Last month Mark Shriver sent me a copy of his new book, A Good Man, about his father, the late Sargent Shriver. "Dear Larry, Dad was so proud to call you a friend. I hope you enjoy his story," Mark wrote in an inscription.
Sarge had founded the Peace Corps and I had been an early volunteer stationed in the mountains of Nepal. Sarge was one of the few authentic heroes in my life. I had known him, but I was surprised that he valued our relationship so highly.
Then I thought of the charity dinners I would go to at the Shrivers' home in Potomac, Maryland. Inevitably, Sarge would put his arm around me and say to some politician or socialite, "I want you to meet Larry Leamer, one of the greatest writers in America." I was happy to see that he acknowledged a sentiment shared only by my wife and my mother. As I walked away he would be introducing some other Washingtonian. "Now this is Sheila Wilford, of the Washington Post, the greatest journalist in America." How could Sarge get it so right about me and so wrong about Sheila, who was a worthless hack? I was contemplating that as I drank my second glass of cabernet when I heard Sarge's booming voice again, poking his fingers into the ribs of Milt Tooman, who anchored the five o'clock news. "Milt is the greatest anchorman in television and we've got him here," Sarge shouted, as everyone nodded in agreement.
Ah, the acorn does not fall far from the tree, I thought, as I began reading the book. There is a peculiar subgenre of non-literature known as the Kennedy book, written by members of this generation. Other Kennedys have written books but it is Caroline Kennedy and Maria Shriver who dominate the bestseller lists. Caroline Kennedy began the genre by writing two admirable, serious tomes with her co-author, Ellen Alderman. Fact is it didn't matter what you wrote, if you slapped the name Kennedy on it, the tome sold. And when legions of hustling scribblers were making their livings off your name, why not keep some of it around the homestead. And so her career developed into a series of razor thin bestsellers including The Best-Loved Poems of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
Her cousin Maria Shriver avers that she does not compete with Caroline, but they are like two quarter horses running neck and neck around life's tracks. Maria's bestsellers include Ten Things I Wish I'd Known Before I Went out Into the Real World. Waste not, want not, the book is based on a commencement address Maria gave at Holy Cross.
So I must say I didn't have great expectations that A Good Man would be anything more than 270 pages of sentimentality and religiosity. It wasn't just that Mark was a Kennedy but he was one of the least of the Kennedys. His sister, Maria, and his three brothers, Bobby, Tim, and Anthony, just rolled over him, and he sometimes seemed almost lost, overly genial and solicitous. The worst of it came in 2002, when he ran for Congress from suburban Maryland and lost in the primary. His cousin Kathleen Kennedy Townsend lost that evening too, but at least that was for governor. No Kennedy had ever lost an election until then, and I sensed it was the kind of loss that could break a person. He became the senior vice president of U.S. Programs at Save the Children, but as far as I was concerned, he had pretty much disappeared.
And now this book, and I sat there stunned reading a daring, deep look at his father and family, the kind of book none of his siblings or cousins have come close to writing. Some of the Kennedy men of his generation considered the gentlemanly Sarge something of a sissy, a do-gooder who didn't screw around and went to mass each morning. What this book shows you is that goodness is not weakness. Goodness is strength. Goodness is the magnificent concern Sarge had for the details of life. Sarge built the Peace Corps and he built the War on Poverty, but the most important thing he and his wife Eunice built was their family.
Mark has learned well from his father, and not just in how to write notes on books he ships off to potential reviewers. He is unflinching as he faces the moral dilemmas of his and his father's life.
One of my favorite stories is when Mark decides to join the Peace Corps, but in a publicly embarrassing moment backs out. Many fathers, famous or not, would have been disgusted at a son who didn't have the guts to follow through. Not Sarge. "Dad listened, never wincing or expressing disappointment, even with body language," Mark writes. "He asked me what else I might be interested in doing." Then thanks to his father's suggestion, he decides to join Vista. He backs out again, a decision that many fathers would have considered appallingly weak and would have told him to stand up like a man. But Sarge understood.
Mark went on to found the non-profit Choice Program, in Baltimore's inner city. Early on, Mark was picked up by his throat and banged against a school locker by his immediate subordinate. He couldn't face more of that and he drove to his parents' house to tell Sarge he was giving up. "You are part of that school now, part of that community -- go back there and work hard," Sarge said. "You can make it happen." And that's what Mark did, turning Choice into a much admired program.
Mark's grandfather, Joseph P. Kennedy, said once that that it was important to write a book, it served one well. He wasn't talking about the quality of the book. He meant it was useful in advancing your career. But books are important in a different way. If you write the right kind of book and reach for deep truth as much as you can, you are changed, and nobody will ever be able to take that away from you.
I was wrong about one thing. Mark was never the least member of his family. He wasn't even close. And this book deserves to sit next to JFK's Profiles in Courage, and Ted Kennedy's autobiography as the three best books written by Kennedys.