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A Better Place

January 18, 2011

On a day that presented many interesting topics for consideration — including a large, shallow earthquake in southwestern Pakistan near Baluchistan on the border with Afghanistan’s embattled Helmand province, the announcement that Senator Joseph Leiberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, does not intend to seek reelection in 2012, and an FBI investigation following the discovery of a bomb along a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day parade route in Spokane, Washington — it was the death of Sargent Shriver that really caught my attention and got me thinking. Deputy editor of The Atlantic and Shriver biographer Scott Stossel posted perhaps the most moving and personal remembrance of Shriver following announcement of his death at age 95.

Stossel called Shriver perhaps the most influential American of the last half of the 20th century who was not a president, prominent elected official or Dr. Martin Lither King, Jr. That’s saying something.

Too many will remember Shriver as George McGovern’s running mate in the Democrats’ failed 1972 bid to defeat Richard M. Nixon for President of the United States. On the political and public service front, it was Shriver’s immense contribution to the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960 followed by his contributions to Kennedy’s and later Lyndon B. Johnson’s administrations that had the most lasting impact on the lives not only of Americans but of poor and marginalized people around the world.

As the first director of the Peace Corps and the person responsible for launching the Head Start preschool program, Shriver helped establish huge federal programs that not only worked but demonstrated what could be accomplished for very little money if we only had the vision and energy to put our nation’s values into action. Shriver’s faith in public service was equalled only by his commitment to social justice.

In an age obsessed with celebrity, too many people will remember Shriver as the husband of John F. Kennedy’s sister Eunice. A younger generation will recognize him as Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s father-in-law. Obviously, he was both of these things too, but it is interesting to note the impact Shriver had in these relationships as well. In the first instance, he helped Eunice establish the Special Olympics, which he championed with relentless zeal for most of the rest of his life. And later I suspect, but clearly cannot confirm, probably encouraged Republican Schwarzenegger to adopt or at least consider seriously some liberal policies that may become the accomplishments for which he is best remembered from his tenure in Sacramento.

As we consider some of the day’s other news, it’s worth noting what Shriver’s approach to public service accomplished. By encouraging individuals to become actively involved in development projects in impoverished countries he raised the living standards of millions while enlightening our nation to its leadership role in the world by showing how every citizen could play a meaningful even integral part in making the world a better place. By helping poor Americans get a running start in education he undoubtedly lifted many out of poverty and gave everyone hope in the promise of accessible and affordable education. By providing a system of legal aid for indigent citizens, he helped guarantee that American justice is not a commodity that can be bought or sold. And by helping us all recognize the abilities of people with cognitive and developmental impairments, he showed us that the innate worth of individuals is neither measured by money nor mental ability.

Sargent Shriver’s legacy extends well beyond these accomplishments. His lasting legacy is showing us that we can all make the world a better place if we don’t prejudge anyone’s worth or ability to contribute and we simply work together.

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