Reading some passages in The Bold Experiment: JFK’s Peace Corps by Gerard T. Rice, I was struck by a quote from David Halberstam’s book, The Best and the Brightest.
Rice notes that Shriver’s effusive brand of idealism went against the grain of John Kennedy who was, according to Halberstam, “at least as skeptical as he was idealistic, curiously ill-at-ease with other people’s overt idealism, preferring in private the tart and darker view of the world and of mankind.” Harris Wofford is also quoted in an Oral History Interview at the JFK Library that Kennedy was “put off by too-far-reaching ideas…Certainly, idealism or liberalism in any conventional sense was uncongenial to him.”
Kennedy’s existential sense of irony was the polar opposite of Shriver’s unbounded idealism and optimism. Within the Kennedy clan, Shriver was called the “family Communist” for his very liberal views.
We are hearing much the same about Obama, about how he is ‘too cool’ for the presidency..you know, ‘No Drama Obama.’ Clearly, some might say, he doesn’t ‘feel our pain.’
But reading further about Kennedy and the Peace Corps we can see that it was Kennedy’s aide, that Irish Mafia–O’Brien, O’Donnell, and Dungan–who were cool at best to the new agency.
Wofford said the Peace Corps was Kennedy’s ‘special baby’ in the sense that it was the first offspring of the New Frontier. And when the ‘baby’ was just a year old, TIME Magazine declared in a cover story that the Peace Corps was “the greatest single success the Kennedy administration had produced.” (This must have really pissed off the Irish Mafia!)
Anyway, Shriver said that Kennedy “never ever turned down anything we asked him to do” whether it was a request to greet Volunteers in the Rose Garden, announce a new program, or sign a letter of congratulations to those serving abroad.
Kennedy’s aides, however, were very different from the people who went to the Peace Corps. Shriver was attracting idealists. The joke in HQ was that they were “working for Hallelujah.” Fred Dutton, who really hated the Peace Corps, found the Peace Corps’ “we-can-walk-on-water’ attitude intolerable as he told Rice back in 1978.
The Peace Corps Staff, all those Mad Men and Mad Women were, of course, full of themselves, but then everyone in the New Frontier was full of themselves, and thought that they really were the ‘best and the brightest’! Rice tells the story how at the first senior staff meeting, Bill Moyers, when talking about tradtional foreign aid programs, proclaimed, “We can do it better.” Moyers was then 26! This Peace Corps’ credo, not surprisingly, pissed off the White House and the State Department. But, as we know, Moyers was right. The Peace Corps could do it better. And has, for 50 years.