On February 1, 1964 - barely two months after the assassination of President Kennedy, and the morning after returning from a grueling, three-week trip to Asia as Director of the Peace Corps -- Sargent Shriver received a phone call at home from President Lyndon Johnson. The President informed him that, at a press conference that afternoon, he would be announcing Sarge's appointment as the Director of the War on Poverty; you can hear their conversation here.
President Johnson told Sarge would have a budget of $1 billion, and 60 days to conceive, design, administratively structure, and get the program approved by Congress. When Sarge protested, the President responded: "You've got the responsibility, you've got the authority, you've got the power, you've got the money. Now, you may not have the glands." Sarge famously replied: "I've got plenty of glands."
The War on Poverty became the flagship initiative for the Johnson Administration. As Director of the Office of Economic Opportunity in the mid-1960s, Sarge developed a multi-faceted War on Poverty designed to transform the economic and social roots of the conflict over civil rights in America.
In Sarge's words, "The simplest description of the War on Poverty is that it is a means of making life available for any and all pursuers. It does not try to make men good - because that is moralizing. It does not try to give men what they want - because that is catering. It does not try to give men false hopes - because that is deception. Instead, the War on Poverty tries only to create the conditions by which the good life can be lived - and that is humanism."
Al From, the founder and former CEO of the Democratic Leadership Council, worked with Sarge during the War on Poverty. Looking back on that time, he reflected: "The OEO principle of empowerment -- we strove for maximum feasible participation of the poor - outraged America's mayors and created enormous political headaches for Sarge every day. The concept was simple: poor people had a right to one-third of the seats on every local poverty program board. The mayors went crazy. I was once asked by a mayor who had closed five neighborhood centers: 'Why should I open five organizations to campaign against me?' Sarge never buckled. He hated welfare and believed in community action. Even when Johnson effectively pulled the plug on the War on Poverty to fund the war in Vietnam, Sarge fought on and won. We didn't always get our paychecks on time because Congress delayed our funding - that's why I got an American Express Card in 1967 - but in the end Sarge won the battle and the anti-poverty program went on. It's not always appreciated today, but during the Shriver years more Americans got out of poverty than during any similar time in our history."1
As From says, President Johnson's support of the War on Poverty lessened as the war in Vietnam took prominence. Yet, like the Peace Corps, the programs of the War on Poverty -- including Head Start, Job Corps, VISTA, Community Action, Legal Services for the Poor, and Foster Grandparents - continue to serve Americans today.
1Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity; Sargent Shriver and the War on Poverty -- Reflections on How One Dedicated Idealist Made Our Nation Better, By Al From, founder and former CEO of the Democratic Leadership Council