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David Israel

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Sarge

Posted: 01/22/2011 11:16 am

We pulled wrought iron fences out of the ground and used them to build blazing barricades on the highway when we heard four were dead in Ohio.

We ran the streets of Chicago to express our rage against the war. We gathered in protest at the Civic Center when we heard Judge Julius J. Hoffman had muzzled and shackled Bobby Seale. We defiantly refused to disperse until the tear gas canisters exploded and the noxious cloud sent us scampering away.

We were deep into Nixon's reign of darkness -- the downward spiral of the war, the unauthorized sideshow in Laos and Cambodia, preventive detention in DC, Watergate -- but we wanted to give the process one last shot. We wanted to believe in America and all its possibilities.

Both Kennedys and King were gone; Nixon had somehow prevailed, and we wanted to prove America was better than that. We needed to believe that American democracy was better than that.

So on November 7, 1972, we went out to vote. We knew the polling wasn't good. We knew it wasn't going to be easy for McGovern and Shriver to beat Nixon and Agnew. But we didn't want to believe it. It was my first presidential election, my first time ever in a voting booth.

The first vote I ever cast in my life was for George McGovern and Sargent Shriver. They lost 49 states to 1. Plus the District of Columbia. They lost 520 electoral votes to 17. They lost 47,168,710 popular votes to 29,173,222. The only good that came out of it was a bumper sticker: "Don't Blame Me/I'm From Massachusetts."

There were two ways to react. Get angry. Or get apathetic. I tried both. I mean, what could America be thinking? How could it elect Richard Nixon? Again. After all it knew. After Watergate.

What kind of country elects Spiro Agnew instead of Sarge Shriver? Agnew was a man so corrupt even Nixon had to dump him. He accepted bribes in lunch bags while working as vice president of the United States of America. This isn't about politics. I didn't agree with Reagan and Bush. But they were plausible. They made sense.

I lost myself in work and ambition and fun until three years later when I got to know a guy who still believed in service and America and in the transformative decency of man. Sarge Shriver.

I was living in Washington now, and I had become friends with Sarge's oldest son, Bobby. And when you're friends with one Shriver, you're friends with them all. They're a package deal. For life. With the occasional Kennedy thrown in for good measure.

Sarge was finding a graceful exit from public life when I met him. His campaign for president in 1976 had been aborted (probably a word he wouldn't choose). His good work creating the Peace Corps and waging the War on Poverty -- work that would come to be his living monument -- temporarily lost to the cynicism of the age of Nixon.

Sarge Shriver ran against Spiro Agnew for vice president of the United States and lost. He had every right to be angry and apathetic. But he never lost faith in the American people. He never let grievance turn to grudge.

If there is any truth to the notion of the greatest generation, it was embodied in Sarge Shriver. He fought a war, he built a life, he raised a family.

And when things were darkest for his family -- when John F. Kennedy, his brother-in-law, had been assassinated in Dallas -- his family turned to him for strength. It was Sarge who held the center, organized the funeral, made sure that America did not lose its dignity, grace and resolve. It was in no small part because of Sarge that order prevailed when chaos threatened and no shots fired.

(Years later, sitting next to him on the Eastern Shuttle from LaGuardia to Washington National, I asked Sarge who killed the Kennedys. He said he thought Sirhan Sirhan acted alone, but that Dallas had been the result of a conspiracy. He didn't tell me any more than that, and I have no idea why he believed that. But he didn't duck the question, or make me feel like a stupid kid for asking. As I look back now, three decades later, I'm both grateful he didn't tell me to get lost and disappointed I didn't pursue the question.)

My parents instilled in me a profound belief in social justice. They were children of the Depression and to this day have a fervent belief in the New Deal. Sarge Shriver was an example of how to put that belief into action.

He did it in government. He did it helping create Special Olympics. He did it throwing a baseball or football around the vast expanse of the backyard of his home. He did it just by his being. There was a certain cool, hip, detached rat pack quality about the Kennedy White House. But Sarge was its warmth. He was its glow of common decency.

Forget politics and accept this: Sarge Shriver was the Democratic Reagan. He believed fervently, but never shrilly. He was inclusive, not dismissive. He made you feel good and proud to be an American. He made you proud that he was an American, whether you agreed with him or not. To know him was to know all that was good and possible in this country and this world.

The first time I ever voted, I voted for Sarge Shriver. I have voted in every election since. But I have never voted for a better man.

 
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