The Magazine

The Last Liberal

Sargent Shriver's life and times.

May 24, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 35 • By MICHAEL NOVAK
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Some people always thought this passion was a Kennedy thing. Shriver had a certain nobility of soul regarding the Kennedys, and I never heard a negative word cross his lips. But Shriver had a sense of his own lineage, needing vindication by nobody else. His family had helped to launch Maryland on the side of Independence, had fought on both sides of the Civil War, and served gallantly in every American war.

Long before he got involved with the Kennedys, he had excelled in prep school (in fact, he bested there, by far, Jack Kennedy), at Yale, in the Experiment in International Living (which took him to Europe every summer until 1939--he was on the last ship to leave France the day the war broke out), in the Navy, at Yale Law School, at Newsweek, and in fact at everything he had tried to do.

He had joined the Navy after Yale and emerged a hero from a decisive battle off Guadalcanal. He was from the beginning handsome, dashing, athletic, self-confident, full of fun and zest, a restless thinker, and a man with an instinct for the grand and truly great, and an acute sense of destiny. Well before he met the Kennedys, he was preparing himself for high ambitions, certainly a governorship or Senate seat. Why not? His faith wanted him to, his family expected it, he had been granted great opportunities to prepare for such things, and his inner energy and expectations longed for them.

He was McGovern's second choice to run for vice president in a doomed campaign, and that was as close as he got to the highest peaks of national ambition. He never became president, or governor, or senator. To some, that may seem a curious failure for a man with so much talent and considerable success at every lower level.

WITH SARGE: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF SARGENT SHRIVER, Scott Stossel has written a really good biography. I hadn't expected it to be; so many such books aren't. But there are many things Stossel tells that I never learned while working for Shriver in that 1970 campaign, or as his speechwriter again during his candidacy as vice president in 1972. On that occasion, the moment Senator Eagleton withdrew his candidacy, I guessed that McGovern, for whom I was then working, would turn to Sarge, so I instantly began writing his acceptance speech; and I showed up unbidden at Timberlawn the morning the news became public. All the old Kennedy speechwriters were there the next day with drafts of an acceptance speech for Sarge. He read them all, and chose mine.

From Stossel I learned the details about the Shrivers (and Shreibers) of Maryland; and about Sarge's mother and her influence on him; and how the great Cardinal Gibbons often used to come to stay with his family for days at a time (and during his final illness) and called them the best Catholic family in Maryland. From Stossel I also learned the dramatic story of his courage and decisive leadership as gunnery officer of the battleship South Dakota, which very nearly went down under furious bombardment off Guadalcanal. After that, Sarge trained to gain command of a submarine, but on assignment day, he overslept--much to his cold fury at his bad luck. (He was later to learn that all six of his companions who received commands perished at sea.)

The story of Sarge's long, difficult courtship of Eunice, Stossel tells most affectingly through passages from letters. Eunice was such a strong, determined, active, personally driven woman that it speaks extremely highly of Sarge that it was precisely for these qualities that he loved her. That he pursued her so long and so singlemindedly, when other women were falling all over him, is also a great story in itself. That marrying her meant living in the shade of the Kennedys was a burden to him, and yet one he had reflectively and deliberately assumed. He felt the blessing of God in it.

He also took real pleasure in helping his wife to be the leader she is, and he put himself at the service of her dreams in helping with the Special Olympics. Only a Kennedy and a Shriver could have made that happen. It meant mobilizing legions of athletes and movie stars and journalists and publicists and health workers and volunteers. The vision came from Eunice (who from her teenage years longed to help the most needy) but the organizational skill, salesmanship, and jack-of-all-trades talents of Sarge made it happen.

MOST PEOPLE HAVE FORGOTTEN, if they ever knew, that Sarge was almost Lyndon Johnson's choice for vice president, instead of Hubert Humphrey. Johnson liked and admired Shriver and knew he could be his salesman on Capitol Hill--and also a hedge against the ambitions of Bobby Kennedy. He entrusted Sarge with the War on Poverty. Again, it may not mean much today, but the French loved Sarge when he was ambassador to France. He was everywhere, and glamorous, and intellectual, and all the things the French admire.