Faith in Action

Tributes to politicos written by their children don’t have a special place in literary hell, but they probably deserve one.  Most are warm and fuzzy reminisces from kids who seem to know little more about their fathers—and it almost always is fathers—than their dads’ press secretaries. And, like the handiwork of a press secretary, their books often present a version of events so thin and sanitized that they make the History Channel look like PBS. Not so with Mark Shriver’s A Good Man: Rediscovering My Father, Sargent Shriver.

Unlike Scott Stossel’s 800-page Sarge The Life and Times of Sargent Shriver (Smithsonian Books, 2004), the younger Shriver’s book doesn’t attempt to be the definitive biography of his father’s life and career.  Instead, it is an elegantly written meditation on faith, public service, and parenting from someone who’s clearly spent much of his life grappling with all three.

On one level, Shriver’s book is a heartbreaking account of his father’s struggle with Alzheimer’s and the toll it took on him and his family. His discussion of the pain, anger, and frustration that came with helplessly witnessing his father’s decline will no doubt touch anyone who has a loved one suffering from the disease.  But the scope of A Good Man is much broader than that.

Shriver’s book tells the story of one of the most important—but least understood—progressives of the last half-century. The Sargent Shriver he introduces us to isn’t a Kennedy brother-in-law who gained authority by virtue of marriage. Instead,  we see an exuberant, profoundly religious man who saw a seamless connection between his faith and his commitment to social justice. Always a loyal supporter of the Vatican, Shriver was the archetypal Catholic liberal who saw the Sermon on the Mount not only as one of Christ’s teachings, but as a call to liberal activism, particularly to the young.

“I thank God for a Pope who tells us that we can and should be full of hope no matter what the secular atmosphere may seem to be,” Shriver told a 1979 Notre Dame conference.

“He does not say, however, that we should stand aside from the problems of the world or seek asylum in a monastery or convent, in the desert, or in any other retreat from the world! Quite the contrary. He says, in effect, ‘Get involved, Christians are needed in politics, in the law, in medicine, in the marketplace..."

It was Shriver’s religious convictions that, in the 1950s, led him to abandon a lucrative business career in Chicago to direct the Catholic Interracial Council and later, as president of the Chicago Board of Education, where he worked with civil rights leaders to desegregate the city’s schools. Here, Shriver earned a reputation as both a committed progressive and a consummate inside player whose coalition building skills helped transform the Democratic Party from a collection of big city bosses and Southern power brokers into a liberal alliance.

In 1961, Shriver brought these same convictions and skills to the Kennedy White House.  In an administration that could be cautious to the point of timid Shriver pressed carefully—but relentlessly—to put civil rights and poverty on the president’s agenda. Later, in the Johnson administration, it was Shriver who was given charge of president’s War on Poverty. To craft it, he assembled what would become the most effective economic justice advocates of our time, scholars and others who—though suspicious of Johnson—found in Shriver a staunch and doggedly optimistic ally.

In his outstanding biography of Michael Harrington, The Other American (Public Affairs, 2000), Maurice Isserman recounts a meeting with Shriver where Harrington dismissed the War on Poverty’s budget as “nickles and dimes.”

“I don’t know about you,” Shriver responded, “but this will be my first experience at spending a billion dollars, and I’m quite excited by it.”

Though still derided by conservatives as the crème de la crème of social engineering, by some estimates, the War on Poverty helped foster a reduction in the U.S. poverty rate from 17.3 percent in 1964 to 11.1 percent in 1973 when the Nixon Administration moved to gut the program. However, many elements of Shriver’s War live on, including Head Start, the Jobs Corps, Legal Services, Foster Grandparents, and a stripped-down version of VISTA, the last modeled on the Peace Corps, a Shriver creation from the Kennedy administration.

As Mark Shriver points out, his father’s passion for change—fueled by his devout Catholicism—sustained him throughout a political career that went beyond his work in two Democratic administrations. Shriver served as George McGovern’s running mate in 1972, and as a presidential candidate in his own right in 1976. Though both efforts failed, they were an inspiration for liberal Democrats to follow.

But while progressives can gain much from the example of Shriver’s tenacity, vision, and his faith, his political legacy is more complicated. And here the career of the author provides valuable insights.

Like his father, Mark Shriver grew up staunchly, though not as adamantly, Catholic. Like his father, he threw himself into projects to aid low-income families, particularly at-risk youth. And like his father, he displayed a knack for electoral politics, winning election twice to the Maryland House of Delegates where he championed social services for disadvantaged children. Here their paths diverge.

Where the elder Shriver’s efforts were buttressed by a strong, growing, civil rights movement, the political landscape facing Mark Shriver was much different. Organizations with the capacity to mobilize support for progressive policies have largely been replaced by advocacy groups that routinely have little presence in the communities they champion. Movement-building has largely been replaced by the creation of websites asking supporters to do little more than add their name to generic, e-mailable postcards, and, of course, contribute money. Ironically, the organizing that most resembles that of the Great Society-era is largely confined to the right and, like those past efforts, have demonstrated an awesome ability to change the political process.

For Mark Shriver, the absence of grassroots organizations with the capacity for turning out minority and low income voters doubtless played a role in his 2002 in the race to be the Democratic nominee for Congress in Maryland’s 8th Congressional District. Shriver, who lost by less than 3 percent of the vote, won by large margins in the district’s African-American neighborhoods.

In the wake of his 2002 loss, Shriver had a number of options available to him, but he turned them down in favor of starting a new career as senior vice president for U.S. programs at Save the Children, one of the few anti-poverty organizations that combines state-of-the-art fundraising with technical assistance and community organizing. At a time when liberals are in disarray and launching initiatives like the Great Society are inconceivable, Mark Shriver, not unlike his father, has dedicated himself to working where he can have the greatest impact.

In A Good Man, Mark Shriver offers us a glimpse into a time when politics could truly be social redemption through other means; a path for achieving what his father’s friend, Martin Luther King, Jr., came to call “the beloved community.” In that sense, Shriver’s book isn’t only a son’s reflection on his father’s life. It is also a reminder that the way things are isn’t the way things have to be.

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