By Susan Estrich
For The Philadelphia Inquirer
She was the candidate’s sister, the former president’s sister, the wife of the former vice presidential candidate. Legend had it that she was smarter than any of them. I was nobody, 25, working on my first presidential campaign, the senior and junior woman in almost every meeting. I was, for want of any competition, in charge of what they used to call “women’s issues” in the campaign.
She did not agree with me on what was, then and now, the most explosive of those issues. Did not agree is putting it mildly.
One of the guys probably told her I was in charge so she’d stop asking them why all the briefing papers said “Sen. Kennedy supports Roe v. Wade as the law of the land.” That was my carefully constructed effort to avoid both excommunication (for him) and hell to pay (for both of us). “Ask Susan. She wrote it,” they must have told her, assuming she’d never go to the trouble of even figuring out who I was.
She did. She called. Then she invited me to dinner.
I was seated next to the priest.
“Father,” she said to him, “Susan is handling women’s issues for my brother. Perhaps you have some thoughts to share with her.”
I have never met smarter, more interesting, or more challenging dinner companions than the priests I sat next to in my many dinners at the Shrivers’. They didn’t change my mind. The truth is, they didn’t really try. As the campaign progressed, we even dropped the “as the law of the land.”
But this isn’t about abortion. It’s about a woman who had all the cards, who could have run right over me and insisted on dealing with the guys who really had the power.
Eunice Shriver was probably born shrewd. She certainly understood power as well as any woman I’d ever met. She knew I didn’t have it. So she gave it to me.
By treating me with respect, she made me – in the crazy, topsy-turvy world of campaigns – someone deserving of respect. If she thought I had power, I must; if the candidate’s sister calls you directly, you must be someone. “Going to dinner?” the guys would tease me, only half in jest.
There weren’t too many powerful women around in those days, and the last person many of them wanted to deal with was a girl half their age. I understood why they wanted to talk to the men; after all, they had the power. Eventually, I’d have to go to them anyway. Why not cut out the middle woman? It happened. Some of the time, even world-famous feminists did it.
It takes a pretty special woman to understand that by extending a hand to a junior woman, you make her path that much easier than your own; that power is a gift that can be shared, and the one who receives it will never forget that generosity.
A great lady died last week. But her memory lives on in the millions she touched.
Susan Estrich’s column appears regularly in The Inquirer.