On the Peace Corps grapevine, which was lightning fast even in pre-Internet days, the sad news of Sargent Shriver’s passing was shared instantly. I received it first from Mark Gearan, who was appointed the director of the Peace Corps 34 years after Shriver defined the job for all who would follow, and then from dozens more Peace Corps staff and volunteers from across five decades.
In different ways, these messages expressed the same sense of intimate personal loss that would have been striking to read about any person, but particularly so about a person who devoted his life to public service both as a government employee and a private citizen. I felt it too.
Shriver’s passion, energy, and boldness of vision were legendary within the Peace Corps – in the mid 80s when I served as a volunteer, and in the mid 90s when I served on the headquarters staff. In between (when I was serving as a Senate lawyer, and handed the Peace Corps portfolio because of my background), I met Shriver for the first time. He marched in to discuss with members of the Foreign Relations committee an obscure provision in a piece of legislation that he believed negatively affected the Peace Corps. In ten minutes of no-notes charismatic energy, he dissected perfectly the provision, explained its unintentional idiocy, lobbied for a precise revision, and somehow charmed every single person – senators and staffers, Republicans and Democrats – while making it clear that the country would benefit from more ambitious thinking on this issue. It was changed.
A few years later, Shriver appeared, as he sometimes did, unannounced at the Peace Corps headquarters to see what was happening. It so happened we were celebrating the type of victory that matters in D.C. – the uncharacteristic endorsement of Jesse Helms and the Republican Congress to expand the Peace Corps, despite the serious hacking being delivered to other foreign aid programs.
A quick explanation of this to Shriver made him smile, briefly. He said, “Great! But you need to be bolder. The Peace Corps should be four times as large as it is. Keep it up!” And then he was gone, winding through hallways peppering people with questions and stories and leaving a supply of high-octane motivational fuel for people to work harder and do better. He was a private citizen at the time, a walking embodiment at 80 years old of those sixth-grade civics concepts of duty and public service that can in some other instances start to ring hollow as years pass.
Intellect and intensity may be common traits in D.C., but they are toxic when accompanied by self-importance or disdain for others with different views. Shriver’s example was different. His intensity was joyful and infectious, his amazing intellect was deployed with empathy, and he pinched pennies and jammed bureaucracies to work with relentless optimism and idealism. For Shriver, these items were not mutually exclusive. He had followers because he led, not because he ran to the front of a line that was already formed. And it was palpable that he liked, respected, and was rooting for individual people, not just humanity in the abstract.
In the face of our country’s current challenges, the public-service legacy of Sargent Shriver should remain a beacon. He embraced the challenge of tackling huge issues that affect people, not just winning a debate about them. His public service was conducted both in formal governmental roles – at the Peace Corps, leading the war on poverty, championing access to legal services, and as U.S. ambassador to France at a dicey time – and tirelessly as a private citizen. Among other things, the energies he devoted to Special Olympics, founded by his wife Eunice, helped re-shape fundamentally how certain of our fellow human beings are perceived, treated, and embraced throughout the world. We’re all better for that.