A Writer Writes: The Chronicle of Sargent Shriver
The Chronicle of Sargent Shriver
By Thomas Hebert (Nigeria 1962-64)
Unlike the death of John or Robert Kennedy, Elvis Presley, the beginning of the 1968 North Vietnamese Tet Offensive, or the Watergate Break-in, I confess I can’t remember where I was when I learned of Sargent Shriver’s death. It’s taken some days for this passage to sink in, become knowable. But it comes back. You see, in an earlier time, I wrote a bit of something about this American and his contributions to our life. My words appear in a long-ago Job Application and a writing sample, below, which I included with it. The position:
The National Chronicler (Senior Executive Service, by Presidential Appointment). Closing date: June 15, 1995.
Unfortunately that Clinton-era initiative never went beyond seeking applicants. It was quickly submerged in Republican assaults on the Administration. Few remember the story. (The entire annotated Position Description will be published soon.)
Description of Position
National Chronicler captures on paper the bellwether events of a given year, thus preserving for future generations the vital, animating stories of national passage & consequence in an historical narrative with character & validity of its own. Incumbent is much concerned with the Nation’s response to challenge & change.
Duties & Responsibilities of the Position
1. In writing the American Chronicles, National Chronicler will distill the facts, discard the unnecessary, write like a storyteller, stay within the evidence, invent nothing, use mainly primary sources, & do research on the spot.
2. The incumbent will provide all significant dates, names, & places in proper context; develop the historical mise en scène or setting; get to the kernel of event & the story’s original conditions; & invest in details (their beds, meat, & drink). He or she will narrate the hard core of happening in time & space, & tell how it really was.
3. Chronicler will use, where appropriate, the actual language of the important actors & provide salient, even lengthy quotations from key written artifacts & electronic media. This practice is crucial, for without intact historical markers scholars hundreds of years hence will be unable to assay for themselves our “fatal illusions” when responding, like Rome, to external competition & internal difficulties.
4. Chronicler will clarify the lessons & themes of the story (tell a tale, point a moral). While not encouraged it is permissible, occasionally, to “manipulate reality” in the service of the reader & truth. Incumbent will portray major characters “warts & all,” & will endeavor to keep any heroes in trouble & full of surprises.
5. Chronicler will insure that their language has “voice.” They will write for the ear & be constantly aware that style is simply true quality. The writing will not be “busy” & any “lingo” will be accurate. Chronicler shall use the active voice, the positive form, & concrete language. In addition, incumbent will not confuse good spelling with good writing. Or writing with typing. Chronicler will write a pre-determined number of words or pages a day but will not write when tired.
6. While each Chronicle need not conform to abecedarian traditions, it will be structured to logical, internal purpose (inherent form) with a beginning, a middle, & an end.
7. The following instrumentalities of written humanism will be employed daily: rhetoric, irony, cadence, & wit. This requirement does not conflict with the Chronicler’s duty to rob his mother for his art & dream.
8. By “opening the hearts of children to a greater commitment to the common ground of our history,” this work of chronicling the American experiment should help prepare students to exert “a salutary influence upon the affairs of his country because the study of history best promotes judgment.” Finally, the resulting Chronicles shall clearly contribute to the People’s General Knowledge for without this, Liberty cannot be preserved.
National Chronicler need not have confused schooling with education; it is sufficient to be an exemplar Independent Scholar & stubborn auto-didact. Incumbent must be able to write a vigorous & spirited simple English subject-predicate sentence in such a manner that the reader will turn the page.
National Chronicler reports to the People & the Librarian of Congress, but works under the direct supervision of William Strunk & E. B. White, William Shawn, Murray Kempton, their editor, talent, conscience, & mother. While one’s own family will little note any of it, work results are subject to critical reviews, Congress, P.T.A.s, peer jealousy, mildew, burning, sacking, pillage, & remaindering. So it goes.
Supplementary Data on Difficulty & Requirements of the Position
1. National Songs: Because the stories we tell matter & nations, as well as people, require stories & may die for lack of a believable one. National Chronicler must be able to celebrate America’s great, ripe stories, the emblematic, iconic root-stuff of campfires & empires that, in the end, make America, the world’s cock-of-the-walk, worth the hassle. Without these written-down stories all else is Dark Ages, when no light escapes, when most memory, invention, libraries, & the record of lives of the common people are lost, & even kings are easily scraped from history in mere minutes by budgeting scribes recycling old hides. Because without great stories, tales for our time, our children weep & will not dance.
Incumbent must therefore write to great purpose & sacrifice in a language deserving to be read aloud: “1863: In this year the Americans’ North-South Civil War worsened awfully….”
2. Adventure: National Chronicler must identify the climactic moment when the adventure is truly joined, when the hero’s imagination becomes engaged with the Quest, when the “Deed-doer & Plunder-lord” begins their disturbing work unveiled by equivocation. Incumbent must also be able to portray the nature of America’s westering audacity & capture our primal urge to do something-to adventure, which is the play of action against consequence. Chronicler must constantly distinguish between audacity & the audaculous, between true action & mere velleity. Between stormy petrels & marplots, break-peaces, troublers, & vinegaroons. . . .
3. Playing God: To tease a symmetry from the mass, spin, & charge of these unruly semesters, National Chronicler will inevitably rescue some reputations while removing others from the nation’s regnal list. A well-practiced humility, like sobriety, is thus desirous but not required in the incumbent. And so to bed.
From my writing sample, “Sargent Shriver – The Peace Corps in 21 Days”
1961: In this year the Americans inaugurated a daring young president named John F. Kennedy, son of Joseph Kennedy – a man of “vigorous old age and treacherous boldness” – who promised to bring new opportunities to the citizens through brave acts of the government. And in his foreign policy, the adventuresome promise was delivered upon in just twenty-one days. This is precisely what happened and how it was all done. . . .
First we find candidate Kennedy standing on the steps of the University of Michigan’s Student Union at 2 AM, October 14, 1960, asking, “How many of you are willing to spend…?”
Then we come upon Sargent Shriver, this president’s brother-in-law, in a weary February 6, 1961 two AM Washington D.C. hotel room reading the arrogant strategic plan eventually responsible for the Peace Corps’ startling thirty-year success. Shriver, then desperately looking for some Perestroika (New Thinking) to deliver to Kennedy’s major new foreign aid program, instantly adopted its bold premises and reached for the phone. Warren Wiggins, that faceless bureaucrat who authored it, was summoned by a three AM telegram to be on deck, front and center at the Mayflower Hotel by ten that morning. Thereafter, the Peace Corps took off.
Wiggins’ impertinent formula should not be forgotten – it must be told and remembered. Here are the Peace Corps’ original conditions of success in his soon-famous 30-page concept paper, “The Towering Task.” If any large government program is to succeed, it could do no better than to follow its simple rules which both anchored and buoyed the early Peace Corps:
1. Start immediately. Forget pilot studies and demonstrations
2. Start big, pick a large number
3. Keep it independent, autonomous of existing programs
4. With a leader of national consequence, close to the White House
5. Proclaim it from the White House, then from the rooftops
6. Invest it with recognition, romance, and honor
This Warren Wiggins, this warrior companion of Shriver’s and a co-founder of the Peace Corps who soon became Deputy Director for Peace Corps Operations, was quoted in a 1984 book:
“When you staff up that fast, you are going to get people who by their nature are gamblers-very ambitious people, people who are willing to drop everything to try something new. Shriver couldn’t wait three months for a guy; he had to try something new. If he found somebody he thought had unusual talent, he’d think of a job for him to do, or let the person create one if there wasn’t something on the organization chart that suggested itself. Shriver knew that he had to have the most dazzling staff in Washington and he used the bait of excitement and job flexibility to assemble it.”
On March 1, 1961, President Kennedy issued the Executive Order establishing the Peace Corps. Sargent Shriver had needed only a record-fast 21 days to organize the agency; volunteers were in the field by the fall. In the last 30 years over 130,000 volunteers have served America in almost 100 host countries worldwide, promoting peace and friendship through cultural exchange and assistance to others.
In this year, 1961, Sargent Shriver’s act of audacity, like a blast from a horn, like a ball of ice, like a meteor, like a great express train, like a clenched fist, like Longstreet at Chickamauga, is soon like a thing at rest.
This Chronicle of 1961 is now told.
Tom Hebert (Nigeria 1962-64) is a writer and management consultant living on the Umatilla Indian Reservation outside Pendleton, Oregon. He can be reached at email@example.com.
2 CommentsLeave a comment
A moving tribute utterly devoid of the usual sentimentality….for which I am grateful!
Agree completely with Kent.
I also appreciate how you (Tom) present the energy and imagination of the Kennedy/Shriver idealism in contrast to the cautious, centrist retreat of the Clinton years. Idealism must be transformed rapidly into action or it regresses.
I had hoped that some of the sixties vision and energy would be resurrected under this administration, but so far just tired slogans. Retread the tires, tune up the engine, and slap on a new coat of paint.