel, Smithsonian, 761 pp., illustrated,, $32.50
Faced with the task of introducing readers to Sargent Shriver, the subject of Scott Stossel's superb new biography, it's easy to summon that storied name, Kennedy, the family Shriver famously hitched himself to by marriage in 1953.
And yet, defining Shriver as a Kennedy in-law feels more unfair than ever. Stossel, a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly, argues persuasively that Shriver has lived a life that rivals any 20th-century American leader's in richness, achievement, and dedication to public service. This marvelous account pays long-overdue tribute to a great man.
Without "Sarge," as Shriver is known, the Peace Corps, Head Start, the War on Poverty, and many other movements in modern American history would arguably not exist. Add Shriver's efforts bridging cultural gaps between Americans and the world, his work with the Special Olympics, and his expansion of legal aid for the poor, and it becomes clear that, in the words of a colleague, he is "one of the real geniuses of America."
Former President Bill Clinton, who awarded Shriver the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994, later said: "In my lifetime, America has never had a warrior for peace and against poverty like Sargent Shriver."
Reared in a devoutly Catholic Maryland family, Shriver was 16 when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected in 1932. Roosevelt changed his life with a simple idea: Government can help people. Shriver earned undergraduate and law degrees from Yale, narrowly survived a stint with the Navy in World War II, and readied himself for public life. Business came calling first. With his eye on Eunice Kennedy, the fifth child of Joseph and Rose Kennedy, Shriver went to work for her father, running the Merchandise Mart in Chicago. It seemed to be an audition of sorts for son-in-law. Shriver got the part, helping the family reap millions from the property and later winning over Eunice.
Running a business for Joe Kennedy would be the first of many ventures Shriver would take on, devote tremendous energy to, and make wildly successful. Almost everything that followed -- from heading the Chicago Board of Education to orchestrating John F. Kennedy's funeral -- would prove that Shriver's energy and enthusiasm, suffused with a keen sense of his abilities, were capable of changing the world.
Consider the Peace Corps, an idea John F. Kennedy essentially improvised in a late-night campaign speech. It was Shriver's job to craft the program and make it work. With the help of boisterous brainstorming sessions that became his hallmark, Shriver didn't just make it work; he made it fly. A sort of idealist-pragmatist with a salesman's sheen, Shriver became one of Washington's most effective and inspiring leaders in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.
Yet Shriver, now 88 and battling Alzheimer's, is still remembered as a satellite in the Kennedy orbit. The suggestion is that without the Kennedys, he wouldn't have risen to such heights.
A desire to debunk that misconception motivates Stossel's book. He writes in his introduction: "Shriver was willing, at times, to dim his own bright star to accommodate the whole shimmering constellation of Kennedys; but in the firmament of history, his star glows with its own inner luminosity -- not just reflected Kennedy light."
Stossel suggests had Shriver not been so tethered to the family -- and not subjugated himself so many times to their ambitions -- he could have shone brighter. Equally intriguing as what was is what could have been: Would Shriver, had he been the Democratic vice-presidential candidate, have propelled Hubert Humphrey to victory in 1968? Could he have been governor of Illinois or Maryland and gone on to win the presidency? (Shriver did run for both vice president and president in the 1970s, but by then his time had passed.)
Two faults in an otherwise extraordinary book: At times "Sarge" dwells on inside political baseball -- internecine fights over policy details, for example. And it would have been nice to know more about Shriver's family life during the height of his career. His wife's advocacy for the mentally retarded is legendary, but we get few glimpses of their home life, namely, how the couple's commitment to work affected their children.
Reading "Sarge" prompts an interesting question: Who carries the Shriver mantle today? For conviction over politics, Howard Dean and John McCain come to mind. Shriver's unfailing optimism is recognizable in John Edwards. And for sheer boldness, perhaps his own son-in-law, California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
But Shriver would almost certainly want to claim a social legacy, not a political one. And it's that legacy that lives on in the immeasurable good the Peace Corps has done in the world, the untold Americans helped by Head Start, and the athletes who cross the finish line at the Special Olympics. Stossel has done the man not only justice, but a great and enduring honor.