Sargent Shriver, Force Behind Peace Corps, Dies At 95

Sargent Shriver is being remembered for his commitment to service. The first director of the Peace Corps died Tuesday. Shriver, who was President John Kennedy's brother-in-law, was 95. Kennedy biographer Laurence Leamer talks to Renee Montagne about Shriver's legacy.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Sargent Shriver devoted his life to public service. He was the founding father of the Peace Corps and architect of Lyndon Johnson's war on poverty and George McGovern's running mate in 1972. Robert "Sargent" Shriver, Jr. was also part of the Kennedy clan, married to John F. Kennedy's sister, Eunice. He died, yesterday, at the age 95 in Bethesda, Maryland.

We're joined now by Kennedy biographer Laurence Leamer.

Good morning.

Mr. LAURENCE LEAMER (Biographer): Good morning.

MONTAGNE: You know, let's look back to begin. You were a member of the Peace Corps yourself, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. What did Sargent Shriver do to make it so successful?

Mr. LEAMER: Well, you know, it's 50 years ago now. And it's hard to believe what an incredible idea it was and how people thought it was impossible. It was based on William James's essay "A Moral Equivalent of War."

And James said that for thousands of years, men have gone out to win their manhood at battle. Why didn't we go out and fight the same way for peace? And that was the idea that these privileged young Americans would go off to these poor countries and try to help.

And it worked incredibly well. It changed us more than it changed the world. But the Peace Corps is beyond the Peace Corps now. It's all kinds of young people and not so young people, in so many different ways are going out to the world and investigating the world and trying to help people.

MONTAGNE: He also launched another high-minded program, the Johnson administration's war on poverty. And he was passionate about it. Here's a clip from him in a 1995 interview on the program FRESH AIR.

Mr. SARGENT SHRIVER (Founder, Peace Corps): We believed that the way to get out of poverty was through human effort, helped by government, helped by private enterprise systems, or charity, so to speak. But a person had to have the desire. They had to have the motivation to move themselves out of poverty.

MONTAGNE: Sargent Shriver back in 1995.

Now, he was idealistic, but also he had political ambitions, which were - you might say of the Kennedy dynasty, it giveth and taketh away.

Mr. LEAMER: Well, I mean, the poor man, his obituary in the front page of the New York Times today begins saying the Kennedy-in-law, who was the founder of the Peace Corps - even now, that is the lead. And he lost as much as he gained from being a Kennedy.

In 1960, he wanted to run for governor of Illinois. He couldn't, because his brother-in-law was running for president.

MONTAGNE: His brother-in-law, John F. Kennedy.

Mr. LEAMER: John F. Kennedy was running.

In '76, when Sarge ran on his own in the primaries, his brother-in-law Senator Ted Kennedy was not impressed and did not help him. So Sarg lost as much as he gained.

MONTAGNE: So, in fact, Sargent Shriver never did realize his political ambitions?

Mr. LEAMER: No, he never held the elected office. But given the things he did and that smile and that exuberant manner of his, he did so many other things that fulfilled himself and fulfilled American.

We must mention Special Olympics, too. That is part of his and his wife's legacy - Eunice Kennedy Shriver, one of the great women of the 20th century. That all of the world now, those with mental retardation are treated a different way and our whole mentality's different.

MONTAGNE: What would you remember the most about him? I mean, when you talk about legacy he has a huge legacy. But what would that be for you?

Mr. LEAMER: Well, to me the term public servant, when you think what that really means. In a democracy, is there more noble a thing to be called? This is a deeply religious man, who went to mass almost every morning, who had prayer books and religious tracts and studies next to his bed.

I asked him once, why do you go to mass every morning. And he said, because I need God everyday. He was indeed a public servant of a kind we do not have very much of anymore.

MONTAGNE: Laurence Leamer is a journalist and author of "The Kennedy Men" and "Sons of Camelot." He joined us from his home in Florida, speaking to us about the life of Robert "Sargent" Shriver, Jr.

Thanks very much.

Mr. LEAMER: Thank you very much.

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