Sargent Shriver, 1915-2011

I never met Sargent Shriver, who died on Tuesday, but I have been knocking around the movement for national and community service since the 1980s and know several people for whom his death is a personal loss. My condolences to them and my respects to Mr. Shriver, who exemplified a political moment that we badly miss today.

Sargent Shriver stories are numerous and inspiring. For example, he traveled so much as Peace Corps Director that he became accustomed to sleeping under the rows of airplane seats during almost daily long flights (something that today’s cabin attendants would quickly forbid). But I would like to honor his core principles more than his particular actions:

He was committed to “service.” His own service record included a bronze star at Guadalcanal, stints as president of the Catholic Interracial Council (a civil rights group), chairman of the Chicago Board of Education, founding director of the Peace Corps, director of the Office of Economic Opportunity during the War on Poverty, and ambassador to France, plus holding the Democratic nomination for Vice President in 1972. Several of the organizations he directed were also devoted to “service.” The Peace Corps provides opportunities to serve one’s country and the host country; and many of the anti-poverty programs that Shriver directed at OEO were also driven by service (Job Corps, ViSTA, Legal Services). The kind of service he exemplified was not charitable, nor amateurish, nor necessarily unpaid. The Peace Corps, for example, is the “toughest job you’ll ever love.” It’s serious, responsible, more-than-full-time work, and you earn a paycheck for it.

He stood for fairness and equality of opportunity. It was at his suggestion that Senator John F. Kennedy interceded on behalf of Martin Luther King in 1960, and Shriver had a lifetime commitment to inclusion, as reflected also by his anti-poverty work and the Special Olympics. His idea of fairness was never patronizing or disempowering. He saw excluded people as assets and potential leaders.

He exemplified a government that was popular, ambitious, and accessible. In 1960, nearly 80 percent of Americans said they trusted the government in Washington to do what is right. The government in which they placed their trust was busy doing things. In 1963-4, Congress passed the Economic Opportunity Act (launching the War on Poverty and creating Head Start, Job Corps, and many other programs that Shriver was soon to run), the Food Stamp Act (institutionalizing food stamps as a permanent federal welfare program), the Federal Transit Act (providing federal aid for mass transportation), the Library Services and Construction Act (offering federal aid for libraries), the Community Mental Health Centers Act (de-institutionalizing many mental health patients), the Clean Air Act (the first federal environmental law allowing citizens to sue polluters), the Wilderness Act (protecting nine million acres of federal land), the Equal Pay Act (addressing wage discrimination by sex), the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (ending de jure racial segregation in the United States), and the Tonkin Gulf Resolution (rapidly escalating the Vietnam War).

Many of these programs were criticized as imperial impositions of federal power. Some were serious failures. But several were designed to expand political opportunities for ordinary citizens. Announcing the War on Poverty, President Johnson said, “This program asks men and women throughout the country to prepare long-range plans for the attack on poverty in their own communities. These are not plans prepared in Washington and imposed upon hundreds of different situations. They are based on the fact that local citizens best understand their own problems and know best how to deal with those problems.” Johnson was honoring a particular social contract: people were expected to trust and pay for an aggressive government, but in turn it would honor their political ideas, energies, and values. For various complex reasons, that contract soon broke down, but Sargent Shriver personally exemplified it.

While he presided over the OEO, the Federal Government paid the salaries of thousands of people who worked at the grassroots level, organizing communities and running programs. The Great Society included elements of bureaucracy and centralization, but it also required the “Maximum Feasible Participation” of citizens. As a result, there was a lot of civic experimentation. Some people who were heavily involved in those experiments later switched over to electoral politics. Some burned out or lost the opportunity to serve when their budgets were cut. But a considerable number continued to experiment and learn, often moving from federal programs to nonprofits such as Community Development Corporations. When they lost their government grants, they developed local financial sources. When they got tired of fighting city hall, they developed collaborative relationships with local governments. This human trajectory is a major theme in Carmen Sirianni and Lew Friedland’s book Civic Innovation in America.

That brings me to a final principle of Shriver’s: the permeable boundary between state and civil society. In his own career, Shriver worked consistently on certain public problems but moved between the government and the private sector. He also established programs that allowed other people to work for the federal government for a little while, and then take their skills and knowledge into civil society–or vice-versa. The War on Poverty launched many such careers. I think one reason–although surely not the only reason–for the broken contract between the government and the people is the loss of opportunities to innovate within government and to address public issues in the private sector.

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