Shriver, (Robert) Sargent, Jr.
SHRIVER, (Robert) Sargent, Jr.
(b. 9 November 1915 in Westminster, Maryland), journalist and first director of the Peace Corps; John F. Kennedy's brother-in-law and campaign manager; and an outstanding 1960s public servant who symbolized the best qualities of the Kennedy era.
Shriver was the son of Robert Sargent Shriver, Sr., who owned a variety of mills and tanneries in Maryland, and Hilda Shriver, a homemaker. The Shriver family included a long list of public servants, including David Shriver, signatory on the Stamp Act and the Bill of Rights. Shriver's wealthy upbringing enabled him to attend the Canterbury School in New Milford, Connecticut, as a youth. He remained in the Northeast after completing his secondary education and attended Yale University, where he graduated cum laude in 1938, and went on to attend Yale Law School.
Much like his predecessors, Shriver was committed to the idea of public service. After he graduated from Yale Law School in 1941, he enlisted in the navy during World War II. Following the war, he turned away from a career in law and began working as a journalist for Newsweek. Shriver relocated to Chicago, a move that created the conditions that determined the course of his life and allowed him to express his public ambitions to their fullest.
Shriver soon served on many public boards and committees. He was president of Chicago's board of education and a member of the city's Council on Foreign Relations. With a growing reputation for being circumspect and diligent, Shriver soon captured the attention of Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., the patriarch of the Kennedy family. Ambassador Kennedy hired Shriver to manage a recent business venture in Chicago. Shriver's work for the elder Kennedy produced more than long-lasting business ties; it also introduced him to Eunice Kennedy, who later became his wife, attaching him indelibly to the Kennedy clan.
Shriver came to assume a prominent role in the political side of the Kennedy business, serving as John F. Kennedy's midwestern campaign manager during the 1960 presidential campaign. Once Kennedy was in office, Shriver took on the daunting task of making his campaign promise of an international volunteer corps a reality. The volunteer corps, officially titled the Peace Corps, was a cornerstone of Kennedy's New Frontier, billed as an improvement over Truman and Eisenhower's unimaginative cold war policy.
True to his reputation, Shriver made the Peace Corps idea a testament to mid-twentieth century development, goodwill, and international cooperation. With meager appropriations from a reticent and highly partisan Congress, and uneven support from the Kennedy administration, Shriver fashioned an organization independent of the political wrangling of the time. In the unforgiving political climate of the cold war, the Peace Corps was a testament to the notion of development and Shriver's lobbying ability. In the face of sobering international crises—the Bay of Pigs, the Berlin Crisis, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and a fledgling conflict in Southeast Asia—he kept the Peace Corps committed to idealism, even though the program could very well have been a casualty of domestic politics.
The first project that the Peace Corps undertook was in Tanzania, and all sides of the arrangement considered it a resounding success. The agency established strong relationships with developing countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East.
Shriver also used the Peace Corps to tap into the spirit of volunteerism among recently graduated college students and professionals in the United States. The group promoted a brand of development in developing nations aimed at defeating not only structural and intellectual deficiencies, but also their cultural antecedents. Shriver promoted a program of self-improvement with Americans serving as the catalyst.
When drafted by Kennedy's successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, to design the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), yet another rhetorical piece that was more idealism than substance, Shriver in 1964 adopted a similar approach. In the case of the OEO, the governing notion was that the poor needed training, legal resources, access to employment, and adequate education to improve their lot. To this end, the OEO became an umbrella organization that over-saw a loose constellation of programs: Head Start, Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), Community Action Program (CAP), Job Corps, and Upward Bound. As with the Peace Corps, Shriver tried to navigate an autonomous path for the agencies that became the backbone of the War on Poverty. The OEO was a courageous attempt that proved unrealistic as the nation witnessed rioting, student demonstrations, and an increasingly disastrous Vietnam conflict.
Near the close of the decade in 1968, Shriver's public career took a more dramatic turn. In that year he moved from the OEO to an ambassadorship in France, where he served in President Richard M. Nixon's administration. His service ended in 1970, and in 1972 he served as Senator George McGovern's running mate in McGovern's failed bid to unseat Nixon as president. Since the 1980s Shriver has continued inspiring liberal idealism through his work with the Special Olympics International and the Washington, D.C., law firm of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver, and Jacobson.
To Washington insiders Shriver was a catalyzing force with a talent for navigating uncharted administrative territory and a shrewd decision-maker with a sharp intellect. For the American public, Shriver represented a charming leader who could make others believe in spite of themselves. During his career as a public servant he flirted with a run at the White House and laid the foundation for America's policy on poverty at home and throughout the world. To many, Shriver represented the last vestige of Kennedy's highest ideals and Camelot mystique in the cold-war era. Shriver embodied the principles that endeared the Kennedy administration to the nation at a time when America was in the throes of tremendous civil and political upheaval.
There is no definitive biography of Shriver. Much of his public work can be gleaned from the prominent studies of the Peace Corps and Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty, including Shriver's own Point of the Lance (1964); Gerard T. Rice, The Bold Experiment: JFK's Peace Corps (1985); Fritz Fischer, Making Them Like Us: Peace Corps Volunteers in the 1960s (1998); Michael Latham, Modernization as Ideology: American Social Science and "Nation Building" in the Kennedy Era (2000); and James T. Patterson, America's Struggle against Poverty in the Twentieth Century (2000).
Christopher T. Fisher