When I joined the Peace Corps in 1964, Sargent Shriver was my hero. I was stationed two days from a road in the mountains of the Himalayan kingdom and I never met the director of the Peace Corps. But he inspired me. He was "Sarge" to all of us, and we often talked about him. He visited Nepal once, this exuberant presence who believed that the only thing higher than Mt. Everest was the human spirit. He thought people were capable of anything, even me. We just had to do it.
When I started my trilogy on the Kennedy family in the late eighties, I got to know Sarge, and I realized it was not easy being married to a Kennedy. Sarge was a Shriver, scion of a distinguished old Baltimore family, but once he married Eunice Kennedy, he was a Kennedy but a lesser Kennedy. He wanted to run for governor of Illinois in 1960, but his brother-in-law Senator Jack Kennedy was running for president, and the Kennedys always came first. When Sarge ran for president in 1976, his brother-in-law Senator Edward Kennedy was less than helpful. The presidency was for a "real" Kennedy not a mock one.
Sarge was an elegant man. His liberalism was passionate and sincere but he lacked the common touch. He was profoundly and authentically religious. Unlike many politicians, he did not use religion. Religion used him. He had serious religious studies on his bed stand and he went to mass every morning. I asked him once why he did so and he said it was because he needed God's help so much to get through the day. That was not a Sarge most people saw.
Sarge was ninety-five and lived an incredibly rich and productive life, and much of my sadness today is about his greatest creation, the Peace Corps. In 2003, Sarge gave a speech at Yale University in which he said, "We didn't go far enough! Our dreams were large, but our actions were small. We never really gave the goal of 'World Wide Peace' an overwhelming commitment or established a clear, inspiring vision for attaining it. If we had, the world wouldn't be in the mess we are in, and what could have been should have been."
The truth is that the organization he founded is in every way diminished. Two years ago I volunteered with a program of the National Peace Corps Association of returned volunteers to try to get Congress to raise the Peace Corps budget dramatically pushing toward President Obama's announced goal of doubling the corps by the fiftieth anniversary this year. As I got into it, I saw that it wasn't just the numbers that needed to be increased. The organization needed to be reformed, torn apart and built anew the way Sarge would have done it.
After 9/11 the Peace Corps had lost its way, concerned more with security than change, pulling out of a number of crucial countries, building high walls behind which the directors lived in almost as exalted a fashion as the ambassadors. The attrition rate was horrible, many of the programs deeply flawed. And the bureaucrats in Washington went home early and did not listen to the volunteers.
People like Senator Chris Dodd, himself a returned volunteer, and Senator Patrick Leahy, knew that there were serious problems but they did nothing. Dodd backed off a bill that would have begun the reforms. NPCA took money from the Peace Corps to publish the volunteer magazine and was hopelessly compromised. I coined the slogan "Bold New Peace Corps" to suggest that it was not just money that was needed but change. I called all kinds of national media trying to get them to do a story on what was wrong. Nobody would do anything. A political editor at NPR was at least honest. He said, "Nobody cares." I kept pushing at NPCA. I upset too many people and nobody at the organization cared about reform. I was pushed out of having any further involvement with the campaign.
Last Friday, in the biggest story the Peace Corps has had in years, ABC's 20/20 did a devastating report on the 1,078 female volunteers who have been sexually assaulted or raped during the past decade. If I extrapolate correctly from these figures, that means that a woman has roughly a one in twenty five chance of being attacked. These are the Peace Corps figures and one would assume that many women remain quiet. The ABC story reported by Brian Ross and produced by Anna Schecter had six brave women on camera talking about how their abuse did not end once their attacker or attackers left them. In several cases, the Peace Corps shuttled them out of the country and forget them.
ABC also interviewed Chuck Ludlam and Paula Hirschoff, vociferous critics of the Peace Corps who have done prodigious work documenting all kinds of problems. That was clearly not as intriguing a subject to 20/20's viewers, and their segment was cut. But that story is out there waiting to be done, and 20/20 was only a beginning.
I know that some of my fellow returned volunteers are reading this and thinking, "Why does he write this now on the very day Sarge died." I write it now because on this evening I remember Sarge as he was and I remember his dream and I know how far away from that we have come.