Thursday, January 20, 2011

Departures of Two Public Men

Robert Sargent Shriver, a Kennedy by marriage and in spirit, died this week at the age of 95 just as Joseph Lieberman, 68 announces he is leaving the Senate next year, offering a contrast in public figures.

Shriver, brother-in-law of JFK and Robert, the first director of the Peace Corps who later led LBJ's "war on poverty," was a modest man. Lieberman, who claims to have been inspired to run for public office by President Kennedy, is not.

As Gail Collins puts it, "Normally people look particularly appealing when they’re promising to go away. This time, not so much.

“'I can’t help but also think about my four grandparents and the journey they traveled more than a century ago,' he said in his speech. 'Even they could not have dreamed that their grandson would end up a United States senator and, incidentally, a barrier-breaking candidate for vice president.'”

On the same New York Times editorial page, Bono writes an appreciation of Shriver, who also led the Special Olympics for the mentally disabled, "Bobby Shriver--Sarge’s oldest son--and I co-founded three fighting units in the war against global poverty...We may not yet know what it will take to finish the fight and silence suffering in our time, but we are flat out trying to live up to Sarge’s drill."

My friend Michael Harrington, whose book "The Other America" inspired the war on poverty, once described Shriver's spirit. After a deep breath outdoors and saying, "Great day to be on the slopes, eh Mike?" they went indoors to work in an office until dark.

Lest anyone defend Lieberman from this comparison on the grounds that he did not come from great wealth, Collins says of Lieberman who helped torpedo the public option in health care as "The Senator from Aetna":

"(P)eople with principles have to take an independent stand. But Lieberman’s career has taught us how important it is to do that with a sense of humility. If you’re continually admiring yourself as you walk away from your group, eventually people are going to feel an irresistible desire to trip you."

Joan Didion summed him up when he was running for vice-president as a Democrat before backing McCain and addressing the Republican convention eight years later:

"Senator Lieberman, who had come to the nation's attention as the hedge player who had previously seized center stage by managing both to denounce the president [Bill Clinton] for 'disgraceful' and 'immoral' behavior and to vote against his conviction (similarly, he had in 1991 both voiced support for and voted against the confirmation of Clarence Thomas) was not, except to the press, an immediately engaging personality...

"His speech patterns, grounded in the burdens he bore for the rest of us and the personal rewards he had received from God for bearing it, tended to self-congratulation."

They still do.

Update: Lieberman is defended by David Brooks as "A Most Valuable Democrat" in an overly generous tribute to his moderation and independence but, with the way things are going, by 2012 his opportunism may be cause for nostalgia.

1 comment:

Fuzzy Slippers said...

Yes, we all know that daring to "walk away from your group" is the ultimate sin--that's why black conservatives are "Uncle Toms" who don't deserve to be treated with anything but contempt and violence because they are "sell-outs" and why female conservatives are "whores," "trash," and should be gang raped, slapped, stabbed, shot, etc. (don't even get me started on the way the left treats gay conservatives). This has been one of the key factors of the identity politics of the left--stay in your group, do as you're told, or suffer the consequences.

Sadly and much to my chagrin, this walk in lockstep or get out mentality is seeping into the conservative movement, too. Granted, it's not as disgustingly transparent and hypocritical, but it's there and growing. This is particularly horrifying to me because it's one of the things I most hated about the left when I was still a liberal (never ever a leftist, of course ;).