Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Sargent Shriver Dies

Sargent Shriver died today, and I would be remiss if I didn't mention it.

When I think of Sarge Shriver, I remember the summer of 1972, when Tom Eagleton was forced from the Democratic ticket because he had been treated for depression.

I wasn't very old that summer, and many of the details were really over my head. But I remember how star–crossed George McGovern's presidential campaign seemed. We later learned that much of that was the work of Richard Nixon's "dirty tricks" operatives, but, in truth, McGovern brought much of it on himself. In the Eagleton matter, McGovern asked him to be his running mate without doing a thorough job of conducting a background check, and he paid a price for it.

When McGovern started winning presidential primaries (and there were far fewer of them then than there are now), the other Democrats in the race seemed to gang up on him. As I got older, I came to understand that that was the usual behavior of politicians who realize they were not the people's choice but are reluctant to throw in the towel; at the time, it struck me as unfair, which it was — but that was beside the point.

McGovern survived the challenges to his campaign, but the nominating convention, which should have been his moment in the sun, was acrimonious, and his choice of a vice presidential nominee — for reasons that my young mind could never quite grasp — was hardly treated to the kind of rousing endorsement that presumptive running mates can depend on today.

That convention, conducted in the shadow of the 1968 campaign, when so many things seemed to be done behind closed doors, was wide open, supposedly in the spirit of true democracy, but it wound up being mostly a televised exercise in pure disorganization, utter chaos.

Under the new rules, a few legitimate candidates for the vice presidential slot were allowed to have nominating and seconding speeches made on their behalf; then, during the balloting, delegates were free to cast their votes for anyone they pleased, which led to a circus atmosphere.

As I recall, about three dozen other people received votes from the delegates. Some of the nominees were rather frivolous — both foreign (Mao Tse–tung) and fictional (Archie Bunker) — and no single "candidate" ever seriously threatened to take the nomination away from Eagleton. It was a waste of time and did not give Americans who were watching the proceedings during prime time the impression that the Democrats were organized enough to find solutions to the nation's problems.

By the time Eagleton had been officially nominated and McGovern started making his acceptance speech, it probably wasn't even prime time in Hawaii. Very few people saw McGovern deliver a speech that drew praise from historian Theodore H. White in "The Making of the President 1972."

Anyway, shortly after the convention, the Democrats were rocked by the revelations that Eagleton had been treated for depression and that his treatment had included electroshock therapy.

McGovern insisted that he was standing by his running mate. He was behind Eagleton "1,000%," I believe he said. But the pressure became too great, and, in spite of his public pledge, McGovern asked Eagleton to withdraw, which he did.

And, for awhile there in the summer of 1972, the Democrats had a presidential nominee but no vice presidential nominee. It became a running joke that McGovern was offering the spot to everyone — and everyone was turning it down. The prospect of taking on President Nixon, whose lead in the public opinion polls seemed to be ever growing, was daunting at best.

Accepting the role of running mate was seen as comparable to accepting a ticket on board the Titanic with full knowledge that the ship would strike an iceberg and sink.

But Shriver accepted the role and took on the challenge with considerable gusto — even with the knowledge that Nixon was likely to carry all 50 states, which he very nearly did.

It was Shriver's opportunity to be the "political bride" — he had always regarded himself as a bridesmaid, Teddy White wrote, even though he had done some important things in his life.

At the request of his brother–in–law, President Kennedy, he was the first director of the Peace Corps.

Then, under Lyndon Johnson, he crafted the administration's war on poverty and was responsible for founding several initiatives that I remember my mother particularly appreciated including Head Start.

In fact, between Shriver's work and his wife's work with Special Olympics, they may have been the most successful socially activist couple in modern American history. And now, of course, they're both gone. Eunice Kennedy Shriver preceded Sarge in 2009.

They left behind quite a legacy.

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