A Good Man: Rediscovering My Father, Sargent Shriver, (part the first), Mark Shriver

I’m really not a biography person. I think I probably got away without reading a single one from cover to cover my entire school career (and this was before the internet existed for home use…or at least for use in my home…so that’s a substantial feat). I certainly don’t pick them up when I’m browsing in bookstores or online. And although biography is related to memoir, I see it mostly as memoir’s annoyingly know-it-all older sister, and who has time to listen to her?! There are adventures to be had, new lands to visit, fictional romances to obsess over!

Enter an old, long forgotten weakness. While The Daily Show and The Colbert Report usually stick to interviewing politicians and celebrities I’m not much interested in, the format and the hosts have the ability to make even the worst interviewee entertaining. In the last few years though, I’ve moved away from getting news from my favorite Comedy Central team (mostly because it’s depressing that Jon Stewart looks so old these days…and also because Tivo is usually full), so when I caught an episode last week where Colbert was interviewing Mark Shriver (son of a Kennedy and a Shriver) about the book he wrote after his father’s death, AND it actually sounded like something I wanted to read, I was shocked.

This was not just a biography either. This was a biography about a politician. For the record, I prefer my politics served up by Aaron Sorkin (as in, with a twist of snark), but for this book, I’ve made an exception. Possibly it has something to do with the fact that Sarge Shriver was the founder of the Peace Corps, instrumental in the War on Poverty, and a tireless advocate for social justice throughout his entire life.

We went to the National Press Club in Washington, where a decent-sized crowd had assembled to hear Dad’s [presidential run] 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.” (loc 552)

As we near the presidential election in the US, I have been forced to acknowledge yet again that whether I choose to know about policy, or about the people dictating policy, it has a profound effect on me, the people I care about, strangers, and the way the rest of the world views my country. And while it is impossible, as a member of the human race, not to go through stages of disillusionment with government, some years are much harder than others. I happen to believe we’re going through a particular low point right now because of the extraordinary divide that exists between the Democrats and the Republicans, the left and the right, the ninety-nine percent and the one. Healthy governments thrive on argument and compromise, and while we have perfected one, we’ve neglected the other.

Finding a book like this, about a man who dedicated his life to selfless, passionate work through difficult government channels, is helping to restore some personal equilibrium in the onslaught of campaign mud-slinging.

“Compassion is the ideal,” he maintained in a speech at the World’s Fair in 1964, “that must illuminate, from the very center, all our efforts to bring a better life to our world, within our own country, and in the farthest reaches of the planet.” As he went on to say: “It is only with this compassion that man can look upon man— through the mask of many colors, through the vestments of many religions, through the dust of poverty, or through the disfigurement of disease— and recognize his brother.”

But Dad knew that this was not easy. Even for himself. (loc 837)

I’m also drawn to the personal element of this book. The perspective of Mark Shriver, one of five children born into an insanely powerful (and tragic) political family, is that of a son both grieving and curious. Despite the tremendous relationship he had with his father in life, he makes it clear that there was much he didn’t know, understand, or appreciate about the man until after his death.

Then I thought about our kids and how, just the day before, I had watched them eat breakfast with their usual gusto. When my eleven-year-old son Tommy got up and took his plates to the sink and started washing them, I almost lost it, remembering how, two years prior, Tommy had watched Dad, Alzheimer-stricken and hobbled, grab his own cake plate after the party for his ninety-third birthday, take it to the sink, and clean it. Tommy had looked at me, licked the icing off his last forkful, and followed Dad to the sink with his plate. Tommy had observed, at a very young age, what a good man Dad was, right down to the smallest detail of etiquette. 

The great man is recognized for his civic achievements. The good man can be great in that arena, too, but even greater at home, on the sidewalk, at the diner, with his grandkids, at the supermarket, at church— wherever human interaction requires integrity and compassion. Dad was good because he was great in the smaller, unseen corners of life. He insisted on greatness in every facet of the daily grind. (loc 207)

I look forward to finishing this book for Thursday and being able to share more about a man who strove to leave a meaningful legacy both in his own home and around the world.