Sargent Shriver: A Man Of Public Service Sargent Shriver, the founding director of the Peace Corps and the architect of President Johnson's War on Poverty, died on Tuesday. He was 95. Shriver spoke to Terry Gross in 1995 about his role in the War on Poverty.
NPR logo

Sargent Shriver: A Man Of Public Service

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Sargent Shriver: A Man Of Public Service

Sargent Shriver: A Man Of Public Service

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Sargent Shriver, brother-in-law of President John Kennedy, founder of the Peace Corps and architect of Lyndon Johnson's "War on Poverty," died yesterday in Bethesda, Maryland. He was 95.

The son of a Maryland banker, Shriver went to Yale Law School and earned a Purple Heart in World War II before marrying Eunice Shriver, JFK's sister, in 1946. He had political ambitions of his own, but backed away from those ambitions to help the Kennedys win the White House in 1960. He then joined JFK's administration.

Shriver was named ambassador to France in 1968, at a time of strained relations with the U.S. In 1972, he was George McGovern's vice-presidential running mate on the Democratic ticket that lost by a landslide to Richard Nixon. Four years later, he launched his own presidential bid, which failed to gain traction in the 1976 primaries. And in 1994, President Clinton awarded Shriver the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

But it was his work in the 1960s that had the most lasting impact on the country. He was founder of the Peace Corps, and its director until 1966. And he developed a wide array of anti-poverty programs during the Johnson administration.

Terry Gross spoke to Sargent Shriver in 1995, when the social programs he initiated were under attack from prominent Republicans, including Newt Gingrich and Rudy Giuliani.

TERRY GROSS: Which are the programs that are still alive today?

Mr. SARGENT SHRIVER (Politician and activist): Well, for example the Head Start program was originated in the War Against Poverty. The Job Corps was originated in the War Against Poverty. The Vista program was originated then. Foster Grandparents was originated then, legal services for poor people was originated then, medical services for poor people was originated then. There's programs for the American Indians on the Indian reservations. A program for students so that they could go through college by working and studying so that they'd get a job at school while they were paying, through the job, for their education. That was the program, the War Against Poverty. Nobody remembers that.

GROSS: What critics are saying now is that while, you know, look. How successful could the War on Poverty possibly have been when, in fact, poverty has gotten worse, the welfare roles have swelled, people have become dependent on government programs. What do you say to that?

Mr. SHRIVER: I just say that's entirely wrong. The War Against Poverty started in 1964, 65, and by the time 1970 rolled around, the percentage of people in poverty in the United States had decreased to the smallest it's been in this century. It went from something like 18 and 19 percent to 11 percent. After the War Against Poverty was discontinued in some respects, the poverty ratio in the United States started climbing up. In the Nixon administration, it began to go up, and went up all through the Reagan administration until its hit a nice high now. It's almost up to 30 percent.

GROSS: When you say it was discontinued in some respects, what do you mean? Because some of the some of the programs still exist, and yet you said it was discontinued in some respects. So where do you draw the line there?

Mr. SHRIVER: Well, what I mean is that our request, the request I made to Lyndon Johnson back in 1966, I think it was, was for a program of $7 billion per annum. We were then at one-and-a-quarter billion dollars per annum. I asked for $7 billion per annum because that was the amount of money which we believe was necessary if we were going to win the war. Just like when you have a war in Europe, Eisenhower's in charge of the thing, he asked for the money that's necessary in his judgment, as the commander-in-chief, to win the war. We were not given that money.

The War Against Poverty never had enough money to succeed, not only in eliminating poverty - which may never be possible to eliminate it altogether - but to reduce it significantly so that it would be at a much lower level, let's say, five, six, seven, eight percent of the population of our country. We never got the money to do that. So when I say we started the war, we did not finance the war adequately to win it, and therefore, of course, we didn't win it.

GROSS: The slogan of the War Against Poverty was a hand up, not a hand out. What was the thinking behind that?

Mr. SHRIVER: The thinking was damn simple, and it's this: Most people in our country don't like handouts - that is, where people get something for nothing. And I don't blame them. I feel exactly the same way. So when we created the programs in the War Against Poverty, we didn't give anybody anything for nothing. I'd like to emphasize that: There was nothing given to anybody for nothing.

For example, if you volunteered the Job Corps, you really had to leave your home, go to a place where you worked 10 hours a day, you were on duty, so to speak, 24 hours. It was seven days a week. This was not a soft touch. It was a tough job. You learned how to work. You learned self-discipline. You had to agree to do that. You could quit anytime you wanted. That's true. And plenty of people quit, because they didn't have the courage or the intelligence or the combination to stay with the requirements of the Job Corps. But nobody was drafted into the Job Corps. Everybody had to volunteer, and they could get out whenever they wanted to get out.

GROSS: Were you personally opposed to giving people money?

Mr. SHRIVER: Yes. We never gave people money for nothing. No, we never did it at all. That's a different business. That's welfare. Ours was not a welfare program.

GROSS: Why not? Why didn't you want to enact a bigger welfare program?

Mr. SHRIVER: Because we believed that the way to get out of poverty was through human effort, help by government, help 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. When they had the motivation, we tried to help keep that motivation alive and to aid and abet that motivation. But we did not go in and just hand out money to people who had no motivation and were very content just to still and take the money.

GROSS: I think one of the more controversial aspects of the War On Poverty was the Community Action Program, which required a maximum amount of community representation on the board. Tell us what the Community Action Program was, first.

Mr. SHRIVER: Well, let me correct one misapprehension, which was implicit in the way you phrased the question: It did not require the maximum participation of the poor people on the board. What it did was require one-third of the people on the board to be poor, so that their voice could be heard and their appreciation of what they needed could be given to the other people on the board.

The second one-third consisted of leaders of private, charitable groups in the community where the community action was to take place. And the third was representative citizens from that area.

GROSS: Tell me the function of the program.

Mr. SHRIVER: The function was to mobilize the community itself, a particular part of a city, for example, to mobilize that part of the community, that part of the city to deal with their own problems imaginatively and in ways that they thought would be effective - not ways in which I thought or some federal bureaucrat would be effective, not ways in which, let's say, a given mayor thought would be effective or some other outside group would be effective, but in the ways that the people who were poor thought that they could be most helpful.

So we gave a voice to the, how shall I say, to the customers. The customers, you might say, were the poor people, and they were expressing their opinion about what they thought they needed, just as a patient tells a doctor where the patient hurts, the doctor finds out and prescribes for the patient. That's what we were attempting to do.

GROSS: Now, Nicholas Lemann, in his book "The Promised Land," writes about how a lot of politicians were threatened by Community Action Program because by empowering poor people, you were taken away some of the power from the local political machine. And there was money that was going - federal money that was going into a city that wasn't getting routed through the political machine. And so Mayor Daley, for instance, said you're putting money in the hands of people who are not in my organization. Was that your experience of it, too, that there was a lot of political resistance because of community people being on the board?

Mr. SHRIVER: Sure. Normally, tax dollars got distributed through the elected officials of our country, whether there's the local mayor or the government or the president of the United States or the Congress of the United States. One of the reasons people like to get into politics is not only that they can help their fellow citizens, but because they get power - especially men. Men love to have power: power over money, power over other people. But that was not our game. Our game was to empower the people themselves. So we went straight to where the poor people were rather than go through the political apparatuses. That enraged political people who had spent their lives trying to get political power.

DAVIES: Sargent Shriver, speaking with Terry Gross in 1995.

We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: We're listening to Terry's 1995 interview with Sargent Shriver, the brother-in-law of President Kennedy, who founded the Peace Corps and developed many of Lyndon Johnson's anti-poverty programs. Shriver died yesterday.

GROSS: I'm sure you get asked this all the time, so forgive me for asking it again. But your son-in-law is very, very famous, Arnold Schwarzenegger. And he's not only famous as an actor. He's famous as a Republican, a Republican supporter. What's it been like for you to have a son-in-law who is for your opposing party?

Mr. SHRIVER: Well, I grew up in a rather large family, the Shriver family in Maryland. About half of them are Republicans and half of them are Democrats. So I'm not at all surprised to be closely related to somebody who is a Republican. Secondly, I understand fully why Arnold, when he came to this country, became a Republican rather than a Democrat. He came from Austria, where the Socialist Party in Austria was really European socialist in its outlook. And he thought - and I think this is a fair statement. He thought that the Democratic Party in our country was analogous to the Socialist Party which he had experienced in Austria. Actually, that's not an accurate comparison, but that's what he thought.

So when he came here, went to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, he was approached by Republicans who invited him to become a member of that party. And he looked upon the Republican Party as being more in keeping with his ideas. And his ideas were based on the fact -which is a great tribute to him - that he had been able to come from, you might say, very simple circumstances in Austria. I mean, not from the top upper crust of Austrian society, either socially speaking or financially speaking. He had made it on his own, and he thought that's the way everybody should be able to conduct their life. They should succeed on their own.

GROSS: So this doesn't interfere with the family relationship.

Mr. SHRIVER: No, not at all.

GROSS: One last quick question for you. When I was growing up and your name was in the news a lot, I always thought Sargent was a military, or that you must have been a sergeant. And this is a silly question, but was that a common misconception young people had?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHRIVER: Sure. Yeah. Lots of people. And even today, some people say Sargent Shriver. Well, yes, you know, say well, what was your actual rank? Were you a master sergeant in the Army?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHRIVER: But the place where it was really funny was this: I served in the Navy for five-and-a-half years, and there are no sergeants in the Navy. That's a title in the Army. So I can remember when I'd come into port and they put up a telephone onto the ship. You know what I mean?

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Mr. SHRIVER: And then somebody called up on that phone ask to speak to Sargent Shriver several times. The man who answered the phone said, lady, there's no sergeants in the Navy. So there's no Sargent on the ship.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHRIVER: It was particularly funny when it comes - I did get to the point where I was a lieutenant commander.

GROSS: So you were Lt. Sargent?

Mr. SHRIVER: No, I was Lt. Commander Sargent Shriver.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHRIVER: That was enough to confuse anybody, including me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Sargent Shriver, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. SHRIVER: Not at all. I'm delighted to be with you.

DAVIES: Sargent Shriver, speaking with Terry Gross in 1995. He died yesterday in Bethesda, Maryland. He was 95.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: You can join us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @npr.freshair. And you can download podcasts of our show at

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.