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Sargent Shriver, a guiding force for two presidents, dead at 95

R. Sargent Shriver, with wife Eunice, campaigning for vice president in 1972. R. Sargent Shriver, with wife Eunice, campaigning for vice president in 1972. (United Press International/ File)
By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / January 19, 2011

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R. Sargent Shriver, who as founding director of the Peace Corps stood at the forefront of the New Frontier and later led President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, died in Bethesda, Md., yesterday, his family said. He was 95.

Admitted to a hospital over the weekend, Mr. Shriver had Alzheimer’s disease since 2003. No cause of death was released.

“He was a man of giant love, energy, enthusiasm, and commitment,’’ his family said in a statement. “He worked on stages both large and small but in the end, he will be best known for his love of others.’’

In a statement, President Obama described Mr. Shriver as “one of the brightest lights of the greatest generation,’’ and said he would be best remembered for his groundbreaking role with the Peace Corps.

“His loss will be felt in all of the communities around the world that have been touched by Peace Corps volunteers over the past half century and all of the lives that have been made better by his efforts to address inequality and injustice here at home,’’ Obama said.

Mr. Shriver was the husband of Eunice (Kennedy) Shriver, sister of President John F. Kennedy, and Democratic Senators Robert Kennedy of New York and Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts. His pinnacle as a government administrator came during the ’60s, but twice he reached for high elective office.

Senator George McGovern, Democrat of South Dakota, tapped Mr. Shriver as his vice presidential candidate in 1972, when Senator Thomas Eagleton of Missouri withdrew from the Democratic ticket after it was disclosed he’d had shock treatments for depression. Four years later, Mr. Shriver briefly ran for the Democratic presidential nomination.

McGovern remembered Mr. Shriver yesterday as a buoyant spirit whose good cheer and experience boosted his campaign. “Sarge was the most cheerful, optimistic person I’ve ever known in public life,’’ McGovern said in an interview last night. “He always had that gentle smile and optimism.’’

McGovern acknowledged that Mr. Shriver joined the ticket as the campaign sputtered, but from the moment he joined, he made a difference: “He gave the whole campaign a lift. . . . He was one of the most remarkable people I’ve known.’’

But Mr. Shriver felt hampered by his Kennedy connection. “It helped and it hurt,’’ he said in a 1987 Chicago Tribune interview. “Because you’re the president’s brother-in-law, you’re diminished for yourself. . . . You’re always devalued. There were times I’d say to myself, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if I could just get out from under and be myself?’ ’’

Such doubts rarely afflicted the notably upbeat and energetic Mr. Shriver. There was great irony in his living in the shadow of the family he’d married into, as Mr. Shriver — handsome, athletic, idealistic — was in many respects more “Kennedy’’ than some of the Kennedys. He was a devout Catholic who went to Mass almost daily and came from a patrician background. Mr. Shriver’s mother liked to point out that Shrivers had been in positions of power in Maryland for almost two centuries before the Kennedys left Ireland.

Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, in a statement, said Mr. Shriver “inspired us with his dedication to his family and public service. He changed the world for the better. His commitment to preserving and protecting human life at every stage of existence, especially for the unborn, and working to lift people out of poverty were exceptional gifts of love and humanity.’’

Mr. Shriver’s star power helped earn the Peace Corps much of the very considerable cachet it had during the early ’60s. And Johnson refused to take no for an answer from Mr. Shriver when he was setting up the Office of Economic Opportunity.

“He would be a success in any field,’’ Lady Bird Johnson wrote of Mr. Shriver in her diary in 1965.

Speaking at a 2003 National Center on Poverty Law dinner in Mr. Shriver’s honor, President Clinton said, “In my lifetime, America has never had a warrior for peace and against poverty, a warrior to make citizenship the noblest of all endeavors, like Sargent Shriver.’’

Robert Sargent Shriver Jr. was born on Nov. 9, 1915, in Westminster, Md. His father was a banker. His mother was Hilda (Shriver) Shriver. He earned bachelor’s and law degrees at Yale. While an undergraduate, he founded the campus chapter of America First, an isolationist organization.

Mr. Shriver briefly worked for a New York law firm, then enlisted as a seaman in the Navy. He rose to the rank of lieutenant commander, serving on battleships and submarines in the Atlantic and Pacific during World War II.

After his discharge, Mr. Shriver was an assistant editor for Newsweek magazine. His future father-in-law, Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., asked Mr. Shriver to edit a collection of letters by his namesake son, who had died in wartime action. Mr. Shriver met his wife when Joe Kennedy asked Mr. Shriver to help her organize a national conference on juvenile delinquency. They married in 1953.

In 1948, Joe Kennedy named Mr. Shriver assistant manager of the Chicago Mercantile Mart. Mr. Shriver served on the Chicago Board of Education from 1955 to 1960. He was elected its president in 1956.

Mr. Shriver was seen as a possible Democratic candidate for governor of Illinois in 1960. Instead, he worked in his brother-in-law’s presidential campaign. He then headed the Kennedy transition team’s personnel operation.

Although the idea for civilian volunteers being sent to work in underdeveloped countries originated with Senator Hubert Humphrey, it came to be seen, with its stress on youth and can-do idealism, as the epitome of Kennedy’s New Frontier.

The Peace Corps reaped a public relations windfall for the Kennedy administration. In retrospect, it can be seen as the counterpart to the New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps, another organization employing the young to work for the common good.

Johnson had been impressed by Mr. Shriver’s ability to launch a high-profile government organization. He also sought the New Frontier aura that would be evoked by naming the late president’s brother-in-law to the Office of Economic Opportunity post.

He let him keep running the Peace Corps, along with the Office of Economic Opportunity, until 1966.

A vastly greater operation than the Peace Corps, the War on Poverty proved much more frustrating. Some of its programs, such as the Job Corps, Volunteers in Service to America, Head Start, and Foster Grandparents, won widespread support. Others, most notably the Community Action Program, aroused widespread controversy and produced few results.

The War on Poverty was attacked from the left for doing too little, and from the right for doing too much.

But what most hurt it was the war in Vietnam. Money that might have gone to the effort went to the Pentagon. In 1967, for example, Congress cut the Office of Economic Opportunity budget by more than half.

Johnson named Mr. Shriver ambassador to France in 1968. His willingness to accept the post rather than work in Robert Kennedy’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination strained relations with his in-laws. He remained in Paris until 1970.

Mr. Shriver accepted McGovern’s offer of the vice presidential nomination after it had been turned down by six others (including Edward Kennedy).

Despite the Democratic ticket’s disastrous showing at the polls, Mr. Shriver’s enthusiasm never flagged.

Mr. Shriver’s failed bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1976 proved ill-fated.

“A lot of people thought I was ‘just an in-law’ trying to capitalize on my relationship with the Kennedys,’’ Mr. Shriver said in that Tribune interview. “And who in the hell wants to have an in-law of the Kennedys? If you want to have someone who stands for what the Kennedys stand for, have a Kennedy.’’

One cause the Kennedys stood for was support for the mentally retarded. In 1968, Eunice had founded the Special Olympics, in which the mentally handicapped participate in competitive athletics.

Mr. Shriver became its president in 1986, later serving as chief executive and chairman of the board.

“The greatest authority said all the mentally retarded need is a park bench to sit on and a lollipop to lick,’’ Mr. Shriver told the Tribune. “Today, in the Special Olympics, we have people who bench-press 400 pounds.’’

Bob Johnson, president of Special Olympics Massachusetts, described Mr. Shriver as “brilliant, hard-working, creative, articulate, and passionate . . . His influence on Special Olympics is really what made it a global organization.’’

Mr. Shriver was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in 1994.

Eunice Kennedy Shriver died in 2009, a few weeks before Edward Kennedy.

Patrick J. Kennedy, former congressman of Rhode Island, said Mr. Shriver lived up to President Kennedy’s call 50 years ago in his inaugural speech for Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.’’

Joe Kennedy, former congressman, described Mr. Shriver as having “the strongest faith of any lay person that I have ever known.’’

“He lived a wonderfully long life with his wife and the children he loved, and we’ll all miss him so,’’ Kennedy said.

Mr. Shriver leaves a daughter, Maria, the television personality and wife of Arnold Schwarzenegger, former California governor; four sons, Robert III, Timothy, Mark, and Anthony; and 19 grandchildren.

Funeral arrangements have not been released.

David Abel and Michael J. Bailey of the Globe staff contributed to this obituary.