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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In his late-starting 1972 race for the vice presidency, the cause was hopeless. But Mickey Kantor, Mark Shields, Jeanie Mains, Doris Kearns, and a host of talented volunteers poured out to join him. McGovern assigned us the task of winning back the Catholic ethnic vote that Nixon had so knowingly cut into in 1968. We saw a lot of Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Youngstown, Cleveland, Toledo, Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, occasionally St. Louis, and then around and back again. Toward the end, when the crowds were huge and enthusiastic, we began to feel--unbelievable as it now seems--that the press must be wrong, and the campaign might have a chance of winning. What the crowds were actually saying is that they weren't going to vote for us, but we shouldn't take it personally, because they really did like Shriver.

At a factory gate, on one occasion, I watched one of the advance team hand out flyers in a see-through blouse, a miniskirt, high boots, and a big red "Abortion" button. Turning away from her in disgust, the older workers weren't meeting Shriver's eyes, and I saw two spit on the ground in anger--this in a factory in Joliet, Illinois, from which the Democrats should have gotten, maybe, 114 percent of the vote. It wasn't Sarge's fault. But such experiences of the Democratic party that year, not respecting its own base, were enough to make a neoconservative out of me.

Most people also forget that Sarge ran for president in 1976. Once again, as in 1970 and 1972, Teddy Kennedy and his professionals didn't rally round. Just before the crucial Massachusetts primary, Stossel relates, after he sat down from a rousing St. Patrick's Day talk at a big luncheon in Boston, Teddy Kennedy got a sharp rebuke from Eunice, because not once had Teddy even mentioned Sarge's name or urged the faithful to help him. We knew back in 1970 and 1972 that Teddy and his guys were carping about Sarge's speeches--once Sarge even threw in a mention of Teilhard de Chardin just to torment them a little. Sarge kept doing things his way, and even today, a number of his best lines keep getting picked up, like his 1970 "culture of life, culture of death" speech.

STOSSEL IS MISLED on a related point by Mark Shields's telling of the famous anecdote about Sarge, in a crowded ethnic bar, buying drinks for all the workers and then, at his turn, after all the shouts for various American beers, calling out: "Make mine a Courvoisier." Sarge knew exactly what he was doing. He thought if he ordered a beer, everybody there would know he was a phony. He respected other people for being who they were, and he was damned well not going to pretend to be what he wasn't. He admired the hard work, the family life, the faith, the hopes of these guys. But he didn't think they wanted him to be exactly like them. It wasn't Tip O'Neill's way of campaigning, and Sarge may have had it wrong. But he did it his way, and I liked him the more for it.

Even here Stossel, to his credit, gets to the essence of Shriver, for he keeps pointing out how much the guys in the bars actually liked Sarge. Stossel isn't so good on why the same guys weren't so sure about the national Democrats any longer--not after McGovern said he would apologize to the North Vietnamese. And not when they listened to Shirley MacLaine going on and on (and there seemed to be ever more radical voices in the national campaign, and fewer and fewer familiar local pols and party "bosses"). The new guys had forgotten that one radical's "party boss" was some regular's source of patronage and garbage service.

After 1976, Shriver turned his attention back to charities and public life, including (in his law work) all sorts of activities to link civil society in Russia to the outside world. (Once, his young son, whom he took on a trip to Russia, chased a ball down the hall, opened a door, and found Russian agents inside minding tapes that were picking up everything the Shrivers did.)

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.

In Sarge, Stossel describes the conversation in which many of Shriver's friendsadvised Sarge not to reveal the early signs of Alzheimer's (which set in three years ago), and Shriver replied, "Reagan had a much worse affliction than I did. Hard-core conservatism. Whatever I've got now, I never suffered from that." I cannot believe Shriver would mean any comment like that cruelly, but it is, in fact, how he often thought of conservatives. Sarge could understand liberal Republicans; many of his Yalie friends were such--he could see the tony similarity that certain Republicans and certain Democrats share in good spirits, which leads them to believe that they are not ideological. But people like Reagan seemed to them beyond the pale.

Yet for Shriver, this was not entirely a matter of social class. His ancestors helped found the Maryland Democratic party, and though he would never confuse politics with religion, his politics were quite equally a thing of faith. Those outside that faith seemed to him afflicted. Sarge would experience them as strangers, odd fish, and would feel sad for them. In a political campaign, he would lambaste them with zest. One on one, he would try to charm them, and do his best to try to understand them, as if they were another species.

I used to wonder, over many years, what would happen if Sarge ever came to see the flaws in the Democratic party's way of construing taxes, poverty, crime, welfare, and abortion, and so became a conservative. There were many aspects about his life that could have led him in this direction. His business experience prevented him from being a full-blown leftist on economic policy.

On abortion, he and Eunice were always flat out of accord with their party--but not ready to break from it or even to insist on their voices being heard. I always expected Sarge to have more sympathy than he ever actually showed with those former liberals who had been mugged by reality and become neoconservatives. I even thought, sometimes, that he might join us.

But, the truth is, he really was a Democrat, a party man, all the way down. His loyalty was one of the reasons he was a great man--and also one of the reasons he was never as great in politics as he should have been.

Michael Novak is George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute.