There was no way not to love the look of Mark Shields, who seemed to have arrived for a television appearance donning his coat and finishing with his tie just as the camera eye blinked for the show to start. He looked very much the part of a newspaper columnist who had too many thoughts rushing about in his head to be concerned if his attire was perfectly adjusted.
When he started to opine on the issues of the day in politics, or the personalities that made for the latest headlines, whatever rumpled look he might have brought to the set was forgotten as his perspective and institutional memory held the audience at attention.
With that being said it is clear how I felt about Mark Shields who died at the age of 85 this weekend. I thought him not only a bright writer and commentator on our times but also fitting that image of an intrepid newspaper columnist and witty conversationalist who would be a perfect dinner guest.
His columns were a must-read for the way he blended current themes within the larger context of how our nation could be and should be. His political views were sharp and clear-eyed. He had, after all, worked in the political cauldron to see the process of politics up close.
His first job in the world of politics was in the office of Wisconsin Senator Bill Proxmire, where he had a desk as a legislative assistant. He branched out as a consultant for the Robert Kennedy presidential campaign, and later among other contenders for a variety of offices.
What he was not able to do with success as a political operative he made up for with a pithy knack for writing columns with verve and style and analyzing politics on television shows such as PBS’ NewsHour.
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.” In both major parties, he said, too many are afflicted with “the Rolex gene” — making them money-hungry caterers to the wealthy.
Asked in a 2013 C-SPAN interview which presidents he admired, he cited Gerald R. Ford, a Republican who took office in 1974 in the wake of the Watergate scandal. Ford, he said, was “the most emotionally healthy.”
“Not that the others were basket cases,” he said, but “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.”
With the passing of Shields, we have lost not only someone who was bright and talented but also a link to the times when those in government actually wanted to make the trains run on time. A time when, though politics was frothy, it was not all cut and burn and curse your opponents with every term imaginable.
I know people from all points on the political compass feel a loss this weekend. But we also know it was a joy to have had him being part of our political culture.