Sargent Shriver: Politician and diplomat who ran for the White House and founded the Peace Corps and Head Start

Some people knew of him because of his connection with the Kennedy clan, and as father of Maria Shriver, broadcaster and then first lady of California by dint of her marriage to a former bodybuilder and film star named Arnold Schwarzenegger. Others remembered him as the Democratic vice-presidential candidate on the losing end of the second biggest electoral college landslide of the 20th century.

The largely forgotten truth, however, is that Robert Sargent Shriver – "Sarge" to everyone who worked with him – may well have done more to improve the lives of ordinary Americans, especially less advantaged Americans, than any government official of the modern era with the exception of Franklin Roosevelt. The claim is extravagant, but consider the facts. Shriver was the driving force behind the Peace Corps, the international service programme that was among the most successful federal initiatives of the Kennedy Presidency. And as special assistant to JFK's successor Lyndon Johnson, he launched Head Start, which has since given 20m children a chance to do better in school.

He was a passionate campaigner for civil rights, and led Johnson'sWar on Poverty, as well as Neighborhood Health Services and LegalServices for the Poor, two other valuable federal programmes. In the later stages of his life, along with his wife Eunice, Shriver ran the Special Olympics, games for those with learning difficulties.

These tasks he approached not as a '"big government" bureaucrat, but as a Christian who believed in volunteerism and the power of the local community, and in the importance of giving free rein to an individual's energies rather than treating him or her as a small cog in a vast administrative machine. An American Idealist was the fitting title of a public television documentary about Shriver that aired, somehow fittingly, on Martin Luther King Day in 2008. And then of course there was the Kennedy connection.

It began in 1946, when he embarked on his courtship of Eunice, fifth of the nine children of Joseph Kennedy and Rose Fitzgerald. Descended from founders of the Maryland Democratic party, and the son of Catholicactivists, Shriver was already anaccomplished young man with anunusual range of experience. At the age of 19 he had spent a year inGermany under the Experiment inInternational Living, a forerunner of the modern gap year, before going to Yale, where he edited the university's Daily News, and attended Yale Law School. In the Second World War he served in the navy with distinction, even though he initially opposed US entry into the conflict.

His long and arduous pursuit ofthe strong-minded Eunice – in some ways the most formidable of all the Kennedy siblings – brought him to the notice of Joe senior. Impressed with Shriver's drive and ability, the father gave him a job as manager of Merchandise Mart, a company Kennedy owned in Chicago. In 1953 he finally married Eunice, and went on to work on his brother-in-law's campaign for the presidency in 1960. In the terrible late November, three years later, Shriver would manage the arrangements for JFK's funeral.

Shriver was sometimes deemed a "limousine liberal", a lightweight who used the Kennedy name to advance his political career. If anything the reverse was true. However promising his own prospects, they were ever coloured by his complicated ties with Joe's ambitious and ferociously competitive sons. Brothers-in-law were not in the intended Kennedy line of succession. Neither John nor Teddy – and especially Bobby, who resented Shriver's readiness to work with Johnson, whom RFK detested – never fully accepted him as an equal.

Bobby is said to have been instrumental in blocking the possibility of Shriver running as vice-president, first with Johnson in 1964, and then with Hubert Humphrey in 1968. If the first pairing in particular had happened, modern American history might have been rather different. Handsome and charming, and possessed of boundless vigour, intellectual curiosity and motivational skills, Shriver was at least as substantial a figure as his three brothers-in-law, who overshadow him in the history books.

As the Johnson administration wound down, Shriver went to Paris as ambassador, delighting the French with his verve, his Kennedy stardust and most undiplomatic panache. Nixon initially kept him on, but in 1970 Shriver returned to Washington to help Democratic candidates for that year's mid-term elections – while mulling over his own entry into the national political arena.

In 1972 he achieved that goal, as George McGovern's running mateon the Democratic presidentialticket. But the circumstances could not have been less propitious. Shriver was sought out by McGovern during the convention itself, after Tom Eagleton, the latter's first choice, withdrew when it was revealed he had a history of depression.

Shriver acquitted himself well enough as vice-presidential nominee, even though he was not one of nature's stump politicians. That November the Democratic ticket carried just Massachusetts and the District of Columbia, losing 520 to 17 in the electoral college to the Republicans, Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew. But Shriver's personal campaign was notable for at least two reasons. A devout Catholic who attended daily mass, he was the last pro-life candidate to feature on a Democratic ticket. Then there was his "Courvoisier moment". At a bar in Youngstown, Ohio, where some steelworkers were having a drink, he walked in with then Democratic Speaker Tip O'Neill, and ordered them a beer before asking the bartender for a brandy. Thus did "Make mine a Courvoisier" enter America's political playbook for winning the blue collar vote.

The 1972 campaign was the highwater mark of Shriver's political career. In 1976 he ran for the White House in his own right but failed to win a single primary. Thereafter he turned his attention back to charities and public life, and his law firm in Washington DC. Most important for his country, he continued to support the institutions he had helped found – ensuring their survival in the more hostile, anti-government age of Ronald Reagan.

His final great endeavour was the Special Olympics, offering training and competition for people with learning difficulties. The venture was founded in 1968 by Eunice, inspired by her own elder sister Rosemary Kennedy, who had been permanently impaired by a lobotomy when she was 23. For almost two decades, Shriver served as president, then chairman of the Special Olympics. Today, the organisation embraces 2.5m people in over 150 countries, as important to those with learning difficulties as Head Start was to disadvantaged children.

Ultimately, Sargent Shriver was probably too nice to climb to the top of the greasy pole. He lacked the killer instinct, and as his involvement with the Kennedys suggested, he was ready as few men are to sacrifice his own interests to others. He pursued Eunice in full knowledge of what he was taking on, yet he took it on none the less.

But in doing so he embodied – perhaps more than any of the Kennedys, even JFK – what would become known as "Camelot". Shriver was indeed a knight who rode forth on a mission of change and redemption, indifferent to what might befall him. That approach remained constant through his life. "Shatter the glass," he urged graduating students at Yale in 1994, "break all your mirrors." As society grew ever more self-absorbed, it was vital "to look less at yourself and more at each other, to learn more about the face of your neighbour, and less about your own."

By putting that outlook into practice, Shriver may have denied himself the highest offices in the land. But as his country grew to recognise, that same approach made him an indisputably great American.

Rupert Cornwell

Robert Sargent Shriver Jr, lawyer, politician, diplomat and public official: born Westminster, Maryland 9 November 1915; President, Chicago Board ofEducation 1955-1960; Director, US Peace Corps 1961-1966; Special Assistantto President Lyndon Johnson 1965-1968; US Ambassador to France 1968-1970; Democratic candidate for vice-President 1972; elected President of Special Olympics 1984, Chairman 1990-2003; Presidential Medal of Freedom 1994; married1953 Eunice Kennedy (four sons, one daughter); died Washington DC 18January 2011.

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