The gift of good example

In this political season of unbridled Trumpian narcissism, it’s useful to peel back a few decades and consider the example of others who served our country well and true, without scandal or pathological lying, giving selflessly of themselves to make our nation strong.

If only our representatives would take a few lessons from Sarge.

As I finished Scott Stossel’s fascinating biography of Sargent Shriver, I was filled with hope and despair. Hope that public servants like Shriver existed in my lifetime, employing their talents and determination to demonstrate leadership and dedication to the greater good. Despair because there are so few like him in public office today, and those with potential to achieve greatness seem paralyzed by an epoch that rewards partisanship and stalemate more than the skills needed to forge the necessary compromises to begin healing our wounds of racial, gender and income inequality.

The biography arrived via Shriver’s son, Mark, whom I met during my legislative years and served with on the National Commission on Children and Disasters. Like all the Shriver children, Mark has followed his parents’ example of a life worth living, currently serving as the president of Save the Children Network. He told his father about our work on a bill to expand tutoring services for children in rural Nevada schools, and Sarge inscribed the biography thanking me for my service as a Peace Corps Volunteer and state legislator. But I hardly feel worthy of his gratitude.

As a Kennedy brother-in-law, Shriver’s accomplishments have been overshadowed by the historical mythology of Jack, Bob and Ted Kennedy. And yet, his life’s work is indescribably rich with unparalleled achievement. He created the Peace Corps and served as its leader during the idealistic and difficult early years, inspiring thousands of young Americans to leave the comfort of their homes to venture into international public service. He headed up the War on Poverty under President Johnson, overseeing the creation of Head Start, the Job Corps, VISTA and Legal Services for the Poor. He supported the endeavors of his wife, Eunice, to change the way the world viewed people with mental retardation, creating the Special Olympics to give them the thrill of athletic competition. He also served as a distinguished ambassador to France.

In a speech to the National Bar Association 50 years ago, Shriver’s words are prescient and full of wisdom for our troubled times. “We know what the collective effect of discrimination and poverty have been on the black thread. But if the War on Poverty means anything, it is a statement that we must look—not just to the poor—but to the whole cloth too—and even to the loom. The whole fabric of our society must be rewoven—and the patterns we must weave are patterns of justice, opportunity, dignity and mutual respect.”

Shriver retired from the chairmanship of Special Olympics International at the age of 87 after a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. In a letter to his closest friends, he said, “I want to keep my ideas fresh so I can actively take part in public debate. But as we all come to learn sooner or later, desire is only part of the equation. To play a role, one needs not only desire, but skills too; not only a vision, but the ability to put it into action.”

When President Clinton recognized Shriver with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994, he summed up his career beautifully by saying, “Sargent Shriver has awakened millions of Americans, including many in this administration, to the responsibilities of service, the possibilities of change and the sheer joy of making the effort.”

Shriver died in 2011 at age 95. President Obama called him “one of the brightest lights of the greatest generation.”