Getting a job as a senior staff member to a United States Senator can send anyone’s head into the clouds for a bit, regardless of one’s age. When the hallowed halls of Congress are laid open to you, when all that is unseen suddenly becomes seen, it’s not uncommon to feel as if you have been accepted into one of the most exclusive clubs in the world, which, in a sense, you have been. Almost overnight, it’s as if you’ve become more of what you always wanted to be, whatever that is, whether it’s smarter, or funnier, or more attractive, even if nothing else but your job title, objectively, has actually changed.
At least that’s what it’s like when you’re 26 years old, fresh off winning a tight campaign, and given a position of seemingly enormous responsibility, with unfettered access to the very floor of the Senate and all of its arcane glory, even if you don’t quite know what to do with any of that. When you’re living with a legendary former congresswoman. When John Glenn’s wife compliments your bowties. When Edward Kennedy asks you where to find a greeting card shop. When Paul Wellstone offers you a danish. When you start dating the granddaughter of a president. When Robert Rubin asks you your thoughts on a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution and then you get your first invitation to a West Wing briefing. It can be unreal and unsettling and almost euphoric, all at the same time, when everything you do seems like it matters, even if you don’t quite know why. But it’s not like you’re really thinking about the point of it all, or even the reality of your relative unimportance in the scheme, because the ride is what really counts.
This is what my life was like in the spring of 1997. And then all of that was taken up a few notches when one day a hero called me. My phone rang, I picked up, and there was a pause before a voice came on the line: “Will you hold for Sargent Shriver?” I stammered out something that must have sounded like “of course” — because what other response could possibly have been appropriate — and that’s when everything changed. When all that I was supposed to be doing was given a name and a definition.
To me, Sargent Shriver had always been a name in dozens of history books and a face in hundreds of black and white pictures and videos, but now those images of a giant of the twentieth century came with a voice, one that was, in fact, yelling at me over a phone line, asking me how I was and, more to the point, what was I doing about Georgia? “Um, Georgia?”, I thought. The state? But then the penny dropped. Aside from speechwriting, and the federal budget, and what seemed like a hundred other issues, I also handled those projects that my boss — Senator Mary Landrieu — was personally interested in. One of those issues was adoption, as she could not have children, had adopted two of her own, and wanted to help other families find one another. Just a few days before, an opportunity for doing something about it on an international scale quite literally dropped into my lap when Mary tossed to me a copy of that day’s New York Times, with a note in her inimitable scrawl asking me, “Can we do something about this?” next to an article about a ban on the adoption of Georgian orphans by prospective American parents, largely influenced by then Georgian First Lady Nanuli Shevardnadze, who was about to visit Washington. I then made some calls — to the author of the piece, to the State Department, to some of the families mentioned — and had moved on to another matter when I got the call that changed my political life.
As Mr. Shriver explained to me (and everyone else in my office, it seemed, as he was rather hard of hearing), one of the prospective families was friends with his son, Bobby, in California. He had heard that Mary was working on it, and found out that meant that I was doing something about it. And he very much wanted to know just what that was. I explained to him the steps I’d taken thus far. He did not seem impressed.
“Have you called the White House?” He asked loudly.
“No, sir,” I replied.
“Why not?!” He responded, with just a bit more volume.
I tried to explain that I didn’t think it would do any good. But he made perfectly clear to me his personal and public ethos, summed up in one thundering statement that echoed throughout the Hart building:
“How do you know it won’t work if you haven’t tried?”
The rest of that particular episode was both an education and, on more than one occasion, a comedy, as it also became something of a blurred master class in public service as I tried to keep up with Mr. Shriver’s energy and his expectations. He immediately made the trip to Capitol Hill from the Special Olympics offices to see me, after which we met Mary over coffee at a convenience store that was then one the first floor of the building in which she lived. Then it was on to more meetings and phone calls and progress reports, in the office and out, with the emphasis on progress, even if a rule or two might have to be broken along the way. I became close to the families involved, met some of the most extraordinary people in my life, and spent a very long, even picaresque, night in the presidential suite of the Willard Hotel, with Mary, a State Department staffer, and Mrs. Shevardnadze and her rather large and ebullient retinue. And my relationship with Mr. Shriver (I still can not bring myself to refer to him as “Sarge,” even in writing, even this long after the fact) continued and grew, as he became a mentor, for certain, and a friend, I sincerely hope, in a relationship that lasted until Alzheimer’s claimed his mind for other things.
But what changed everything on that day in 1997, and has remained with me ever since, was what happens when myths become real and the hero, incredibly, remains intact. Mr. Shriver’s commitment to public service was not an intellectual framework, but a way of life, a daily approach to action. It was about an integrity of vigorous enterprise that flowed from a coherent, deeply held set of core principles to make the world better and an unquestioned, and unspoken, dedication to doing everything in one’s power to try. Through that first encounter with him, and every one that followed, I came to understand a sort of vigor that I had never before seen, nor found much since: an expectation that we must do all we can, whatever it is that we can, to improve the lives of those around us, and especially to use the particular gifts we’ve been given, to make the absolute most of those contributions. Although Mr. Shriver never actually said it, and he was not the kind of person to preach, he proved the admonition found in St. Luke, “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required; and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more.” It was there in his language, to be sure, but more revealingly in his actions — and the actions he expected from those around him, which can be found in the work of the Sargent Shriver Peace Institute. From that day forward, he created for me, as for so many others, an aspirational ethos that has gone beyond far beyond mere job titles and, I hope more often than not, my personal weaknesses, to always aspire, because his (loud) voice will be forever ringing in my ears, as I am still, in so many ways, holding for Sargent Shriver.