Jan 19, 2011

RIP Sargent Shriver, Peace Corps founder

The great man, one of the last of the old generation of public servants, died yesterday.  His biographer has an excellent obituary:
For me, exposure to Shriver was a revelation. I grew up in the shadow of Vietnam, Watergate, the hostage crisis, stagflation, oil crises, impeachment, and later 9/11 and the War on Terror. Public service, for my generation, often seems to be a hollow or futile thing. It can be hard even to say the words "make the world a better place" without having them stick in your throat, so hopelessly naïve and lacking in irony do they sound. For Shriver's generation, their experience of government and of public service was much different. They saw the New Deal help lift millions from Depression; they saw the Allies defeat Totalitarianism; they saw the post-War boom, the Civil Rights movement, and America put a man on the moon, just like JFK said we would. So much that he'd seen and done had instilled in him the faith that public service could be a powerful and positive force; so little that I've seen has conveyed that.

Shriver's voice, then, is a voice from a more hopeful past. But while he was in part a product of his times, his optimism and idealism and commitment to service transcend the particularities of his time and circumstance. His career is a rebuke to cynical journalist types like me who focus on what's wrong with things, what's "realistic," what can't be done. Often the things that he accomplished (starting the Peace Corps in just a few months, or getting 500,000 kids into Head Start programs its first summer when the "experts" said that 10,000 kids was the maximum feasible) were things that everyone beforehand had said were not realistic, or downright impossible. Shriver had a gift for what one of his old War on Poverty colleagues called "expanding the Horizons of the Possible." In my darkest moments of despair over my biography of him, when I had a half-written, 1,000-page pile of garbage, and I'd think to myself that I'd never be finished, and that this wasn't worth pursuing, I'd tell myself, For God's sake, Shriver ran the Peace Corps and the War on Poverty--at the same time, while raising five kids!--so you can damn well finish this book.

I tend to think of myself as a pretty cynical guy. I am not easy to inspire. But Shriver awakened in me--just as he did in thousands of others--the notion that it is always worthwhile to work harder, to do more, and to dream bigger about achieving peace and social justice.
This graf in particular spoke to me:
In some ways, Shriver and I were as different as can be: him an optimist about human nature, me a pessimist; him devoutly faithful, me a struggling agnostic. But I am nonetheless unequivocally sure of two things. First, if there is a heaven, Sargent Shriver is on his way there now--or no one is. Second, even if there is no heaven, his legacy of good works here on earth is an inspiration and a goad for all of us to do more and better.
Godspeed, good sir.

UPDATE: I swear I beat Sullivan to the punch this time.

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