Mark Shields

Last Wednesday was a sad day in Washington – the occasion of the funeral of Mark Shields.  Mark was one of the most loved and widely respected political commentators  on U.S. politics.  Mark was a friend of mine from Notre Dame days.  He graduated a year ahead of me, but I knew him well as a jolly, smart, wise cracking Hall mate of a Scranton friend with whom I spent many hours on campus.

Most American TV viewers will remember Mark for his 33 years on the PBS Newshour exchanging views with co-hosts who were more conservative than he.  Rather than sharing his obituary from either the Times or the Post, I will pay tribute to him today by quoting from them and other sources illustrating his perceptive and entertaining commentaries on politics.

A Self Effacing , Somewhat Successful Political Consultant

He had successes, like helping John J. Gilligan become governor of Ohio in 1970 and Kevin H. White win re-election as mayor of Boston in 1975. But he was certainly no stranger to defeat; he worked for men who vainly pursued national office in the 1970s, among them Edmund S. Muskie, R. Sargent Shriver and Morris K. Udall. “At one point,” Mr. Shields said, “I held the N.C.A.A. indoor record for concession speeches written and delivered.”  (Times obit)

Politics, he maintained, was “a contact sport, a question of accepting an elbow or two,” and losing was “the original American sin.” “People come up with very creative excuses why they can’t be with you when you’re losing,” he said. “Like ‘my nephew is graduating from driving school,’ and ‘I’d love to be with you but we had a family appointment at the taxidermist.’”  (Times obit)

 On Potomac and Presidential Fever

Mr. Shields noticed that many candidates for federal office ran on a platform of how much they despised Washington. But once elected, they tended to stick around. He quoted a line from Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.) as if it were an immutable law: “There are only two ways people leave Washington. By the ballot box or the undertaker’s box.” (Post obit)

 “they get that bug, and as the late and very great Mo Udall, who sought that office, once put it, the only known cure for the presidential virus is embalming fluid.” (Times obit)

Lessons from the Marines   

“Would not our country be a more just and human place if the brass of Wall Street and Washington and executive suites believed that ‘officers eat last’?” (Creators.com, 2010)

Why God Made Whiskey

There were bumps along the road, including a period of excessive drinking. “If I wasn’t an alcoholic, I was probably a pretty good imitation of one,” he told C-SPAN, adding: “I have not had a drink since May 15, 1974. It took me that long to find out that God made whiskey so the Irish and the Indians wouldn’t run the world.” (Times obit)

Hard on Republicans

Of President Donald J. Trump, Mr. Shields said dismissively that “the toughest thing he’s ever done was to ask Republicans to vote for a tax cut.” The House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy was “an invertebrate”; Senator Lindsey Graham made Tonto, the Lone Ranger’s loyal sidekick, “look like an independent spirit.” (Times obit)

Hard on Democrats and the Clintons

…Mr. Shields could nevertheless be a scourge to his fellow Democrats. During Bill Clinton’s presidency, he quipped that “George Washington was the president who could never tell a lie; Richard Nixon was the president who could never tell the truth; and Bill Clinton is the president who cannot tell the difference.” (Post obit)

…”I have been in this town long enough to remember when the Lincoln bedroom was used for sex and the Oval office for fund raising.”  (My personal recollection)

In one of his final appearances on “NewsHour” in 2020, Mr. Shields noted that the Democratic Party had traditionally been the political home of lunch-pail, working-class White men. The problem facing the party in the 21st century, he said, “is one of attitude as much as it is of platform. I mean, the Democrats, that were once a shot-and-a-beer party have become a sauvignon blanc party arguing about which wine is more sensitive.” (Post obit)

Civility in Political Discourse

In 2012, he and (David) Brooks received an award for “civility in public life,” presented by Pennsylvania’s Allegheny College. Accepting the honor, Mr. Shield said he sought to remember that “in every discussion that the person on the other side probably loves their country as much as you love our country; that they care about their children’s and grandchildren’s future as much as you do; that they treasure the truth as much as you do; and that you don’t demonize somebody on the other side.” (Post obit)

Noble Calling of Politics

In his book, Shields wrote, “Politics — which is nothing less than the peaceable resolution of conflict among legitimate, competing interests — is an important public occupation and ought to be respected.” Such an attitude has gained him the respect of even such conservative politicians as Senator Alan K. Simpson, a Wyoming Republican.   (Notre Dame Magazine, Autumn 1993)

Still, for all their foibles, he had an abiding admiration for politicians, be they Democrats or Republicans, simply for entering the arena. “When you dare to run for public office, everyone you ever sat next to in high school homeroom or double-dated with or car-pooled with knows whether you won or, more likely, lost,” he said. “The political candidate dares to risk the public rejection that most of us will go to any length to avoid.” (Times obit)

Some of his happiest moments, he said, were when he worked on political campaigns: “You think you are going to make a difference that’s going to be better for the country, and especially for widows and orphans and people who don’t even know your name and never will know your name. Boy, that’s probably as good as it gets.” (Times obit)

Back to Notre Dame

Notre Dame acknowledged Mark’s contributions to America’s political discourse on several occasions.  Father John Jenkins, the University’s President, was present on the altar during the funeral. 

In 1997, Notre Dame awarded Mark an honorary degree.  In his remarks to the graduates, he asked a question that had been neglected by Biblical scholars for over two thousand years:  “did the Corinthians ever write back?”

The Notre Dame magazine feature story on Mark in 1993 contained a masterful caricature that graphically foretold his impact in Washington and on the Hill. I share it with you all today to enjoy one good, last laugh with Mark.

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