Monday, January 21, 2008

Sargent Shriver, who tried to help rural America, is focus of documentary on public TV this week

Forty years ago, two wars raged in Appalachia, the Black Belt and other poor regions of America, many of them rural. One was a war on poverty, declared by Lyndon Johnson, whose presidency would falter on a deadlier war, one in Vietnam. But the other war in rural areas was one waged against the poverty warriors themselves, by local and state officials who saw them as challenges to traditional structures and their own power.

That history and much more is documented this week in an inspirational television biography of the man who ran the poverty war for Johnson. "American Idealist: The Story of Sargent Shriver" gets a glowing review from Tom Shales of The Washington Post, who calls Shriver (in Corbis photo) an "often overlooked" hero of the Sixties, now perhaps better known as the father-in law of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Under his brother-in-law, President John Kennedy, Shriver was first head of the Peace Corps, which Shales calls "a remnant of Camelot at its most inspired." Then, as an aide to Johnson, he oversaw the War on Poverty, largely through the Office of Economic Opportunity, which included such programs as Head Start, Community Action and Job Corps, which survive, and legal aid to the poor, which survives in diminished fashion. The OEO was controversial, and came under attack from the left and right, but largely from conservative politicians in poor states such as Kentucky and Mississippi.

Here is Shales' take: "The war proved essentially unwinnable, however, especially once Southern congressmen, some still openly segregationist, got hold of it and, says the narrator, 'terrorized' it. Instead of investigating the causes of American poverty, such warped old-timers as Sen. John Stennis (D-Miss.) instead launched investigations into the programs themselves, among them the seemingly unassailable Operation Head Start, which helped impoverished and disadvantaged kids. Some 12,000 benefited from Head Start in Mississippi alone before the program there was coldly closed down. Perhaps heroes and villains were easier to spot then; Shriver seemed clearly to think in socially heroic terms and to be the target of the ignorant." (Read more)

Shriver was the Democratic nominee for vice president in 1972, succeeding Thomas Eagleton, who withdrew. Shriver and his running mate, George McGovern, are the earliest major-party nominees still living. Shriver, 92, was diagnosed in 2003 with Alzheimer's Disease. His letter to friends at that time is the final dose of inspiration in the documentary. Near the start, former Johnson aide Bill Moyers remarkably dubs Shriver "the best all-around politician I've ever seen," one who conveyed "a sense of almost infinite possibilities."

The 90-minute documentary airs on some stations, such as Washington's WETA and Kentucky's KET2, tonight at 10. The national PBS schedule has it tomorrow at 10.

1 comment:

People Power Granny said...

Check out my post about the War on Poverty at Vote in my poll on what should come next to fight poverty.