On its Web site WTTW describes American Idealist: The Story of Sargent Shriver as a biographical documentary about "an all but forgotten American." Surely that can't be true. Though stricken by Alzheimer's, Shriver isn't even dead yet, and I'd like to believe that Americans who can't place the name in any other way know him at least as the Democratic, Kennedy-clan father of Maria Shriver, husband of the Republican governor of California -- and explain that marriage please!
Let me try. Shriver was an audacious force of nature who presumed nothing he set his mind to was impossible. He differed from his future son-in-law mainly in not pumping iron when he was young. My friend Rita McLennon, former director of Chicago's Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, tells this story: When Arnold and Maria became engaged and Arnold invited his mom to the States to meet his future in-laws, Shriver began disappearing. His family didn't know where he was or what he was up to, but when Mrs. Schwarzenegger arrived he spoke to her in German. He'd been taking lessons.
Shriver was the antithesis of the neoconservative doctrine that government violates whatever it touches and therefore the least of it is the best of it -- a contemptuous doctrine that gave us such disastrous incompetents as Michael Brown and Donald Rumsfeld. JFK put his brother-in-law in government and he rolled up his sleeves -- the Peace Corps, Head Start, VISTA, and LBJ's war on poverty were his creations. It was Shriver who persuaded Kennedy to intercede when Martin Luther King Jr. was imprisoned in Georgia in 1960, possibly the act that elected JFK president.
American Idealist is an hour-long documentary produced by Bruce Orenstein of the Chicago Video Project. It's being shown nationally Monday night by PBS, in Chicago at 9 PM on WTTW, Channel 11. The best way to view history is often through the eyes of the king's right-hand man, but to stop there when talking about American Idealist sells both the documentary and Shriver short. It's the documentary's thesis that Shriver may touched more lives than any American since FDR. He ran for vice president on the Democratic ticket with George McGovern in 1972, which in the context of his life is a fact hardly worth mentioning.