Sargent Shriver and President Lyndon Johnson still feed millions of Americans every day. Thank G-d; that roster has included me at various times, among the 39.68 million in the Federal Food Stamp Program. Sadly, this is seen as a superfluous “entitlement program” by the Republican Party, as reflected in Bush Jr.s unsuccessful veto of the program in 2008. The fact that this number is so high is a reflection of the failures of the American economy, and stewardship of same.
While one political ideology in this country views healthcare, quality education and the right to eat well as the exclusive province of a certain income threshold, Sargent Shriver is perhaps the single American political figure who best represents the opposite. Mr. Shriver’s curriculum vitae is one of the most impressive in American History, for any man who never became president. It may be argued that he accomplished more by NOT being president.
Otherwise he may not have had time to be President Johnson’s architect and prosecutor of the War on Poverty. A president wouldn’t have time to effectively administer the Peace Corp as its first director from 1961-1966. Of all my “desert island photos,” one of my favorites is the little plaque on the steps of the Michigan Union in Ann Arbor , where Kennedy stood to announce the formation of the Peace Corp in 1961. During his tenure as Peace Corp Director, Mr. Shriver also served as President Johnson’s Office for Economic Opportunity, a position he held from 1965-1968. This agency began vital self-help programs including the Job Corps, Head Start, Volunteers in Service to American and Legal Services for the Poor, all of which were eviscerated by President Ronald Reagan shortly after he took office in 1981.
Along with his wife, the late Eunice Kennedy Shriver, they founded the Special Olympics, the program that has done more to humanize people with disabilities than any other. Special Olympics has given self-esteem, opportunity and purposeful meaning to lives that previously had been hidden and shuddered.
Mr. Shriver was the right hand man to President Johnson and his brother in law, President John F. Kennedy for many great causes and programs, which were known as the “Anti-Poverty Program.” He carried out the will and agenda of both presidents and saw them through. This included the Federal Food Stamp Act of 1964 and Medicaid, among others. The Food Stamp Act did more than provide food to people; it also provided assistance and subsidies to farmers, the ultimate purpose of which was to make appropriate use of our agricultural surplus, according to President Johnson. Thanks Sarge.
In the Spring of 1964, there was a HUGE event at my Temple in Memphis , when it was announced that “President Kennedy’s brother-in-law is going to give the sermon this Friday night.” The event brought out 100’s of “High Holiday Jews”, including my Uncle Bert – THAT’S why I knew that night was different from all other nights. On the way to Temple , Uncle Bert energetically explained to me Mr. Shriver’s importance: “He’s was Kennedy’s brother in law, but he helped him found the Peace Corp and has done a lot of other important things too.” Afterward I got to meet him. This gracious and genial man asked my age, and told me, “Well Scotty, I’ve got a little girl about your age.” (That would be Maria.) I was too young to understand the content of his sermon, but I learned that you didn’t have to be Jewish to speak or sing at Temple . You could even be Catholic.
The legacy of Sargent Shriver is represented by the ongoing work of The Shriver Center, as an advocate for “Promoting health, safety and a chance for low-income people to prosper.” What’s so bad about that? At one time, that would have been a pandering, rhetorical question. Sadly, the ideology of the Republican Party considers this to be repugnant, so it’s a relevant question.
Oh, by the way, Sargent Shriver also served as Ambassador to France during a testy time of Franco-American relations from 1968-1970, and then found himself as an accidental vice-presidential candidate to George McGovern after Thomas Eagleton’s withdrawal in 1972. He made a run at the Democratic nomination in 1976, but faded in the primaries.
Sargent and Eunice Shriver are the only couple to both earn the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in different decades for different accomplishments. He might have had a more prominent political life, but he turned his back on a potential nomination as Governor of Illinois in 1960, to support Kennedy’s Presidential bid. That was a good thing for America . Walter Mitty and Forrest Gump could not have dreamed up a more important American life. Grace indeed.
H. Scott Prosterman