Sargent Shriver, 1915-2011: The Kennedy In-Law Who Was the Real Deal

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R. Sargent Shriver Jr.

When aging liberals and young progressives think longingly of Camelot and the Great Society, they usually have a mental picture of the Kennedy brothers. But perhaps the purest representative of that era of Big Government idealism was a brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, who died Tuesday, Jan. 18, at a hospital in Maryland at age 95.

Hardly a starry-eyed program was launched in the 1960s without Shriver's imprint. He took John F. Kennedy's campaign promise of a volunteer youth corps and turned it into the Peace Corps, serving as its first director. After JFK's assassination, while pugnacious Robert F. Kennedy was making his gradual journey leftward, Shriver put his stamp on the Great Society. As first director of the Office of Economic Opportunity, he launched the VISTA program (billed as a domestic Peace Corps), the Job Corps, Head Start, the Community Action Program and other initiatives in the War on Poverty.

That many of these programs promised far more than they delivered was a contributing factor in the decline of liberalism after 1968. Another key figure in the creation of the Great Society, the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, lamented Shriver's tendency to "oversell and underperform" as he stood up one well-meaning agency after another. "Energies were expended in ways that very probably hastened the end" of the brief period when huge social programs were possible, Moynihan wrote.

Yet the best of his ideas have endured. Head Start has enrolled more than 27 million needy children over the years in programs that prepare them to succeed in school. Kids in Head Start also get connected to health care resources and eat nutritious meals during the day. And by encouraging parents to volunteer in the classroom, Head Start benefits the home as well. Meanwhile, the Peace Corps has sent more than 200,000 volunteers into more than 75 countries.

And in the private sector, he was a key figure in the global growth of his late wife Eunice Kennedy Shriver's great legacy, the Special Olympics, which has been instrumental in changing the way people with disabilities are treated and valued.

Robert Sargent Shriver Jr. was raised in Maryland and attended an elite private school in Connecticut on a scholarship. From there he went to Yale, then on to Yale Law School. He was a devoted Catholic and, like many young people raised between the world wars, a searcher for peace. He worked to keep the U.S. out of World War II almost up to the day Pearl Harbor was bombed — and then he shipped out with the Navy. He was a gunner at Guadalcanal.

At home after the war, the bright young lawyer caught the eye of the legendary Wall Street wizard Joseph P. Kennedy, who soon put Shriver to work helping to manage the lucrative Chicago Merchandise Mart, one of Kennedy's best investments. Shriver joined the family in 1953, marrying Eunice Kennedy in a lavish wedding at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City.

He turned out to have a knack for the true family business — politics — managing John F. Kennedy's 1960 primary campaign in West Virginia, a critical win on JFK's way to the White House. A case could be made that Shriver's political ambitions were hurt as much as they were helped by his ties to the Kennedy dynasty. Though he itched to be a candidate for high office during the 1960s, he never found his way to the front of a line full of brothers.

Even when he got a crack at his own campaign, it was an afterthought. In 1972, George McGovern won the Democratic nomination on perhaps the most vigorously liberal major-party platform in U.S. history. But instead of choosing Shriver as his running mate, McGovern went with Missouri Senator Thomas Eagleton. Within days, Eagleton was dumped from the ticket for having received electroshock treatments for depression years earlier. Only in that moment of desperation did Shriver get the nod to run for Vice President. His 1976 presidential bid went nowhere.

In the years before he was struck by Alzheimer's disease, Shriver was perhaps best known as the father of former California First Lady Maria Shriver, wife of Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Always an in-law.

There was always a sense of "what if" about Sargent Shriver, because he was handsome and strong-jawed and vigorous just like his better-known relatives. He was the true liberal who led the desegregation of the Chicago schools back in the 1950s, when the Kennedy brothers were still hedging on issues of civil rights. He was the youthful peace activist in the Administrations that escalated America's involvement in Vietnam. For liberals, he was the genuine article.