WHEN THE PRESIDENCY ELUDED SARGENT SHRIVER
In The End, "Much To Do In Life Besides Running For Political Office."Written by DON PRIDE. Last updated Wednesday January 19th, 2011
By DON PRIDE
Three generations of Kennedys dangled in small, oval-shaped photos from a family tree published in the New York Times seventeen months ago when Sen. Edward Kennedy died. With Joe and Rose Kennedy atop the tree, the next branch depicted their children - including sons John, Robert and Ted.
One of their five daughters, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, smiled out at Times readers from the center of the family tree. The entry appropriately credited her with helping “found the Special Olympics” and then described her husband as the “first director of the Peace Corps” and “George McGovern’s running mate in 1972.”
True enough. But Sargent Shriver, who died yesterday (JAN. 18, 2011), had also run for president himself - in a forgettable 1976 campaign that seemed doomed from the start. Shriver was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, which was announced publicly in 2003. I had a close-up view of that presidential campaign, serving as his press secretary and bunking out in the Shrivers’ guesthouse during the summer and fall of ’75.
In the wee hours of the September day he announced his candidacy, Shriver tossed and turned in bed until suddenly remembering a thoughtful letter he’d once received from his close friend and former Peace Corps deputy Bill Moyers. He bolted to his dresser and pulled a worn piece of paper from a wallet containing far more personal notes than money. It contained a single paragraph Shriver had torn from the letter.
“There is no conservative or liberal remedy for the sickness of the national spirit,” Moyers had written. “The cure will come from honest, truthful leadership that summons the best in us - as we remember John Kennedy once did. His legacy awaits the leader who can claim it.”
With a blue felt-tip pen, Shriver scratched out the original ending of his announcement speech, typed for delivery on a handful of 5- by 8-inch cards. In its place, he copied the lines about JFK’s legacy - carefully enclosing Moyer’s words in quote marks but not identifying the source. He then added: “I intend to claim it, not for myself alone, but for the family that first brought it into being, for the millions who joyfully and hopefully entered public service in those days in order to produce a better life for all, and for those billions of unknown, uncounted human beings whom I have seen all over the world - in Asia, South America, Western Europe and the Soviet Union - for whom the memory of those days and of John Kennedy is still an inspiration to their minds and a lift to their hearts. That’s what we must all be proud of once again.”
He could hardly wait to show his changes to Eunice, whose opinion he sought on almost everything. When she awoke, she liked the revised ending to her husband’s speech. Later, over breakfast, he read the passage aloud for my reaction. I thought it sounded good, a moving windup to his announcement. Indeed, it later brought tears to the eyes of supporters crowded into the ballroom of Washington’s Mayflower Hotel, with John Kennedy Jr. and Bobby Kennedy’s widow Ethel up front with the Shriver family. It also provided the news peg for surprisingly strong television and newspaper coverage of the long-expected Shriver announcement.
Tactically, though, it proved disastrous.
The next day, on “Meet the Press,” NBC reporter Bill Monroe was the first to question Shriver. “You said you are claiming the legacy of John F. Kennedy,” he said. “Isn’t the logical claimant of the legacy Sen. Ted Kennedy, and why isn’t he supporting you?”
Shriver acknowledged his brother-in-law was the logical claimant but said Kennedy had assured him he wasn’t going to enter the 1976 presidential race. The senator had also pledged neutrality to other Democrats lining up for a shot at their party’s nomination, Shriver tried to explain.
The news panel persisted. What exactly was the Kennedy legacy and by what right did Shriver claim it, moderator Lawrence Spivak wanted to know. Wouldn’t voters thirst for the “real thing” instead of “Near Beer,” said Martin Nolan of the Boston Globe. Conservative columnist Robert Novak, cocking his head sideways, asked why the liberal George McGovern’s former running mate wasn’t claiming the “McGovern legacy.”
The same line of questioning dogged Shriver on the campaign trial, which he initially traveled mostly on commercial airliners accompanied by just this writer - a journalist/flack from Florida with no national experience. Wasn’t Shriver merely a stalking horse? Might Teddy change his mind? Or maybe accept a draft at the convention?
Asked at an Atlanta press conference whether he’d eventually get Kennedy’s endorsement, Shriver simply replied, “Yes.” The next day I showed him the resulting headline in an Atlanta newspaper as we flew in a small twin-engine Cessna from Montgomery, Ala., to Gulfport, Miss. It said, “Shriver Expects Kennedy Help.” Stories like that could force the senator to deny he had any such intention, I warned Shriver, sitting in the co-pilot’s seat in front of me. “Well, ultimately he will endorse me,” he said over his shoulder.
He peered out the side window at a cloudy sky, and then, with a sigh, added, “It may be at the inaugural.”
Despite the assassinations of President and Robert Kennedy, Shriver didn’t want secret service protection in the early months of the campaign. He thought he could get closer to voters by refusing protection during the Democratic Party primaries. Arriving home one day he found a handwritten note from Eunice reporting that campaign finance director Bill Kelly had phoned, cautioning “don’t make a mistake about protection. The campaign is going too well.”
She had also run the question by Dick Drane, Senate press secretary to her last surviving brother, Ted. “Dick Drane says your view is intriguing,” she jotted in her note to Shriver. “My view is if you are certain there is a heaven, OK.”
Sargent Shriver, a Catholic descendant of Maryland gentry stung by the Great Depression, had worked his way through Yale, graduating cum laude and going on to law school and the editorship of the Yale Daily News. He earned a Purple Heart serving as a naval officer in the Pacific during World War II, then managed Joe Kennedy’s giant Chicago Merchandise Mart. When Martin Luther King Jr. was jailed during the 1960 presidential campaign, it was Shriver who picked up the telephone and insisted that candidate John Kennedy say a few consoling words to King’s wife. He then helped President Kennedy launch the Peace Corps and, after the tragedy in Dallas, stayed on to head up Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty and later serve as U.S. ambassador to France. “I have never run into anyone more efficient at getting something new started, at firing other people’s imaginations,” said Bill Moyers, who became a top Johnson aide before pursuing his distinguished career in print and television journalism.
At age 60, Shriver was a successful international lawyer, deeply religious and squeaky clean. But, in running for the nation’s highest office, he was making the first bid on his own for elective office. And it showed. A born back-slapper, bursting with energy and enthusiasm, he sometimes seemed more super salesman than serious presidential contender. For all his intelligence and knowledge, he frequently gave rambling, unfocused answers to reporters’ questions.
On her way from Hyannis Port to the Kennedy winter home in Palm Beach, Rose Kennedy visited Timberlawn - the Maryland estate that had been home to Sargent and Eunice Shriver and their five children since the days of Camelot. As the family gathered for dinner one evening, she asked her son-in-law why he was running and what his candidacy offered that others did not.
Once more, Shriver rambled.
But the 85-year-old family matriarch listened intently for the gist of his words, and abruptly responded with a brief, punchy speech of her own. Addressing 19-year-old Maria Shriver across the dinner table and an imaginary audience of women across the land, she spoke in clean, crisp sentences in her familiar clipped Boston accent. She said Sargent Shriver had “always worked for ordinary people”; he “knows how to bring grocery prices down, you women will see”; he “knows how to get your husbands back to work, your children in good schools.”
Her right forefinger jabbed the air in true Kennedy style as she went on, and efficiently concluded, “You can help. It’s your vote that will count.”
After dinner Rose Kennedy took her nightly walk and retired early to the small guesthouse behind the sprawling, wood-sided Shriver home. But she was wide-awake, her mind racing. Shortly after midnight, she bundled herself in her robe, returned to the big house and called to “Sarge” from the foot of the stairs. He came down in his robe and fetched a glass of milk for her from the refrigerator. “I couldn’t sleep,” she explained, as he walked her arm in arm back to the guesthouse. “Speeches kept running in my head.”
Shriver folded his campaign in early ’76, after disappointing losses in New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Illinois. “The family is used to winners,” Barbara Walters asked him in Chicago. “Do you feel awful?”
“No,” he said bravely. “I’m not psychologically down at all. I’m still a hero at home. There’s much to do in life besides running for political office.”
(Don Pride retired to Lakeland, Florida in 2002 after a long career in journalism including a stint as the editor of The Recorder in Greenfield Massachusetts during the 80's. Don was also involved in Florida state government. He adapted this column from a story he wrote that was published in The Ledger on August 28, 2009, shortly after the deaths that month of Eunice Kennedy Shriver and U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.)