Ss-110118-Sargent-Shriver-02.ss_full The founder of the Peace Corps, who died today at 95, was “one of the great underappreciated figures of modern American history,” writes Scott Stossel, his biographer.

Stossel, deputy editor of the Atlantic, says that his record, which included leading Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty programs, presiding over the Paris peace talks in Vietnam and helping his wife, Eunice Shriver, found the Special Olympics, was due in large part to a question he would ask himself frequently. It was What have I done to improve the lot of humanity?.

He writes, “For me, exposure to Shriver was a revelation. I grew up in the shadow of Vietnam, Watergate, the hostage crisis, stagflation, oil crises, impeachment, and later 9/11 and the War on Terror. Public service, for my generation, often seems to be a hollow or futile thing. It can be hard even to say the words “make the world a better place” without having them stick in your throat, so hopelessly naïve and lacking in irony do they sound.

“For Shriver’s generation, their experience of government and of public service was much different. They saw the New Deal help lift millions from Depression; they saw the Allies defeat Totalitarianism; they saw the post-War boom, the Civil Rights movement, and America put a man on the moon, just like JFK said we would. So much that he’d seen and done had instilled in him the faith that public service could be a powerful and positive force; so little that I’ve seen has conveyed that.”

Shriver was the father of Maria Shriver and father-in-law of Arnold Schwarzenegger. It was Schwarzeneggerwho , Stossel notes, gave Shriver a pair of authentic lederhosen which he was prone to wear.

Shriver also was in charge of the search for the “best and the brightest” that staffed President John F. Kennedy’s administration. (By the way, Thursday marks the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s inauguration.)

Here’s a segment from MSNBC’s “The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell,” featuring clips from the documentary “American Idealist” and a short interview with George McGovern, who tapped Shriver as his running mate in his presidential bid in 1972.


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Update: Sean Smith, bureau chief for Entertainment Weekly, has resigned to join the Peace Corps as a volunteer in South Africa. Via LAObserved is his Daily Beast piece on what made him decide to make such a bold move. It was an interview with Angelina Jolie. She told him, “You know, we all go through stages in our life where we feel lost, and I think it all comes down to having a sense of purpose. When I was famous for just being an actress, my life felt very shallow. Then when I became a mom and started working with the U.N., I was happy. I could die and feel that I’d done the right things with my life. It’s as simple as that.”