Interview with Anthony Kennedy Shriver 'Obama Clearly Has Ability to Inspire'

In an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE, John F. Kennedy's nephew discusses Barack Obama's leadership potential, why it's difficult to compare the candidate with the former president and his gripe with Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.
A campaign button worn by a supporter of US Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama: "He's tempered, thoughtful and reflective -- important qualities to have in a leader."

A campaign button worn by a supporter of US Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama: "He's tempered, thoughtful and reflective -- important qualities to have in a leader."


SPIEGEL: Do you think that trust in American capitalism has been shattered by the finance crisis?

Anthony Kennedy Shriver: Over the course of time our country has faced enormous challenges, many far greater than this one -- the Great Depression, Pearl Harbor, Vietnam, the civil rights movement, the riots in Chicago and Indianapolis and Watergate, which rocked confidence in the political system. The country will get through this, and we'll be stronger and better than before. We have enormous resilience.

SPIEGEL: The current crisis has the potential to hit virtually every sector. Your work in philanthropy, and your organization Best Buddies can only thrive when it is able to attract money from those who are able to give. Do these developments give you pause about the future?

Shriver: Not at all. This is going to be our biggest and best year ever financially. We just held a huge bike ride fundraiser out in California with help from my brother-in-law Arnold Schwarzenegger and my sister Maria Shriver, and it raised 30 percent more money this year than we did last year. The Best Buddies Ball is scheduled for October and we've increased revenue by 220 percent over last year. You've got to be more creative and work harder to appeal to people. There's nothing I can do about the economy, obviously. You just have to realize there are obstacles in front of you and you have to figure out how to get over them and do better than in the past.

SPIEGEL: Who has the best plan to heal the economy, John McCain or Barack Obama?

Shriver: This is not about who has the best plan. Great challenges always bring people together, and this will do for the United States what we haven't seen in many years. The World-War-II generation had a common bond -- they fought together to overcome a great enemy during the war. That created a sense of respect and dignity in Congress. But a lot of people there now, many of whom are my age and younger, have never faced anything that's really been that challenging. Sept. 11 was a great tragedy, but it didn't make us work together as a nation. The economic challenge could bring the country together, including the White House and Congress, to rally behind something that is challenging the whole fabric of our society.

SPIEGEL: Are you saying it doesn't matter who becomes the next president, that McCain or Obama will both be forced to bring the country together?

Shriver: No. It matters enormously who becomes president for many reasons other than the current economic crisis. It's very important that Obama get elected because he would take the country in the right direction. There's a huge difference in the way they view the role government plays in people's lives in the US and the role Washington plays in the world.

SPIEGEL: Obama would likely be very different from McCain -- he'd call for greater regulation of financial markets and increased international diplomacy. He'd be the antithesis of Bush.

Shriver: Bush totally blew it by not capitalizing on the international spirit of goodwill and the desire to help America after the tragedy of 9/11. He lost it, and I think you don’t get many opportunities like that your lifetime.

SPIEGEL: How do you feel about Obama's lack of experience?

Shriver: I understand people’s concern about that. It is important to be out there in the world, meeting heads of state and traveling, and for this years of public service are certainly key. I don’t necessarily think you have to have held political office, but I think you do need to be informed and have engaged with people in a public way for a considerable period of time. That's not a highlight of his resume, but he's got many other things going for him. He's got excellent judgment, and you can tell a lot about people based on the decisions they've made in their lives.

SPIEGEL: By judgment you mean that he spoke out against the Iraq War when it was still popular?

Shriver: Yeah. It gives you a sense that he’s tempered, thoughtful and reflective -- important qualities to have in a leader.

SPIEGEL: Your uncle, John F. Kennedy, didn’t have a lot of experience when he came into office, either.

Shriver: He had quite a bit. He had been a Congressman and a Senator. He also gained a lot of experiencing fighting in World War II, which made him a hero. He wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning book and traveled and lived abroad.

SPIEGEL: Granted, that is a bit more than Obama.

Shriver: But look at Sarah Palin. She seems like a nice enough woman, but it’s horrifying that people in the US would consider somebody who didn't even have a passport until last year and oversees one of the smallest states by population in the whole union -- someone who has little political and no worldly experience -- as a serious candidate for vice president.

SPIEGEL: Your organization Best Buddies works with children with disabilities. Palin has a child with Down syndrome. You, like many Americans, must sympathize with her for that.

Shriver: She gets sympathy for it, but it doesn’t mean anything to me. I wrote to her before she had that baby, and she didn't even pay attention to us. So now she's a great hero because she has a baby with Down syndrome. That baby is going to be a great gift for her, but it doesn’t mean she'd make a good president.

SPIEGEL: What's more important -- for a president to inspire people or to have the best programs?

Shriver: The best scenario is to have the substance and the inspiration. That's why President Kennedy was so effective and unique. Obama clearly has the ability to inspire, but it is difficult to compare him to someone like Kennedy, who had the chance to serve in the White House and had a record of delivering in really challenging times.

SPIEGEL: In the course of the campaign, did you get the feeling that Obama overdid it a little bit by comparing himself to your uncle all the time? His campaign chose a stadium for his nomination ceremony -- emulating John F. Kennedy, who also accepted his nomination at a stadium in the 1960s -- and often held events at schools that bear his name.

Shriver: It’s common in the United States for young, aspiring leaders as well as older ones to want to connect themselves to political leaders or individuals who are highly respected and admired. Obama's not the first one, either. John Kerry tried to talk about President Kennedy, saying he was also from Massachusetts, had served as a Senator and had the same initials: John F. Kerry.

SPIEGEL: But if you overdo it you might come across as displaying too much hubris.

Shriver: It's always risky to compare yourself with an iconic figure. You run the risk of coming out on the wrong end of the equation.

SPIEGEL: Your brother-in-law, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, talks very fondly of Obama. Could he end up in an Obama administration, even though he's a Republican?

Shriver: He’s very open-minded, and in the end it would depend on the job and what kind of an impact he thought he could have. I think if it was the right opportunity, he'd do it. Many of the values and positions he holds are very much in line with the Democratic Party platform; he also has some from the Republican platform.

Interview conducted by Marc Hujer.

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