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Sarge By Scott Stossel (Smithsonian Books, 761 pages, $32) In the last election cycle, a number of Santa Monica, Calif., residents faced not a wedge issue, but a hedge issue — the enforcement of a local ordinance limiting the height of hedges and fences on their properties. The residents had formed the Santa Monica Hedge Activists organization to combat the ordinance, and the election offered them the opportunity to oust members of the city council who didn’t agree with their position. At the forefront of their group — and a surprise candidate for council at the ripe old age of 50 — was Mark Shriver, a former journalist and record producer whose ties to the Democratic Party were strong, as evidenced by the battery of prominent relatives, including his uncle, Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, and his sister, California’s first lady, Maria Shriver, who came out to campaign for him. One person missing from the parade of celebrities was Shriver’s father, Robert Sargent Shriver, whose significant impact on national politics and policy for at least the last quarter of the 20th century has been largely forgotten or neglected, in part because he so often falls in the shadow of his more prominent in-laws, the Kennedys. Now, however, the elder Shriver, whose Alzheimer’s disease keeps him out of the public eye, may finally be experiencing the return to historical prominence that he deserves, as a result of Sarge: The Life and Times of Sargent Shriver, this excellent and thorough biography by journalist Scott Stossel. Although Sargent Shriver will forever be bound to the Kennedy family through his marriage to Eunice Kennedy, his most prominent achievements, from the remarkable success of the Peace Corps, to spearheading so many of the programs at the heart of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, would not have been accomplished without his talent, personal magnetism, and drive. Indeed, the argument could be made that Shriver was more often held back as a result of his connections to the Kennedy family than he was helped by them. Shriver’s own background was at least as “royal” as the Kennedy’s, with a lineage descended from German nobility as well as some of this nation’s revolutionary leaders, including delegates to the First Contintental Congress. Like the Kennedys, his was a family that placed the Roman Catholic Church as its center and the Democratic Party a close second. President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal was a strong influence on Shriver early on, contributing to his lifetime appreciation of both the power and the responsibility of government to help its citizens. And while Shriver’s family suffered during the Depression when the investment bank his father had started collapsed, Sarge still was able to attend the Canterbury prep school in New Milford, Conn., on academic scholarship. It was at the boarding school that his path first crossed the Kennedys, as John was one of his classmates. But the picture painted of the two students was very different then than it would be 30 years later. As Stossel notes, had a visitor to the school in 1930 or ’31 been asked to guess which of the two would one day become president of the United States, without a doubt the reply would have been Shriver, who excelled academically, socially, and extracurricularly at the private Catholic school, while Kennedy left after one year. From Canterbury, Shriver went on to Yale University and then to Yale Law School. Though he would become involved with the isolationist America First movement while a law student, his rationale for joining the organization was more honest than was that of most of its reactionary supporters. And, with the outbreak of World War II in Europe and his graduation, Shriver continued, rather than avoided, his family tradition of military service and “donned his ensign’s stripes and reported for active duty” aboard the Navy destroyer USS Juneau. Over the next five years, on board ships and in submarines, Shriver saw combat in some of the fiercest battles in the Pacific, receiving a number of citations for his valor. After the war, Shriver worked in a New York law firm, but found it too boring, and quickly moved to an editor’s job at Newsweek. He left there when his efforts to organize a union were not well-received by management. His big break came after just one date with Eunice Kennedy, when her father, Joseph, summoned him to a meeting and offered him a job. Before long he was Kennedy’s man in Chicago, running the Merchandise Mart, the largest piece of real estate in the world, then owned by Kennedy. Shriver would cement his links to the Kennedy family by marrying Eunice in 1953 but, as Stossel notes, he sacrificed much of his own identity and ambition when he was “engulfed by” the Kennedys. ‘HOT PROSPECT’ In Illinois, Shriver quickly began making a name for himself, gaining attention as president of the Chicago Board of Education and as a member of the Catholic Interracial Council. By 1955, he was considered “a hot prospect” for the Democratic nomination for governor. In 1956, as a result both of his growing political prominence in that state and his family “obligations,” Shriver was entrusted with the job of convincing Illinois’ favorite son Adlai Stevenson that John Kennedy was the best candidate for vice president on the national ticket. Though he wouldn’t get the VP slot, that “campaign” laid the groundwork for Kennedy’s successful presidential run four years later. But in what would become a recurring theme, a Kennedy’s success ended Shriver’s opportunity to be a candidate. Too many Catholics, too many Kennedys, and not enough family resources to run two campaigns made it apparent that 1960 was not to be Shriver’s breakout year. Joseph Kennedy made that crystal clear when he quietly told Shriver “under no circumstances are you to run for governor” in 1960. Shriver’s role in the presidential campaign was to help win liberal support for the ticket. As Stossel explains, Shriver’s views put him on the liberal edge of the Kennedy clan, and he portrayed a more gentle and compassionate image than Kennedy. This difference in personality was played out in one of the more memorable episodes of Shriver-Kennedy interaction that took place at the Kennedy family compound in Hyannisport, Mass. When one of Shriver’s young sons fell and hurt himself, he began to cry. Bobby Kennedy, who was watching, said, “Kennedys don’t cry!” Shriver picked up his son and told him, “That’s ok, you can cry. You’re a Shriver.” Once elected, John Kennedy applied Shriver’s qualities of good judgment, imagination, and energy to the new president’s Cabinet selection, having him head up what became known as the “Talent Hunt.” Shriver’s ability to locate and motivate talented, creative, energetic people to enter public service was extraordinarily successful and was demonstrated most fully when Shriver himself was appointed by Kennedy to create and then run the Peace Corps. Stossel’s discussion of the early history of the Peace Corps is fascinating; he documents all the budgetary, political, social, and even international battles that had to be fought. It is here that the book is at its best (perhaps because Shriver was at his best) in capturing Shriver’s unique strengths, including his powerful idealism, intellectual flexibility, openness to new experiences and cultures, and his nearly “superhuman” capacity for work. AFTER KENNEDY Equally revealing and fascinating is the author’s examination of the political machinations that began in the aftermath of Kennedy’s assassination and Lyndon Johnson’s succession to the presidency. Unlike most of the Kennedys, Shriver respected the new president, and Johnson, who understood Shriver’s strengths, appointed him to head his War on Poverty. In that capacity, Shriver would take on many domestic policy burdens, among them the Job Corps, Head Start, and Legal Services for the Poor, and he did each with an energy and optimism that sometimes belied the obstacles he faced. But the biggest hurdle Shriver had to deal with was to bridge the growing gap between Johnson and the Kennedy loyalists. In doing so, Shriver faced a new version of the same dilemma that had dogged him throughout his professional life — would he submerge his own interests to that of the Kennedys? Perhaps the penultimate episode in this running drama came when Johnson made statements about Shriver in early 1964 that led many political observers to believe that he might get the spot on the ticket that eventually went to Hubert Humphrey. The Kennedys — Bobby especially — had serious problems with this plan, particularly since if Johnson won, Shriver, not Bobby Kennedy, would be the heir apparent. By 1967, Shriver was ready to leave the administration, and again talk of a run for office in Illinois, either for senator or governor, began percolating. Instead, however, Shriver accepted Johnson’s offer of an ambassadorship to France. When Bobby Kennedy entered the race for president in 1968, Shriver was again caught in the middle. His dilemma continued even after RFK was killed and Humphrey won the nomination. Shriver was a leading candidate to be the running mate, but again a lack of Kennedy support ended that possibility. Shriver finally got on a national ticket in 1972, but only after presidential nominee George McGovern’s first choice, Sen. Thomas Eagleton of Missouri, was forced to step down after disclosures of prior psychiatric treatment. And by that time, there was little Shriver or anyone could have done to turn around the impending landslide loss to Richard Nixon. When Shriver ran for political office on his own, for president in 1976, his campaign withered on the vine. As one reporter noted, the run-up to his declaration “had the subtlety and smoothness of a final scene in a Marx Brothers movie.” It was, suggests Stossel, the result not only of his ambivalence, but also of his wait for approval from the Kennedys. But if Shriver never achieved elected office, his story is testament to the fact that not all great men achieve their greatness through high office. In Shriver’s case it was through his impact and influence on policy and the people he inspired and brought into public service. This biography, more than many (perhaps because it began as a request by Shriver for the author to help him write a memoir), feels complete not only in how it presents the facts and history of the period but also in its ability to capture Shriver’s spirit. At a time when the Democratic Party is searching for new leaders, it leaves one thinking that the Democrats could do far worse than to find someone who echoes and embodies the life and work of one of their former icons, Sargent Shriver. Alexander Wohl is a lawyer and writer in Washington, D.C.

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