Dec. 17, 2020Opinion Columnist,
“Every Friday evening for the last 19 years, Mark Shields and I have gathered to talk politics on the “PBS NewsHour.” When people come up to me to discuss our segment, sometimes they mention the things we said to each other, but more often they mention how we clearly feel about each other — the affection, friendship and respect. We’ve had thousands of disagreements over the years, but never a second of acrimony. Mark radiates a generosity of spirit that improves all who come within his light.
This week, at 83, and after 33 years total on the show, Mark announced he was stepping back from his regular duties. Friday will be our final regular segment together. I want to not only pay tribute to him here, but also to capture his conception of politics, because it’s different from the conception many people carry in their heads these days.
We are all imprinted as children and young adults with certain ideas about the world, which stay with us for the rest of our lives. Mark, like many who came of age in the 1950s and 1960s — including Joe Biden — was imprinted with the idea that politics is a deeply noble profession, a form of service, a vocation.
Mark’s father was the first Catholic to serve on their town’s school board. The first time he saw his mother cry was when Adlai Stevenson lost to Dwight Eisenhower. Mark went off to Notre Dame and then served in the Marine Corps, before working as a congressional aide.
This was the mid-60s. Evidence that government worked was all around. The G.I. Bill had worked, though mostly for whites. Mark had served with Black Marines because Harry Truman had the courage to integrate the military. Mark saw the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, the Fair Housing Act of 1968.
There was never a moment when passing this stuff was easy, but everybody took for granted the legitimacy of the system, treasured the country and the way it worked. “The two hallmarks of American politics are optimism and pragmatism,” Mark told me this week, pointing to the optimism of F.D.R., J.F.K. and Ronald Reagan.
To this day Mark argues that politics is about looking for converts, not punishing heretics. You pass bills and win campaigns by bending to accommodate those whose votes can be gotten.
He went on to work on and run political campaigns, for people like Bobby Kennedy and Ed Muskie. He came to deeply respect those he worked to elect, including presidential candidate Mo Udall: “Just a great human being.” Vice-presidential candidate Sargent Shriver: “He had the best relations with his family of any candidate I have known. His kids revered him.” And Gov. Jack Gilligan of Ohio: He “believed in us more than we believed in ourselves.”
After decades in journalism, Mark still puts the character lens before the partisan lens. He has been quick to criticize Democrats when they are snobbish, dishonest or fail to live up to the standards of basic decency — often infuriating some of our viewers.
I don’t know if it was midcentury liberalism or the midcentury record of the Boston Red Sox, but Mark instinctively identifies with the underdog. Every year he invites me to do an event with him with Catholic social workers. These are people who serve the poor and live among the poor. They have really inexpensive clothing and really radiant faces, and in their lives you see the embodiment of an entire moral system, Catholic social teaching, which has its service arm and, in Mark, its political and journalistic arm.” . . . . .
Through out the Trump presidency, my lady and I have stayed tuned to the PBS Newshour with Judy Woodruff, which we tape, and often watch in the middle of dinner. During the pandemic, we became more faithful, and our favorite nights were Friday, ending with Mark Shields and David Brooks, and the weekends, reduced to 30 minutes, and with the firm thoughtful voice of Hari Sreenivasan. 30 minutes requires better discipline, and Sreenivasan often covers climate change around the world. Shields and Brooks have been spectacular, if you can follow Shields, who speaks quickly and mumbles. But tonight is his last regular appearance. Mark Shields is retiring at the age of 83. As this Brooks essay reveals, Mark Shields has the heart and ballast of a saint, and he speaks with the wit and intelligence of general. Please join Kathleen and me, in watching the final 10 minutes of regularly scheduled Shields and Brooks, sometime between 7 and 8 pm, Eastern Time.
Here is a comment I strongly recommended:
A beautiful, poignant ode to a friend. And we should also note a very important context. The “PBS NewsHour” is still a reflection of the way news was reported for many decades in this country before the rise of cable TV and partisan news. The “PBS NewsHour” has always practiced – and still practices – the Fairness Doctrine of the United States Federal Communications Commission that was introduced in 1949 that required the holders of broadcast licenses to present policy issues of public importance and to do so in an honest, equitable, and balanced manner. When the FCC eliminated the Fairness Doctrine policy in 1987 under Republican Ronald Reagan, it precipitated a long slow decline of news quality and accelerated the flow of one-sided opinion, misinformation and disinformation that passes for ‘news’ today. Had the Fairness Doctrine remained in place, Americans would be much better informed, less polarized and much more willing to forge common political ground to move the nation forward with good old-fashioned boring public policy that is more than an empty basket of tax cuts. Shields and Brooks always represented respectful ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ perspectives. Restoring the Fairness Doctrine would be good for the country and our national sanity.