In his recently released book, A Good Man: Rediscovering My Father, Sargent Shriver, Mark Shriver offers a deeply moving portrait of the character and faith of his father, Sargent Shriver, explaining how this “good man” found sustenance in faith, hope, and charity in his remarkable and accomplished life. As founder of the Peace Corps, Head Start, Job Corps, and the Legal Services Corporation, architect of President Johnson’s War on Poverty, ambassador to France, and George McGovern’s running mate in 1972, Shriver might have been someone of immense self-regard, yet he advised students at Yale to break the mirror: “Shatter the glass. In our society that is so self-absorbed, begin to look less at yourself and more at each other. Learn more about the face of your neighbor and less about your own.”
The book begins with the son irritated at the phrase offered by so many people after his father’s death: “He was a good man.” These words inaugurated a desire to understand how “a ninety-five year old man who had been crushed in his two national election races … who had been battling Alzheimer’s for ten years, nevertheless inspired countless others to live a good life.” In an age of tell-all memoirs and anti-heroism, Mark Shriver’s regard for his father is immense, and while he expresses pride in his many accomplishments, the book aims more to discuss goodness, kindness, and human dignity, particularly the elder Shriver’s continued, even expanded, nobility when suffering from Alzheimer’s. When the disease revealed the core of the man, it uncovered someone who told strangers, “I love you. God bless you.”
I must admit to knowing little more about Shriver than the family tree prior to reading the book, and I certainly did not know what a major player he had been in the structure of twentieth-century liberal politics. Reading a bit more, I was fascinated to learn the centrality of “spiritual values” to his work and the ways in which he worked to spiritualize politics without politicizing religion. Consider his speech in 1963 on race relations: “for even though law can compel and even educate … we must look to those institutions whose task it is to teach moral values, to restate eternal principles … and to conform the daily conduct of men to the guiding values of justice, of love and of compassion. Pre-eminent among those institutions is religion and the church.”
The younger Shriver opens a chapter on love, which describes how the Shrivers turned the U.S. embassy in Paris into a training facility for the Special Olympics, including rolling up the carpets and laying down tires in the ballroom for training, with the following quote from Sargent: “Without love, which really is respect for your fellow man, there can be no faith in ourselves, or in others. Without faith, there can be no hope; without hope, there’s no future.” Initially the French resisted their efforts, but de Gaulle, whose child had developmental disabilities, was overwhelmed, and sent “so many flowers to the embassy that one man alone couldn’t carry them,” and France became “one of the first countries to create a Special Olympics program.” Shriver bore witness to dignity, and others then saw the same values he saw.
Respect for his fellow humans was evident throughout his life, public and private. In 1955 he became president of the Catholic Interracial Council and helped desegregate Catholic schools in Chicago, much earlier than most cities, and worked to overcome racial discrimination in the hospitals of Chicago, particularly Catholic ones. Mayor Daley appointed him president of the Chicago Board of Education to lead efforts to desegregate public schools. And in 1960, when Martin Luther King, Jr., was in jail for leading a sit-in, Shriver, against the express wishes of John F. Kennedy’s advisors, had Kennedy call Coretta Scott King and offer his best wishes, a call most thought would cost him the election.
So, too, in his efforts at international development and peacemaking, the dignity of the other rather than condescension was central to his vision. In a speech celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Peace Corps, Shriver declared, “Who wants to be a servant? No one! Service implies servitude, failure to achieve even equality, let alone dominion. Yet the Peace Corps exists to serve, to help, to care for our fellow human beings. … Serve, serve, serve! That’s the challenge. For in the end it will be the servants who save us all.”
Most impressive was the consistency of his positions, for the man who worked so tirelessly for peace, for racial reconciliation, for teachers, for the poor, for the Special Olympics, for those without legal representation, was, along with Eunice Shriver and Governor Casey, one of the last pro-life Democrats of note. In 1992, the same year as the Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision, the Shrivers joined Governor Casey and others as signatories of A New American Compact, declaring that the “vast abortion industry … is not the kind of America that expresses the abiding decency and compassion of our people. It is long past time … to reconstitute the story of America as a story of inclusion and protection.” The child, they declared, was “Without a Doubt, a Human Life,” while “unfettered access to abortion on demand has addressed none of women’s true needs; nor has it brought dignity to women.”
Alas, this element of Sargent Shriver’s goodness and compassion never makes it into the book. (Mark Shriver, for one, is unequivocally pro-choice.) Though unsurprising, that lacuna reveals, as Ross Douthat put it, that contemporary liberalism has become “absolutist on the issue,” and that the elder Shriver was “a different kind of liberal,” one of those few, we might say, who was consistent in recognizing the dignity of every human person.
Douthat writes elsewhere about Sargent: “There is no definitive Christian approach to politics … a libertarian and a social democrat can both claim a Christian warrant for their approach to political affairs, and likewise a neoconservative and a realist, or for that matter a monarchist and a republican. … Precisely because there is no single model for a Christian politician, every Christian in politics has an obligation to be a model. … This was what Sargent Shriver did throughout his career.”
My point here is not about the obligations of politicians and their religions, Christian or otherwise, but rather to consider the obligation to be a model, and, moreover, the obligation to respect models. Good men and women can disagree about policy, sometimes strongly, and I suspect some readers of this essay already will have thought something like, “Sure, Shriver was a good man, but the war on poverty was a disaster,” and perhaps so. In a good many matters, politics is an inexact pursuit, with concrete actions admitting little of the certainty of a theoretical discipline. Aristotle knew this, reminding us that the well-schooled person does not expect more than a pursuit allows; this is precisely why he so closely linked politics and ethics, and, moreover, precisely why his account of ethics was rooted in virtue. Good men and women have no special knowledge base from which to solve poverty or end wars, but they do model those virtues necessary to value what ought to be valued, how to live in pursuit of those genuine values, and how to collaborate with others in that pursuit.
It’s far too easy when bickering about this or that policy, and particularly when the policy is morally charged, to miss the values modeled by good men and women when we disagree on the means. Certainly good intentions do not cover illicit means, or even merely bad policy, and yet all too often we find ourselves in attack-and-destroy mode over the means, unfortunately losing the genuine value(s) proclaimed by the person advocating the disliked policy.
I suggest that we have, all of us, an obligation to recognize and promote genuine value, and that we descend into vice whenever we muffle a good person’s proclamation of value, which we can do in a myopic focus on disagreements over policy. There are too few virtuous people, too few who have a consistent grasp of human dignity, and even fewer who also have power and a public voice.
If we have an obligation to recognize and promote value, and if the life of a good man or woman models value, then we have an obligation to honor and promote that model. Perhaps especially now, when so many note the malaise and dysfunctions of our polity, there is an obligation to honor the virtuous, whatever their politics, and to learn their values. Certainly I recognize that men like Sargent Shriver lived in pursuit of value, and I have much to learn from him, often much more than from those whose policies I support, but too infrequently do we, on all sides, honor the good and the noble.
We especially fail to honor those who valued human life in all its glorious forms, like Sargent Shriver. And so, those of us who uphold the intrinsic dignity of every human ought to proclaim loudly our thanks to those good witnesses to dignity, whatever their political persuasion.
R.J. Snell is associate professor of philosophy at Eastern University and a research director of the Agora Institute for Civic Virtue and the Common Good.
Support the work of Public Discourse by making a secure donation to The Witherspoon Institute.
Copyright 2012 the Witherspoon Institute. All rights reserved.