In this excerpt of Mark Shriver’s book, The Good Man, he salutes his Dad and remembers the perks of being the Sargent’s son.
On March 22, 1976, my father dropped out of the race for the Democratic nomination for the presidency. I was twelve years old, adored him, and was enchanted by the magical carpet ride that a campaign could be for a boy. But every child experiences, sooner or later, the astounding realization that their parent is shaken. You aren’t privy to the cause or the details, but you sense it in the adult’s demeanor. You sense it with an almost animal-like instinct and alarm. I felt that sensation for the first time that morning.
We went to the National Press Club in Washington, where a decent- sized crowd had assembled to hear his withdrawal speech. He smiled throughout it, but its content, I realized long after, was startling. I obviously didn’t understand at the time how what he said then would inform my quest during the days after his death:
What we need now is not the false security of beguiling promises or befogging rhetoric, not empty and simplistic slogans. We need the spiritual confidence borne of confronting openly and honestly the challenges—the terrors in the nights—we all know, we all must face. One of those challenges is the continuing need to empower the powerless.
When he finished, everyone gathered around to hug him and shake his hand, and so many people were crying that it scared me. Everyone was acting like Dad wasn’t just leaving the race but was taking leave of the planet. We exited the Press Club, jumped into the car the Secret Service had waiting out front, and headed to National Airport for a family escape in the Dominican Republic.
I loved having the Secret Service around—each agent looked like he was straight out of the movies or on a pro football team, and nothing was more fun for a boy than to throw a football or a baseball with athletic guys who were willing to give their lives to ensure his dad’s safety. They were heroes to me.
But my idealistic image crumbled when the lead agent walked us to the door of the plane that day and said, “Mr. Shriver, can you sign this document please?”
Dad turned around and took the piece of paper. They exchanged a few words, and Dad signed it and handed it back. When they shook hands, I noticed them looking each other in the eye just a little bit longer than usual. Then the man turned around and strode back up the walkway. Dad boarded the airplane, and I followed him. The door closed behind us. The Secret Service was gone; my heroes were gone.
We didn’t talk much on the flight to the Dominican Republic, and when we landed we gathered our own bags and hailed a cab to the hotel. There was no Secret Service to meet us; there wasn’t even a car waiting. I will never forget that sense of loss—I felt abandoned by the greatest group of playmates a kid could ever ask for. It was like a punch in the gut. What had just happened? I learned at that moment that fame, fortune, and adulation are gone the minute you’re out of politics. I never forgot that when I went into politics myself. As soon as you’re out, you’re out.
And yet the only two times I saw my dad shaken were during his speech to his team at the hotel and when he said good- bye to that Secret Service agent. Piecing it all back together, I can say now that he was uniquely unmoved by it all, except when he had to bad farewell to people he felt he had let down.
Dad had something very few people, let alone politicians, can summon: constancy. As I look back at his life and our relationship, I believe the source of this constancy was his radical faith. He was ambitious, but it was more a cosmic ambition than an egotistical one. His concession speech surprises me to this day: his talk of “spiritual confidence” and “terrors in the night” stray intentionally into the land of faith—a place where Democratic politicians are not supposed to go. And yet he was a Democrat, a liberal, a public servant, precisely because of his faith. Politics was the best professional venue for him to act out his faith; there he could exercise that cosmic ambition for justice and equality.
Yes, Dad had an ego—you have to have a strong ego to stand up and run for political office at any level in this country, let alone vice president or president. But so many politicians say that they go into politics because of a desire to serve, and though that may be true initially, for many of them, the longer they stay, the more it becomes about being called “the honorable” this or that, the more it becomes about people being deferential to their opinions, about people kissing their fannies, about being on television, about dinners with rich people or movie stars at the best tables. The office become conflated with the power and the prestige. Most politicians cling to that, desperately.
President Clinton said it well when he spoke at Dad’s funeral: “There is nothing closer to death than being defeated in politics; being defeated and doing it in a way that gives you public humiliation is agonizing.”
A typical politician will avoid that public humiliation at all costs. But Dad’s deep faith rooted his ego in a desire to do God’s will. I honestly believe that he saw the creation of the Peace Corps and the creation of the War on Poverty as a calling to do God’s will at that moment in time. The same could be said of his work on the Chicago Board of Education or the Catholic Interracial Council or the ’72 ticket or the ’76 run. He did the best he could, and then he moved on. He was a fundamentalist— but not in the sense that he imposed his religious views on anyone. He just lived his faith; it was the driver of his work.
President Clinton understood this. He said,
Thirty years later [after the ’72 race], I saw the next thing that is most painful for people in politics, and that is where you’re done and nobody cares whether you are winning or losing. Better to be humiliated than ignored, right? So, I wonder—I swear, I couldn’t make this up. I’m in Miami and Anthony has got his dad down there, and we’re all gonna go to dinner with two, maybe three of the people who were there that night, who are in this church. And we go to this kinda tony restaurant, which as I remember was in the South Beach area, and I show up—I thought I looked pretty cool; I’ve got a blue shirt on and a blue sports coat, you know. Sargent Shriver shows up, eighty- seven years old, in a double- breasted blue sports coat, seersucker pants, and these unbelievable shoes with Romero Britto art on them. As God as my witness, I’m sitting there and all these really cool dudes are walking by, you know it’s Miami, and they’re looking at his feet: Hmm … who is this guy? He kept us laughing all night long; he had more energy than anybody else. What difference did it make if he wasn’t powerful anymore; he had today, a gift of God.
President Clinton had it right, almost.
Dad really wasn’t a politician, at least not a modern-day version of an American politician, Republican or Democrat. I don’t think he ever looked at his defeats and thought, I am not powerful anymore. It didn’t take him thirty years or, really, any time to get over the losses, because that type of thinking never entered his mind. The guy who kept Clinton laughing all night long, who had more energy than anyone else at eighty-seven, was the same guy in the Dominican Republic thirty years earlier, hailing a cab and talking about the beauty of the transparent blue water hours after walking away from the race for the biggest job in the world. He was the same guy who called me the day after I lost my congressional race in 2002 and acted as if nothing had changed. In fact, he wasn’t acting. In his book, nothing had changed. His faith saw to that. The sort of election loss, or two, that would be interpreted by most politicians as an agonizing blow to their very being was, for Dad, a blip on his cosmic screen.
I don’t really understand the psychology of religion or the origins of faith. But I do believe that his suffering and trials made his faith stronger. That much I get. He was born into the faith of his family, but his experience made his faith personal, stronger, and animating. Good God, to believe like he did!
I am certain a day never passed when he did not recall the blood of his shipmates and the loss of their lives; I have tried to imagine the strength it took for him to orchestrate one of the most tragic funerals in American history; I can’t imagine surviving the Great Depression with a father who was bankrupted and despondent and then not being able to go to his funeral.
In his final letter to us, Dad wrote, about his parents, “Their experience helped convince me that putting trust in money or in any economic system is absurd. It is wiser and safer to trust in our Lord than in banks or gold or the New York Stock Exchange.”
It was his faith in a different system that kept his eyes on a richer wealth, a bigger prize. Going to Mass daily, having a daily relationship with God, even a minute-by- minute relationship with God—that’s what gave Dad “power,” gave him his hope. That hope, enabled by that faith, was there in good times and in bad, in D.C. in ’63 and in ’72 and in ’76 and in Miami Beach when he was eighty-seven.
He was always animated by hope, yet I wouldn’t need to fully grasp the depth of his hope until after he had taken his last breath. For most of my life, it was enough for me to feed off his energy—he carried all of us on his wave. He kept us believing; he kept us hopeful. When he walked into a room, you just felt better. You felt ready for the day.
—Photo credit: Jeffery Turner/Flickr