Thirty-one years ago, I was about to go on national television for the first time. I was Harris Wofford’s campaign manager, and Wofford had won a Senate race in an improbable landslide over former Pennsylvania Governor and US Attorney General Richard Thornburgh.
The PBS newscast “MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour” had booked me for a live interview — the first of my young career. Mark Shields, already a star, called me with that warning.
I remember having breakfast with him when he was in Austin years ago. The server, a political junkie, was starstruck. Shields was no doubt road-weary. But he stopped our breakfast conversation and talked to that server as if he were a vital source on a key Senate committee. Mark asked earnest questions, probing but not too personal, about his work, his studies and his goals. I was impressed. Mark? He came away more knowledgeable and empathetic about the challenges faced by that young man and millions like him.
To me, Mark represented an inclusive and empathetic liberalism. He spoke in terms of values, not programs. (No one cares that you voted to expand Section 8; but they do care that you helped a poor family afford an apartment.) At a time when politics is increasingly driven by purity tests, Mark wanted everyone at the table. “There are two kinds of political parties,” he would say. “Just like there are two kinds of churches: those who seek out converts, and those who hunt down heretics.”
A Democrat to his core, Mark was quick to find the good in Republicans. His friendship with the late political commentator Bob Novak was a wonder to behold — and one that played out on CNN for years. Novak (with whom I hosted on “Crossfire”) was, well, a bit prickly. Mark was all backslaps and goodwill.
Mark lived the Catholic mantra of “love the sinner, hate the sin.” His debating skill involved wit, substantive knowledge, a suspicion of elites and a bedrock faith that everyday Americans were possessed of good judgment.
A decade ago, The Alcalde, the alumni magazine of my beloved University of Texas at Austin, asked me to name the inspiration for my career as a pundit. I didn’t hesitate. “Mark Shields,” I said. “He used to be a Democratic political operative, but he calls them as he sees them. And he’s funny — he could do stand-up.” When Mark read that, he called me and thanked me. But he had it backwards. It is I — and so many others who benefitted from his warmth, wisdom and wit — who need to thank him.
Many years ago, when I was young, cocky and lucky enough to run into early success, something wonderful and rare happened to me: I had the gift of being Mark Shields’ friend and the beneficiary of his hard-won wisdom.
So, I thank you, Mark. As your fellow Marines say, “Semper Fi.” And as our fellow Catholics say, “Pax Vobiscum.”