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Mark Shields: The Sargent Shriver I Knew and Admired

He was a rare breed of liberal who made a big difference in the lives of so many

Losing political campaigns doesn’t build character, but it does reveal character. When your campaign has the strong scent of loser about it, you do get to hear the most creative excuses why local officeholders have an unavoidable conflict that prevents them from sharing any public platform with you when you are campaigning in their hometown. Excuses as believable as — my favorite nephew is graduating from driving school or our family has a long-standing appointment about our late parakeet with the taxidermist.

I first met Sargent Shriver in a losing campaign when he was the 1972 replacement vice presidential choice of Democratic Sen. George McGovern. For anyone unfamiliar with American politics, the McGovern-Shriver ticket carried Massachusetts and the District of Columbia that year, while Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew (both of whom would be forced by their own crimes from office within two years) carried the other 49 states.

As political director of the VP campaign, I was on the campaign trail with Shriver constantly from August until Election Day from before the first campaign event in the morning until after the last stop at night.

In that shared political foxhole — when you know, but never admit, that you’re going to lose — you really get to know somebody. The Sarge Shriver I got to know so well and to like and to admire so much was both a thoughtful, committed Catholic and a thoughtful, committed liberal — that rare and wonderful liberal who actually likes and loves fallible, sweating human beings whom he encounters even more than he loves mankind in the abstract.

After working in or covering 11 presidential campaigns, I have come to expect the sometimes vast gulf between the candidate’s controlled, public face and his frequently unappealing, private reality. Shriver was truly the exception — curious, kindly, personal and optimistic.

Mickey Kantor, who was a poverty lawyer representing migrant farm workers in Florida in the late 1960s when he first met Shriver and who after working in that same 1972 campaign still went on to become commerce secretary, once put Shriver’s remarkable public career in clear perspective — and it’s worth repeating.

Would any of us not be completely thrilled, Kantor asked, if we had accomplished any one of the following: founder and director of the Peace Corps, founder of Head Start, founder of Legal Services for the Poor, creator of Volunteers in Service to America, president and chairman of the Special Olympics, U.S. ambassador to France and Democratic nominee for vice president?

But beyond his unsurpassed record of public service and of making great differences in the uncelebrated lives of so many, what I recall most vividly about being with Shriver was the love he so obviously felt and freely expressed for his late wife, Eunice, and for each of their five children — Timothy, Mark, Maria, Bobby and Anthony. I have never seen any political figure — make that any public person — who had a fonder, more loving relationship with his children than Shriver did. And his children deserved the affection and admiration he gave them.

You may notice that there has been no mention here of his famous in-laws. I, for one, have always felt that the Kennedy connection was an impediment to the political career he might have had on his own. We will never know.

What is unarguable is that this gifted, movie-star handsome man — think Cary Grant or George Clooney — dedicated himself and his life to remembering the forgotten, listening to the ignored and strengthening the weak. We will, sadly, not soon see his like again.

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.

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