Civil rights activist was the driving force behind the Peace Corps and the Special Olympics, writes Rupert Cornwell
Published 23/01/2011 | 05:00
SOME people knew of him because of his connection with the Kennedy clan. Others remembered him as the Democratic vice-presidential candidate on the losing end of the second biggest electoral college landslide of the 20th Century.
But Robert Sargent Shriver -- "Sarge" to everyone who worked with him -- may well have done more to improve the lives of ordinary Americans than any government official of the modern era with the exception of Franklin Roosevelt. The claim is extravagant, but consider the facts. Shriver was the driving force behind the Peace Corps, the international service programme that was among the most successful federal initiatives of the Kennedy presidency. And as special assistant to JFK's successor Lyndon Johnson, he launched Head Start, which has since given 20 million children a chance to do better in school.
Shriver, who died last Tuesday, was a passionate campaigner for civil rights, and led Johnson's War on Poverty, as well as Neighborhood Health Services and Legal Services for the Poor, two other valuable federal programmes. In the later stages of his life, along with his wife Eunice, Shriver ran the Special Olympics, games for those with learning difficulties.
These tasks he approached as a Christian who believed in volunteerism. And then of course there was the Kennedy connection.
It began in 1946, when he embarked on his courtship of Eunice, daughter of Joseph Kennedy and Rose Fitzgerald. Descended from founders of the Maryland Democratic party, and the son of Catholic activists, Shriver was already an accomplished young man. At the age of 19 he had spent a year in Germany before going to Yale, where he studied law. In the Second World War he served in the navy.
His long and arduous pursuit of Eunice brought him to the notice of Joe senior who gave him a job as manager of Merchandise Mart, a company Kennedy owned in Chicago. In 1953 he finally married Eunice, and went on to work on his brother-in-law's campaign for the presidency in 1960. Three years later, Shriver would manage the arrangements for JFK's funeral.
Shriver was sometimes deemed a "limousine liberal", a lightweight who used the Kennedy name to advance his political career. If anything the reverse was true. However promising his own prospects, they were ever coloured by his ties with Joe's ambitious sons. Neither John nor Teddy -- and especially Bobby -- ever fully accepted him as an equal.
Handsome and charming, and possessed of boundless vigour, intellectual curiosity and motivational skills, Shriver was at least as substantial a figure as his three brothers-in-law, who overshadow him.
Shriver went to Paris as ambassador, delighting the French with his verve, his Kennedy stardust and panache. But in 1970 he returned to Washington to help the Democrats in that year's mid-term elections.
In 1972 he was George McGovern's running mate on the Democratic presidential ticket. Shriver acquitted himself well enough as vice-presidential nominee, even though he was not one of nature's stump politicians. That November the Democratic ticket lost 520 to 17 in the electoral college to Richard Nixon.
During the campaign at a bar in Ohio, where some steelworkers were having a drink, he walked in with then Democratic Speaker Tip O'Neill, and ordered them a beer before asking the bartender for a brandy. Thus did "Make mine a Courvoisier" enter America's political playbook for winning the blue collar vote.
His final great endeavour was the Special Olympics, offering training and competition for people with learning difficulties. The venture was founded in 1968 by Eunice, inspired by her own elder sister Rosemary Kennedy, who had been permanently impaired by a lobotomy. For almost two decades, Shriver headed up the Special Olympics. Today, the organisation embraces 2.5 million people in 150 countries.
Ultimately, he lacked the killer instinct, and as his involvement with the Kennedys suggested, he was ready as few men are to sacrifice his own interests to others.
But in doing so he embodied -- perhaps more than any of the Kennedys, even JFK -- what would become known as "Camelot". Shriver was indeed a knight who rode forth on a mission of change and redemption, indifferent to what might befall him.