Recollections of Sargent Shriver

A genuine, good person, the early head of the Peace Corps inspired those around him.

A genuine, good person, the early head of the Peace Corps inspired those around him.

R. Sargent (Sarge) Shriver passed away Tuesday in Maryland at 95 after a several-year struggle with Alzheimer's. He was one of the few remaining major figures from the 1960s Kennedy-Johnson era. He was married to the late Eunice Kennedy Shriver. Their children all have been active in public service.

Shriver, head of both the Peace Corps and War on Poverty, inspired great loyalty among those who worked for him. In some ways, he was almost too good to be true. He attended Catholic Mass early each morning, was a faithful husband and doting father, and radiated good will and hopefulness. Yet his goodness and straight-arrow values sometimes made him an object of derision.   Even his handsomeness, physical fitness, and good manners led to his characterization as the guy, entering stage left, asking "Tennis anyone?"

President Lyndon Johnson, at a Cabinet meeting, once characterized Shriver, a strong motivator but weak administrator, as someone "who could not pour piss out of a boot if the instructions were on the heel." His Kennedy brothers-in-law also could be cruel in their characterizations of Shriver. He gave no sign of annoyance. When President John F. Kennedy was murdered, Shriver took over arrangements for the funeral and national mourning.  President Johnson, toward the end of his presidency, appointed Shriver ambassador to France.

In 1972, after Sen. George McGovern had dropped Sen. Tom Eagleton as his vice-presidential running mate, Shriver readily agreed to replace Eagleton on the Democratic ticket, even though he knew it was a kamikaze mission. He campaigned hard to the very last day of the campaign. Later, in private law practice, he devoted himself (as did Eunice) to the Special Olympics and to many pro-bono causes.

Over the years I came to know Shriver well. During the Johnson years, he was one of a small group that convened periodically in Vice President Hubert Humphrey's office to gossip and tell irreverent jokes about themselves. During the 1972 McGovern campaign he was a pleasure to work with — always buoyant and brimming with enthusiasm.

He and Eunice frequently lent their support to groups trying to raise money in the capital. On one occasion the Shrivers were going out of town but lent me their home over a weekend to use for a civil-rights fundraising event. During the event, someone stole their linens and other valuables. I offered to give them the event receipts to pay for their loss. But they would not hear of it.

I last saw the Shrivers nearly 10 years ago in a Santa Monica restaurant. Eunice Shriver, it turned out, had come to UCLA for some medical treatment. Sarge Shriver, on leaving the restaurant, lingered so long at our table that his wife finally gave up on him and went to their car in the parking lot. He exhibited then some memory lapses — probably early signs of his Alzheimer's. Sarge Shriver was one of the finest persons I have known and an idealist through and through. He was the genuine article and a virtuous man.

Note: A documentary on the life of former Sen. and Vice President Hubert Humphrey will be shown this Wednesday (Jan. 19) at 10 p.m. on KCTS, Channel 9.  It is entitled "Hubert Humphrey: The Art of the Possible." My earlier account of the film's premiere can be found here.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of