The Sunday Conversation: Mark K. Shriver honors his father

Mark K. Shriver, a brother of former California First Lady Maria Shriver, explores his relationship with their father in his new book, "A Good Man: Rediscovering My Father, Sargent Shriver." Shriver, George McGovern's Democratic vice presidential running mate in 1972, was married to Eunice Kennedy and served in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, where he launched the Peace Corps and Head Start. He died 1 1/2 years ago at age 95. His son, 48, lives in Maryland.

When did you start thinking about writing this book about your father and why did you write it?


After the funeral, a lot of folks kept using the phrase "a good man," and two or three weeks afterward, I said to my brother Timmy, "With all this stuff going on, what do I do?" My father has died, my mother died two years earlier. And he said, "Why don't you start writing things down and see where it takes you?" I started writing stories about him and thinking about what gave him his energy and his joy, what people meant when they said he was a good man versus being great. There are a lot of great men and great women who, when no one's paying attention, they're not good — good to the waitresses at the restaurant or the guy at the gas station. He treated all people the same, and I wanted to figure out how he did all that and was still happily married for 56 years, raised five kids and went to Mass every day and did it all joyfully.

So you essentially reported on your own life. How did you do that?

I looked at the letters my dad had written me, the speeches he had made. Then I started looking at how he raised us and some of the incidents that shed light on his life — how did he deal with my brother [Bobby] when he got arrested for smoking marijuana in 1970? How did he deal with me when I dropped out of the Peace Corps in 1986? I started writing those stories down and seeing what I could learn from how he handled those situations, like how he handled his defeat for vice president and president [in 1976], and I wanted to incorporate my own experiences and perceptions. I talked to 10, 15 people. There had already been a biography of Dad, so I wrote more of a father-son story.

You wrote that the decade in which your father struggled with Alzheimer's was your tutorial in learning to live like him. What did you mean?

This was the biggest challenge I had up to that point, dealing with two aging parents who were very active, one of whom was losing his mind, and managing that on a daily basis.

What did you learn from that?

From him I learned a lot about patience. I learned the power of unconditional love. Even if he was losing his memory, he was still trying to love the people that were closest to him. I told a story about going to church and being disgusted by the idea that he was blowing his nose everywhere and I might catch a cold. And he put his hand on my lap and his head on my shoulder a couple of minutes later and turned to me and said, "I love you." Ultimately that was the essence of who the man was, corny as it sounds. I also learned the power of being in the moment. Alzheimer's takes away your past and you have no concept of the future. So he was really in the moment. He had no concept of whether you'd been bad to him in the past or could be helpful in the future. I think that's a powerful thing to understand and hard to live by because everybody has an angle.

I wouldn't say you haven't had challenges. It sounds like keeping up with the Kennedys was a pretty significant challenge.

Every family has its own dynamic.

But they don't all make history. That's a lot of pressure for a young person that I gather you only recently felt released from.

When I reflect back on the way I was, particularly in elementary school and high school, trying to figure out why I was angry about certain things, I think a lot of that was the pressure of growing up in the family and thinking that you've got to be a big shot on a big stage, when in reality, as Dad said when I asked him how he was doing when he had Alzheimer's, "I'm doing the best I can with what God's given me."

In addition to being a good man, your Dad was a great man. Was it difficult growing up under his shadow?

No, because he never put pressure on us. The pressure was to have energy, but it wasn't to go into politics or media or exceed his achievements by creating something bigger than the Peace Corps or Head Start. The pressure was to make a contribution in whatever you chose. There's no way I'm going to professionally exceed what he did, but I'm comfortable with that. He got the chance to make some incredible things happen, and he did it — and that's very rare. The challenge for me is, am I doing the best with what God has given me, with my three kids, my wife and my work at Save the Children?

Your dad said it was a battle to keep his kids from absorbing the cynicism of the Cold War. How do you keep your kids from absorbing the cynicism of big money and politics?


We talk about it every day, about what's important. Is it television shows like "Keeping Up With the Kardashians" or is it doing your schoolwork and volunteering at Special Olympics and Best Buddies [both founded by his family]? Kids today are bombarded with consumerism, accumulation of gadgets and products, cellphones, Facebook. We're trying to focus on the things that are more meaningful.

What did you mean when you said he wasn't a modern-day version of an American politician?

Look, you have to have an ego to run for vice president or president, but I think what he was ultimately interested in doing was to create these acts of hope and love. You see it when he worked in Chicago for the desegregation of the Catholic schools and hospitals in the '40s and '50s, in his work with [Martin Luther] King at that time. Ultimately he was more interested in doing the acts of social justice that he got through his faith. It was more of a cosmic ambition than trying to get his name in the paper.

Both sides of your family have in common a call to service, but do you think that being a Shriver has helped you deal with the pressures of being a Kennedy? It sounds like he helped you accept your life.

Even though the Kennedys, when he married into it, had become a big political family, the Shrivers had been a big political family in Maryland for 200 years. He was proud of his marriage, but I don't think it overwhelmed him. So yes, it helped having a father and mother like that.

In writing this book, did you learn anything about your father that you didn't know before?

I always knew he was human, but to see that he was scared to go into a leprosy ward and [did it because he] was encouraged to go in by a Peace Corps volunteer, that was a big insight for me. When my brother got busted for pot, we always made fun of that in the last 20 years, but then when I really contextualized it, Dad had just come back from being ambassador to France, Uncle Bobby had died. Dad was thinking of running for governor, maybe president in '72. There was an enormous amount of pressure, and the way he handled Bobby — holding him accountable for his actions but at the same time telling him he loved him and you'll be fine. That kind of unconditional love, especially when I juxtapose it with the way I sometimes give my kids an earful when they're doing sports or don't do as well on tests, I learned a lot from that.