Politically Speaking

Mark Shields ’59, recently of the Gergen and Shields duo, is acknowledged as one of Washington’s most quoted and influential journalists.

Author: Deborah Marquardt

Editor’s Note: Mark Shields ’59 died June 18, 2022 at age 85. He spent his life in politics, working on campaigns for 15 years before becoming a popular, avuncular columnist and television commentator plugged into Washington’s ways and the pulse of the American public. We remember Shields with this 1993 profile.

Mark Shields ’59 loves the game. The intrigue. The issues. The inside dope. The importance. As a news analyst for the PBS MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour on Fridays and CNN’s Capital Gang on Saturdays, as a newspaper columnist and radio talk-show guest, he has played the game many times. He is comfortable offering postmortems on a week’s events and telling presidents, congressmen, senators, justices, Republicans and Democrats what he thinks they should do. 

This time, however, his vantage was a bit different. The moment his MacNeil/Lehrer partner of six years, David Gergen, was appointed counsellor to President Bill Clinton last summer, the news spinner suddenly found himself caught in the web. The Washington gossip mill churned with a vengeance over Memorial Day weekend. 

Gergen, after all, was a Republican, murmured the pundits. AND he had worked as director of communications for Ronald Reagan. 

“People are saying Clinton picked the wrong member of the team,” observed Shields’ longtime friend and Washington Post columnist Mary McGrory. She backed up her words in a column: “Why not Shields? … Shields is not as tall as Gergen, but he is funnier, and he is a Democrat.” 

Shields accepted the compliment, admitting that even a few folks at the local supermarket agreed with her. 

Shields Illustration Barry Blitt
Illustration by Barry Blitt

Then The New York Times television columnist Walter Goodman checked in: “ . . . if Mr. Gergen should work out, we can look forward to a crush of public television favorites in the corridors of power. To begin, his consort, Mark Shields, will certainly be hired at once. What producer would separate Bert from Ernie? The President of the United States shouldn’t have to settle for half a team, particularly the half that used to work for Ronald Reagan. Mr. Shields, who is to the left of Mr. Gergen, might well be closer to the center of Mr. Clinton, should that location be discovered.” 

If events had played out differently in Mark Shields’s life, he might be in Gergen’s seat today. Before his basset hound eyes, his leprechaunish expressions and his keen sense of humor became known to television viewers, Shields spent 15 years in the rough-and-tumble world of campaign politics. There were presidential primaries for Robert F. Kennedy and Edmund Muskie, senatorial races for James William Fulbright and Morris Udall. He worked congressional, mayoral and gubernatorial campaigns — 38 states in all. But the only presidential races he ever ran, according to his wife, Anne Hudson Shields, “were from his armchair.”

Yet friends and colleagues say Shields is too generous to admit he might have wanted Gergen’s job. And Shields steadfastly defends the President’s selection of Gergen. The administration “had an attack of the smarts overnight,” Shields said on MacNeil/Lehrer the day when news of the appointment was leaked. “I just hope they’re smart enough to listen to him.” 

In an interview later he said, “David has known Bill Clinton for years. They’ve been to the Renaissance weekends together. I don’t have a relationship with him. Bill Clinton made the right choice.” Then the ever-present wit kicked in, “Look, this is not a contest for Miss Nebraska. I only wanted the Miss Congeniality title, and I got it.” 

There is little doubt about the esteem Shields and Gergen have for each other. The fact that a TV rivalry never developed between them is one measure. Then there is the constant banter: Shields, for instance, says Gergen thrives on public policy so much, he must have spent his college summers as a lifeguard at a think tank. Gergen confesses there are a few qualities about his friend he wishes he shared: his humor and his hair. 

Joking aside, when it came to making the decision about the White House job, Gergen turned to Shields for serious counsel, and he got it. “He told me,” Gergen says, “‘as a citizen I hope you do it; as a friend, I’m anxious for you.’” 

Shields says, “Clinton has a lot of problems. He had promised a bipartisan administration and had not produced it. He has an inadequate understanding of the way Washington works. He is not getting along with the press. The White House lacked a graybeard. I was afraid they would view Gergen as a one-size-fits-all solution to their problems.”

Fans of the duo should not despair. The Gergen-and-Shields show may not be over. Now that Gergen will be a source for journalists, in fact, things could get really interesting. “We know each other’s moves well enough that I can tell when he’s being less than candid. I’ll act on that information,” says Shields. “The first time I catch him, he’s deep in doo-doo.” 

Says Gergen, “He has always known politics better than I. He’ll be as much a source for me as I will for him.” 

Meanwhile, the new gossip continues to speculate on who will be Gergen’s replacement on the Newshour. A recent New Yorker cartoon showed a set of bunkbeds: one was empty, Shields was looking mighty lonely in the other. “I feel like I’m dating,” Shields says. “I didn’t know Friday nights with me were so desirable.” 

Robert MacNeil believes Shields is going to be dating for a long time. “It was a rare thing, the chemistry that developed between those two. It would have been just as disastrous for us if it had been Mark who had gone, not David.” 

Peggy Robinson, senior producer/politics for the Newshour, admits, “I don’t think we’re ever going to find just one person. I think we’re going to find three or four — a repertory company, if you will — to appear on a rotating basis. We had an institution. Change is always disconcerting. But it’s also an opportunity to get some new voices.” 

The story of Shields’ journey from obscurity to celebrity is kind of like that of Cinderella finding her prince. Shields admits he doesn’t exactly have the kind of face the networks would have noticed, say, back in the ’70s. “Cable has given a lot of marginal people employment,” he quips. 

“Television has changed,” notes Robert Novak, conservative columnist and leader of the Capital Gang. “Cable has created an opportunity for a diversity of opinion. There is not an injunction to be politically correct.” 

Shows like Capital Gang and MacNeil/Lehrer attract audiences that are politically sophisticated and willing to invest time. The shows acknowledge the viewers’ ability to make their own decisions, observes Shields. 

It’s no wonder he feels at home here. It’s almost as if, like Cinderella, all the years he spent in the shadows were priming him for this debut. It just took him awhile to be discovered. 

Mark Shields teethed on politics. Back home in Weymouth, Massachusetts, his Irish-Catholic parents were political activists. His father, a salesman, was the first Catholic ever elected to the city school board. His mother, a teacher, taught her four children that Americans had a responsibility to their country. The family devoured five newspapers daily, adding The New York Times on Sunday along with Time and Newsweek magazines. “By the time I was 8 or 9, I knew the names of all the U.S. senators,” Shields recalls. The first time he ever saw his mother cry was at the news of Adlai Stevenson’s death.     

He headed for Notre Dame with political fervor burning in his soul. Yet by the time he finished his history and philosophy studies, the hottest issues he had been able to take on as president of the Student Senate was whether or not students should get an extra 15 minutes leeway on curfew after the prom. 

It was the times. Eisenhower was running the White House, Elvis was riding the air waves and Elizabeth Taylor was burning up the silver screen. “We weren’t an introspective generation,” Shields says. “These were not years of great political excitement.” 

Following a stint in the Marines, he moved to Washington in 1964. “It’s a company town, just like Detroit or Nashville. Politics is what brought me here. It’s stimulating and exciting.”     

Shields served as a legislative assistant to Senator William Proxmire of Wisconsin, then worked the ’68 primaries in Nebraska, Oregon and California for Bobby Kennedy. He was in Los Angeles the night Kennedy was assassinated, and the memories still give him pause. Kennedy, he believes, could have changed America. No one has come so close to uniting blue collar, white collar and minority Americans, he says. “Democrats have always been knocked as bleeding hearts. . . . Kennedy was the antithesis of that.” 

Other campaigns followed, races lost. “I decided that out of respect for the political party, I ought to think about another line of work,” says Shields. In 1979 he crossed the line and became a political editorial writer and columnist for The Washington Post. “Mark is very smart, very funny, and he writes about politics very well. That was enough for me,” said his boss, Meg Greenfield.       

He left that job in 1981 to do political analysis for television and pursue a weekly column distributed by Associated Features. Last spring he was selected to Washingtonian magazine’s list of Washington’s Top 50 “Media Elite.”  

The transition to journalism was not so surprising to some. Al Hunt, the Wall Street Journal’s representative on Capital Gang and a friend of Shields for 20 years, recalls that Shields loved the press on the campaign trail and enjoyed talking to them. “He leaked like a sieve.”    

Adds Hunt, “He has a wit to match his wisdom. As a result, he’s one of the most quoted and influential of Washington journalists.”

Shields’ office in the National Press Building not far from the White House is no more than two tiny cubicles. One for him, his Rolodex and his books — endless titles about politics and history — and one for his secretary, Barbara Miller, who takes his columns home and types them on her personal computer. The Post made him take typing lessons once, but he still prefers pen-and-pad to technology — and shoe leather to fax machines when it comes to gathering information. He does not consider cocktail party chatter the stuff of columns; instead, every out-of-town speech or reporting assignment — and there are many on his calendar — is an opportunity to touch base with Americans. 

“He keeps in touch with people across the country, not just inside the beltway,” says Sheila Loomis, an associate producer at PBS. “Others don’t. It’s obvious from their work. And he treats everyone, whether it’s the Speaker of the House or a lowly reporter, equally. He is so plugged in, everyone wants his spin on everything.”   

Notes Mary McGrory, “He goes up to the House of Representatives and gets things I wouldn’t get in 100 years.” 

Washington lawyer John Sears ’60, a fellow Domer and former Reagan campaign manager, calls him “a very good journalist. It helps anyone who will be a political journalist to have done it. Not many do.”  

Shields Illustration Chris Mccauley
Illustration by Chris McCauley

Shields’s methods baffle those close to him. “He works on the backs of envelopes,” says his wife, Anne, who is chief of policy legislation and special litigation for the Department of Justice’s environmental division. The couple shared their first date on the night the Senate passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. They have a college-age daughter, Amy.  

“Lots of stuff he writes down and loses,” Anne says, “but he never loses it from his brain.” He can recite poll percentages like some people recite sports agate. Colleagues consider him a political phenomenon. “He’s got a mind like a computer with a laser disc,” says MacNeil. “He can drop the laser down anywhere and pick up information. I continue to be astonished at his depth of knowledge about politics and his ability to recall.” When Shields helped with TV coverage of the Democratic and Republican Conventions in 1992, he knew something about everyone on the floor, MacNeil says. “When he first came along, I thought he was just another political quipster, a knee-jerk, old-style liberal Democrat. That was a complete misreading.” 

Says Robert Novak, “He’s colorful, unpredictable, and under that fat liberal body is a lean, mean conservative, ready to come out. He’s hopeless on economics, but on a lot of social issues he’s quite conservative.”        

Shields is not afraid of unpopular views, and he’s been tough on Clinton: “Every administration is a reflection of the man in the office. If there’s a lack of direction, it’s because of Clinton. He’s curious, bright and has good values, but to quote Bill Cosby, ‘I don’t know the secret to success, but the secret to failure is trying to please everyone.’”    

In a book he wrote about the 1984 election, On the Campaign Trail, he admonished Democrats, maintaining they shouldn’t be surprised that Reagan creamed Walter Mondale. “Democrats have lost because what they have stood for . . . has not been particularly relevant, believable or practical to the majority of American voters.”  

One of Shields’s hot-buttons is the volunteer military, an issue he has attacked repeatedly. After one column 10 years ago favoring the draft, someone spray-painted his house, threw bricks through the windows and made a threatening phone call. During Operation Desert Storm he took another jab, saying the all-volunteer system has produced a military noticeably absent of the privileged. Today, those views put him clearly on the side of national service. It is good, he says, to expand the “popular definition of patriotism to include civilian service as equal in public value to military service.”

The thing that most sets Mark Shields apart from other journalists is his lack of cynicism. He deeply believes in the American system; he is deeply patriotic. “He believes that it’s more important that government work than that you stand outside and criticize,” observes MacNeil.   

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.   

“You get into tough, passionate issues, and you draw your lines in the sand. But you work through it. I enjoy him as a person and I enjoy his finely honed sense of humor,” says Simpson, who holds an honorary doctorate from Notre Dame. “Mark Shields can tell you to go to hell in a way that you enjoy the trip.”    

People listen to Shields because he has something to say. Says MacNeil. “He always seems to have a sense of where the American psyche is. If I were a president, and I really worried about what the American people thought, I would be fairly confident I’d call Mark.”        

Wonder what the Washington grapevine will do with that?      

Deborah Marquardt is a freelance writer in Virginia who writes for The New York Times and a variety of national magazines.