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. 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 GI 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 FDR, JFK 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.
He comes from a generation that highly prized egalitarian manners: I’m no better than anyone else, and nobody is better than me. Like Biden, condescension is foreign to his nature. As everybody at the “NewsHour” can attest, he treats everybody with equal kindness. He also comes from a generation in which military service was widespread, along with a sense of shared sacrifice.
I look at Mark’s constellation of values and worry that they are fading away. He doesn’t buy that decline narrative: “I’m more optimistic than I have been. We have to do a little better at celebrating our successes.”
When you work with somebody this long you remember little things — the way he pops chocolates into his mouth during late-night campaign coverage — and the big emotional moments, watching, on set, the first footage of bodies floating after Katrina.
One story sticks in my mind. In 2004, the Red Sox fell behind the New York Yankees three games to none in the American League Championship Series. The Sox miraculously won the next four games and took the series. Mark went to a bunch of those games, including the final one at Yankee Stadium.
After that game Mark lingered in his seat. Memories flooded over him as sweet tears flowed — a lifetime of games with his mother and father, this magnificent victory they never got to see, the century of heartbreaks now overcome. Mark and the other Sox fans just sat there, refusing to leave, absorbing this new victorious feeling, a hint of justice in the universe.
I like to think that was God’s way of saying, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
David Brooks is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.