One of the important ways that Bill Moyers helped establish the Peace Corps was in his ability to get Shriver to work the halls of Congress. Shriver wasn’t a Washington type. When he began to sell the Peace Corps idea to Congress he had only been in D.C. for four months. But it was up to him to sell the new agency. Kennedy had told his sister, Shriver’s wife, “Well, Sarge and Lyndon Johnson wanted to have a separate Peace Corps, separate from AID, and so I think they ought to take charge of getting it through Congress. I’ve got plenty of other legislation I’m struggling with.”
“When he said that,” Shriver recalled, “I just said, ‘I’m putting this piece of legislation through!'”
Shriver’s ace-in-the-hole was Bill Moyers.
Peter Grothe, who had come to the Peace Corps from the Hill, having been a speech writer for Senator Hubert Humphrey in 1960, said years later that Shriver and Moyers were like Batman and Robin on the Hill.
Humphrey told Shriver, according to Grothe, “Don’t sit down to another meal between now and the time your Peace Corps bill comes up for a vote unless there is a senator or a congressman sitting by your elbow. Remember that there are one hundred of us prima donnas in the Senate who stand around and debate about how the government ought to run, and we envy you guys because you are doing it. So make each senator feel like you care about his views. Massage our egos.”
Shriver and Moyers developed a “saturation bombing” approach on the Hill. Instead of concentrating on the “big men” — the committee chairman and the Whips — they talked to everyone. Between March and September 1961, as outlined in Gerard T. Rice’s book, The Bold Experiment: JFK’s Peace Corps [University of Notre Dame Press, 1985], Shriver spoke with 363 members of Congress.
Shriver and Moyers met with Democrats and Republicans at the same time, carefully cultivating the notion that the Peace Corps was above partisan politics. One great story of that period comes from a member of the House Rules Committee who recalled, “You know why I really voted for the Peace Corps? One night I was leaving at 7:30 and there was Shriver, walking up and down the halls of the House Office Building, by himself, looking into all the doors. He came in and talked to me. I still didn’t like the program, but I was sold on Shriver. I voted for hm.”
Another day, as reported in Coates Redmon’s book Come as You Are: The Peace Corps Story [Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich, 1986 , Shriver recalled,
We were walking down the Senate corridors and I noticed a sign on a door, “Mr. Goldwater.” I stopped and said, “I think I’ll just go in and ask him whether or not he would vote for the Peace Corps.” Moyers said, “Oh, you’re never going to get Goldwater.” I said, “Well, I’m sure that we’re not going to get him if we never even ask him.” So we rapped on the door and went in, and fortuitously he was there and willing to talk to us. We talked for an hour, after which he said, ‘That sounds like a great idea. I’ll vote for it.”
Moyers meanwhile was guiding Shriver through Congress by anticipating potentially difficult questions and cantankerous Members. Knowing that cost would be a critical issue, Moyers worked intensively on the Peace Corps economic brief. When Senator Homer Capehart of Indiana asked a question about equipment and cost during a Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Shriver’s answer ran to exact figures on jeeps (135), horses (20), and outboard motors (1); and every PCV would cost the taxpayer $13,336 for two years service. His figure on cost for the agency was down to the cent ($10,712,894.58).
Shriver and Moyers work paid off. Congresswoman Marguerite Stiff Church, a Republican from Illinois on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, remarked that she knew of no government administrator who had “made such an effort to bring his story personally to members of Congress.”
Shriver and Moyers were also helped by the new Peace Corps Volunteers. In early August 1961, Senator Ralph Yarborough saw Trainees at Texas Western College in El Paso. During the debate on the Peace Corps bill in Congress, he stood up in the chambers and told his colleagues, “I have never seen a more intelligent, dedicated group of men and women.”
Ain’t that the truth!
The Peace Corps was signed into law on September 22, 1961.