The Last Liberal
Sargent Shriver's life and times.
May 24, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 35 • By MICHAEL NOVAK
ONE DAY, early in the summer of 1970, I read in the New York Times that Sargent Shriver was opening an office in Washington to help elect Democrats to Congress. Shriver had just returned from a tour as ambassador to France and was eager, the story implied, to join the political battle against Nixon and Agnew. "Sounds like fun," I told my wife over morning coffee. Three hours later, the phone rang, and it was Shriver, inviting me down to Washington to write for him.
He explained--when I visited him the next day at Timberlawn, his Maryland home, out Rockville Pike from Washington--that he had been reading my book The Experience of Nothingness during his last days in France. He read some of it aloud to me right there, and asked me if I would be willing to come and write for him: We would be on the road all summer, right through Election Day, he explained, which meant I would need to take a semester's leave of absence from the university in the fall, but my family could live at Timberlawn in the pool house during the campaign.
I said yes. When a little later I was introduced to Eunice, she smiled and said Sarge would be tough on me. "Give you five dollars if you're still here Election Day," she tossed her hair in the way parochial schoolgirls used to do. It was a marvelous adventure, those five months. There were people working in the office on K Street, there were advance teams, press secretaries, and sometimes an old-time Kennedy (or Stevenson or Humphrey or Johnson) hand for advice and company and schmoozing. And then there was Sarge and me. We did thirty-eight states, and I forget how many campaigns--pretty close to a hundred, I think.
I remember Sarge almost killing himself by taking a dare in South Dakota and allowing a bunch of the Democrats there to seat him on one side of a big inner tube near the shore of the local lake, with a rope tied to its other side, the rope then strung out about thirty feet to a power boat. When the men with drinks in their hands roared off at high speed, I was sure Sarge was going to lose both his legs in the boat's wake.
I also remember campaigning in Oakland, and Ron Dellums telling Sarge in front of the crowd that Oakland was so tough that even the muggers went in twos. We also put in a stop for another freshman, this time for the California Assembly, John Vasconcellos--who stays in touch with me to this day--and met in Sacramento with Jerry Brown, too. We baked in the desert at 110 degrees in Palm Springs, deplaning from a four-seat Cessna flown briskly by a woman pilot who wore a white jumpsuit with a flying tiger emblem on her buckle. We did Vegas, Albuquerque, Toledo, anywhere anybody wanted a headliner for a chicken dinner fundraiser. There were movie stars or athletes to join us at almost every stop. There were always Peace Corps veterans, or Job Corps veterans, or Upward Bound leaders. There was an army of Shriver people everywhere.
Sarge liked to have three or four index cards, block-printed with felt-tip pens, for each of the nine themes of the campaign. The main facts, a story or two to illustrate, a funny line or two, a throat-tightener, a punchy ending, or a lead into the next sequence. He would vary these sequences, depending on the crowd or occasion. He thought a good speech ought to move an audience through several different moods, from hilarity through sadness and on to resolve. He liked to keep things fresh. Every day he would hand me new clippings with facts or stories to "work in."
HE ALWAYS WANTED a "touch of class," as well, by which he meant a quotation from a theologian, philosopher, or classic figure--particularly something with the aura of the Catholic tradition. In this, he reminded me a bit of Eugene McCarthy, already a friend through our Commonweal ties. Both McCarthy and Shriver were Catholics not only by birth but intellectually and knowledgeably, in the way that the Kennedy brothers never were, and both thought the Catholic tradition shed an intellectual light on American perplexities that nothing else rivaled.
Shriver always hired someone--Colman McCarthy, Mark Shields, a legion of others--to play the role I held: someone to talk to about Teilhard de Chardin and Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa and Thérèse of Lisieux and Peter Maurin and G.K. Chesterton and Danilo Dolci and the Worker Priests of France and Cardinal Suhard. Shriver loved the vein of Catholic thought that wanted to "reconstruct the social order," "put the yeast of the gospel in the world," "feed the hungry, comfort the afflicted." He thought of the Catholic faith as a culture-changing force, a shaper of civilizations, an inspirer of great works, a builder of great institutions that bring help of all kinds to the needy in all dimensions of need.