Sargent Shriver, who has died at age 95, built the left flank of John Kennedy’s remarkable 1960 presidential run. In so doing he freed President Kennedy to make critical choices in favor of civil rights and economic justice.
Kennedy was not the most liberal Democrat seeking the presidency that year.
In the Wisconsin primary campaign—the critical first test—the senator from Massachusetts faced Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey, a hero of liberals going back to the 1948 Democratic National Convention speech in which he declared: "The time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and to walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights."
As his friend, ally and aide Harris Wofford recalled, "[Shriver] badly wanted Kennedy’s nomination to come through liberal support, not through an alliance with Southern conservatives.” While the young senator was being pulled to the right by many of his allies, “Shriver hoped Kennedy would find himself responding to a convention and a campaign in which the liberal wing gave him decisive support.”
To achieve this end, Shriver came to Madison as his brother-in-law Jack’s campaign’s coordinator in the critical 2nd Congressional district. Well aware that Humphrey was a favorite in the region—especially with the liberal community that clustered around the University of Wisconsin campus in Madison—Shriver set out to build Kennedy’s credibility as a liberal.
He turned to Wofford, a former attorney for the United States Commission on Civil Rights who had become a friend and trusted adviser to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. An unapologetic and unyielding champion of the civil rights struggle at home and a new internationalism that sought to bridge cold war divides with a commitment to peace and development, the young man had developed a reputation as a liberal’s liberal and supported Kennedy.
He was just what Shriver needed.
Speaking at the UW Law School, Wofford delivered a historic address in which he portrayed Kennedy as advancing a vision of a world community, of a world in revolution, of a world in unprecedented economic development, of a world waiting for full American participation, waiting for American leadership to end the cold war and establish and strengthen the institutions of peace and law.
The speech was so powerful that Humphrey wrote a three-word note to his old friend Wofford: "Et tu, Brute." Humphrey knew that Wofford’s message was precisely the right one for younger liberals in Madison and around the state. So did Shriver who, according to his able biographer Scott Stossel, was delighted that it had "addressed Kennedy’s perceived liberal deficiencies." To amplify the message, Shriver arranged for the Kennedy campaign to reprint the speech as a campaign brochure and to distribute it through the remainder of the campaign.