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Sargent Shriver's Death Severs the Last Major Link to the Kennedy Years

4 years ago
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Minutes after Wyoming's 15 votes vaulted him over the top at the 1960 Democratic Convention in Los Angeles, John Kennedy arrived, under police escort, at the cottage that served as his political campaign center. As campaign chronicler Theodore White recounted, "Kennedy loped into the cottage with his light dancing step, as young and lithe as springtime. . . . He descended the steps of the split-level cottage where his brother Bobby and his brother-in-law Sargent Shriver were chatting, waiting for him."

The death Tuesday of 95-year-old Sargent Shriver – who accomplished far more than any other presidential brother-in-law in American history – was the final period on an era. Long departed are the political power brokers who also waited in the cottage to hail JFK as the Democratic presidential nominee (Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, Ohio Gov. Mike DiSalle, Connecticut boss John Bailey, Pennsylvania Gov. David Lawrence) – the men who, in Teddy White's words, "represented the system of power that policed the industrial civilization of Northeast America."

With the deaths of Ted Kennedy, counselor and speechwriter Ted Sorensen and now Shriver, no one who celebrated with John Kennedy at his greatest moments of political triumph remains on this earth.

This is the human condition – inevitably the torch is passed to a new generation. Herodotus wrote that Xerxes, the Persian king, wept on the eve of his invasion of Greece because he knew that every soldier in his vast army would someday be dead. Shelley captured a version of this sentiment in his poem, "Ozymandias of Egypt."

For those with an appreciation of the sweep of history – or for journalists who treasure the shards of great events – there is something wrenching when the last witness to an epic event dies. That is true whether it is a veteran of the World War I trenches, a jokester at the Algonquin Round Table, or the brother-in-law who stood with Jack Kennedy on his big night.

As a boy who watched JFK's inauguration on a black-and-white television and remembers the 86-year-old Robert Frost struggling to read a poem in the bitter cold, I am undoubtedly overly emoting about the disappearance of the last traces of Camelot. Even though Sargent Shriver was afflicted with Alzheimer's in his final years, still how poignant that that last major link, that last strand of memory, was cut just two days before the 50th anniversary of that inauguration.

My political persona is forever entwined with the Kennedy years from the soaring cadences of Ted Sorensen's words to the idealism embodied by Sarge Shriver's Peace Corps. And, yes, my career choice was shaped by Teddy White's ballad to the Kennedy campaign, "The Making of the President 1960."

The men who forged the New Frontier with JFK were the adults of 1960s political life for me – even if their vigor and their unsentimental pragmatism bristled with Cold War macho and pointed the way toward Vietnam. Forged by World War II (Shriver served in the Navy in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters), they brought a sense of honor and an old-fashioned concept of public service to their work in government. Not all their handiwork shimmers in historical memory (the Bay of Pigs invasion), but they tamed the Cold War, belatedly embraced the civil rights movement and (in Shriver's case) symbolized the liberal commitment to battling poverty.

Even if the TV footage from the 1960s is grainy and the suits that men (always men) wore along the corridors of power now look like Rat Pack retro, the Kennedy years marked the birth of modern politics. From harnessing the power of television to capitalizing on Kennedy's charisma, the campaign that Shriver helped direct was closer in many ways to Barack Obama than it was to Franklin Roosevelt. In contrast to the gifted amateurs who drafted both Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson in 1952, the 1960 Kennedy campaign marked the moment when running for president became professionalized.

What has vanished with Shriver and Sorensen (who died last October) are not the old-fashioned politics of frock coats and Fourth of July stem-winders on the village green. Instead, these men were our contemporaries – part of the political dialogue, in Sorensen's case, until the day he died. That is why it is so haunting that almost none are left who were actually there at the 1960 convention or backstage during the debates with Richard Nixon or were within earshot of John Kennedy as he declared on an icy day 50 years ago, "Ask not what your country can do for you . . ."

As the books are closed forever on the Kennedy years, those of us who were shaped by the experience – as seen through a TV set – have only our memories and the sobering awareness that we are now the adults of politics.

Follow Walter Shapiro on Twitter.
Filed Under: Culture

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Still are soldiers left on the field,I would not say that the book is closed, harldly

January 22 2011 at 11:54 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I am so grateful to Sargent Shriver and the idealism and vision of the leaders of those years. I did serve in the Peace Corps and am forever changed by what I learned personally and the challenges that I was able to overcome. One of President Kennedy's hopes in creating Peace Corps was that those of us who returned would have learned from those we lived among and bring those awarenesses back to our country. Indeed that has happened. We have so much to learn from other cultures. I treasure so much that time of my life and the perspective I now have as a result. I'm struck also by the timeliness of Sargent Shriver's death as we celebrate Peace Corps' creation 50 years ago. What a legacy.

January 19 2011 at 6:46 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The above editorial tribute to Sargent Shriver is absolutely wonderfully written and takes one's mind back to a time when the "changing of the guard" was accepted with great expectation and the country was poised to move forward with a younger mindset for youthful ideals of governing. I was 11 yrs. old when President Kennedy took office. Those black and white televisions really bring back memories. For the youngsters, there was usually one black and white tv per family and father controlled it during prime time. This was a non-negotiable in my home (and most American homes). Children did not run the show back then. In 50 years, we've come a long way -- for better or for worse.

January 19 2011 at 3:34 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

As a new immigrant that was my introduction to the making of a new President, how exciting and promising it was. These people had class and served their country and the people with dignity and respect, and we respected them. I look back with gratitude on all I have learned from watching this family over the last 50 years.

January 19 2011 at 1:11 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

The last major link? I don't think so. There are a lot of nieces, nephews and grandchildren left. I think Shriver showed up the Kennedy brothers as having much more class because I never heard of him being a drunk or being a woman chaser.

January 19 2011 at 12:03 PM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to tiffanypiano1's comment

None of the current Kennedys hold office. Patrick Kennedy just left office in Rhode Island.

I think the Kennedy era is over. I doubt any of these Kennedys will run for office.

January 19 2011 at 2:32 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

God Bless.

January 19 2011 at 10:52 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

Sargent Shriver sacraficed his personal potential to serve as a elected official for the benefit of the Kennedy family. He had made those sacrafies for the pleasure of Joe Kennedy's sons. Shriver had accomplished, as a private citizen, to the benefit of all Amricans. He did much more than JFK, RFK and EMK. He would have been an excellent President of the USA.

Thank you for all your hard work for the benefit of Americans, Sargent Shriver. God Bless you.

January 19 2011 at 10:52 AM Report abuse +6 rate up rate down Reply

My sincere and heartfelt condolences to the family of this great American icon, especially to his daughter, it is never easy to watch a loved one suffer from Alzheimer's. Just know that tucked somewhere in his memory, he remembered you but was unable to vocalize it.

January 19 2011 at 10:47 AM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply

whether your for or against the Kennedy policies, give them credit they got off their duffs and did something, right or wrong they did something! which is more than 90% of the American people do. actually a agree with only some of what the Kennedys stood for but they earned my respect.

January 19 2011 at 10:40 AM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply

I respected how he conducted his personal life. He was a great humanitarian. I didn't agree with his politics, but what he accomplished outside of government service, because he wanted to help people, was a good thing.

Severing the last major link to the Kennedy years had to happen at some point. Rest in Peace Sargent Shriver and condolences to the family.

January 19 2011 at 10:37 AM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

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