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Sargent Shriver's Legacy Of Caring—A Commentary by Robert Post ’77 and Kate Stith

The following commentary was published in the Hartford Courant on January 22, 2011.

Sargent Shriver's Legacy Of Caring
By Robert Post ’77 and Kate Stith

We are now in a moment of political self-reflection. President Barack Obama has called on us "to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together." Sen. John McCain has reminded us of "the mutual purpose that we and all preceding generations of Americans serve: a better country; stronger, more prosperous and just than the one we inherited."

It is ironic that in this moment of national self-examination, the death of Sargent Shriver last Tuesday has taken from us a man who exemplified the very spirit of constructive engagement with national issues. We would do well to reflect on the lessons we can learn from his astonishingly productive life.

Shriver had his own beliefs, deeply held. Yet he searched ceaselessly for common ground. If the world resented ugly Americans, he would imagine and then found the Peace Corps, making visible and tangible the values that Americans share with persons across the world.

Fierce political battles are inevitable in any vibrant democracy. Yet Shriver had an uncanny knack for wresting cooperation from turbulent conflicts of the1960s and 1970s. A deeply religious man, Shriver approached politics with humility; he sought always to listen respectfully. "Caring produces the cure," he said, "not the reverse."

From Shriver we can learn that it is not enough to identify shared values; they must also be made real and effective. They must be given organizational life. No other American in recent history has established so many lasting and effective organizations, ranging from Head Start to Legal Services for the Poor, from the Special Olympics to VISTA and Job Corps. As Shriver said, "We are not engaged in ideological debates, but in practical demonstration—not abstract discussions—but concrete results."

Addressing a banquet of the Yale Daily News, where he himself had once served, Shriver called the institutions he established "social inventions," and he added that a "social invention is a refusal to bow down before fate. It is an enlargement of what we know in the face of what we hope for."

Shriver was a genius at institutional inventions. His innovations are a great, unparalleled legacy. After all these years they remain practical vehicles for Americans to help each other, without condescension or sentimentality.

Shriver was himself a highly charismatic man, personally inspiring loyalty and dedication. That his organizational innovations have so robustly survived him suggests that he possessed a rarer and more lasting strength: a capacity effectively to institutionalize the values he was able to hear in the hearts of his many countrymen — regardless of their political party, their religion or their social status.

Robert Post is the dean of Yale Law School, and Kate Stith is Lafayette S. Foster Professor of Law and former acting dean of Yale Law School. Sargent Shriver graduated from Yale Law School in 1941.