Mark Shields, a pervasive analyst of America’s political virtues and failings, first as a Democratic campaign strategist and then as a television commentator who for four decades both delighted and rocked audiences with his bluntly liberal views and sharply honed humor, died Saturday at his Chevy home. Chase, Maryland. He was 85.
His daughter, Amy Shields Doyle, said the cause was complications from kidney failure.
Politics loomed large for Mr. Shields, even when he was a boy. In 1948, when he was 11, his parents woke him up at 5 a.m. so he could catch a glimpse of President Harry S. Truman as he drove through Weymouth, the Massachusetts town south of Boston where they lived. He recalled that “the first time I ever saw my mother cry was the night Adlai Stevenson lost in 1952.”
A life immersed in politics began for him in the 1960s, not long after serving in the Marines for two years. He began as a legislative assistant to Senator William Proxmire of Wisconsin.
After that, he started out on his own as a political adviser to Democratic candidates; his first national-level campaign was Robert F. Kennedy’s ill-fated presidential race in 1968. Shields was in San Francisco when Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles. “I go to my grave in the belief that Robert Kennedy would have been the best president of my life,” he told DailyExpertNews in 1993.
He had successes such as helping John J. Gilligan become governor of Ohio in 1970 and helping Kevin H. White win reelection as mayor of Boston in 1975. But he was certainly no stranger to beating; he worked for men who unsuccessfully sought national office in the 1970s, including Edmund S. Muskie, R. Sargent Shriver, and Morris K. Udall.
“At one point,” said Mr. Shields, “I held the NCAA indoor record for written and spoken concession speeches.”
When the 1970s ended, he decided to take a different path. Thus began a long career that made him a fixture in American political journalism and punditry.
He started out as editor-in-chief of the Washington Post, but the inherent anonymity of the work made him uncomfortable. He requested and received a weekly column.
It didn’t take long for him to set out on his own. As he continued to write a column, distributed weekly by Creators Syndicate, it was on television that he left his strongest impression.
From 1988 until it was canceled in 2005, he was a moderator and panelist on “Capital Gang,” a weekly DailyExpertNews talk show that featured liberals such as Mr. Shields paired up with their conservative counterparts. He was also a panelist on another weekly public affairs program, “Inside Washington,” seen on PBS and ABC until it ended in 2013.
In 1985, he wrote “On the Campaign Trail,” a somewhat irreverent take on the 1984 presidential race. Over the years, he also taught politics and the press at Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania.
His longest stint was as a commentator on “PBS NewsHour” from 1987 to 2020, when he decided to retire from regular appearances at age 83. Mr. Shields, who describes himself as a New Deal liberal, has counterpointed a succession of conservative thinkers, including William Safire, Paul Gigot, David Gergen and, for the past 19 years, David Brooks.
In a eulogy to his colleague, Mr Brooks wrote in his December 2020 DailyExpertNews column that “To this day Mark argues that politics is about seeking converts, not punishing heretics.”
Mr. Shields’ manner was disheveled, his face tightening and his accent unmistakably New England. He came across, The Times noted in 1993, as “just a guy who likes to argue about current events in the barbershop — the expert next door.”
His calling card was a no-nonsense political sensibility, imbued with audience-friendly humor that pierced the dominant character trait of many office holders: pomposity. Not surprisingly, his targets, including arch-conservatives, were not kind to his arrows. And he did not always adhere to modern standards of correctness.
Of President Donald J. Trump, Mr. Shields scornfully said that “the hardest thing he ever did was ask Republicans to vote for a tax cut.” House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy was “an invertebrate”; Senator Lindsey Graham made Tonto, the loyal sidekick of the Lone Ranger, “look like an independent ghost.” In both major parties, he said, too many people suffer from “the Rolex gene” — making them money-hungry caterers for the rich.
When asked in a 2013 interview with C-SPAN which presidents he admired, he quoted Gerald R. Ford, a Republican who took office in 1974 after the Watergate scandal. Ford, he said, was “the most emotionally healthy.”
“Not that the others had fallen,” he said, but “they get that bug, and as the late and very great Mo Udall, who searched for that office, once said, the only known cure for the presidential virus is embalming fluid.”
Politics, he claimed, was “a contact sport, a matter of accepting a few elbows,” and losing was “the original American sin.”
“People come up with really creative excuses for why they can’t be with you when you’re losing,” he said. “Like ‘my cousin graduated from driving school’ and ‘I would love to be with you, but we had a family appointment at the taxidermist.'”
Yet, for all their frailties, he had a lasting admiration for politicians, whether Democrats or Republicans, simply for entering the arena.
“If you dare to run for public office, anyone you’ve ever been in the high school classroom with or who you’ve doubled with or carpooled with will know if you’ve won or, more likely, lost,” he said. “The political candidate dares to risk the public rejection that most of us will go to great lengths to avoid.”
Mark Stephen Shields was born in Weymouth on 25 May 1937 as one of four children born to William Shields, a paper merchant involved in local politics, and Mary (Fallon) Shields, who taught school until she married.
“In my Irish-American family in Massachusetts, you were born a Democrat and baptized Catholic,” wrote Mr. Shields in 2009. “If your luck lasted, you were also raised as a Boston Red Sox fan.”
He attended schools in Weymouth and then the University of Notre Dame, where he studied philosophy, graduating in 1959. When military service loomed, he opted to enlist in the Marines in 1960, rising up as a Lance Corporal in 1962. He learned a lot in those two years, he said, including concepts of leadership encased in a naval tradition of officers not being fed until their subordinates were.
“Wouldn’t our country be a more just and humane place,” he wrote in 2010, “if the Wall Street and Washington brass and boardrooms believed that ‘officers eat last’?”
Beginning his career in politics, he met Anne Hudson, a lawyer and administrator of a federal agency. They married in 1966. In addition to his daughter, a television producer, he leaves behind his wife and two grandchildren.
There were bumps along the way, including a period of excessive drinking. “If I wasn’t an alcoholic, I was probably a pretty good impersonation of one,” he told C-SPAN, adding, “I haven’t had a drink since May 15, 1974. It took me so long to figure out that God made whiskey so the Irish and Indians wouldn’t rule the world.”
One of his happiest moments, he said, was when he worked on political campaigns: “You think you’re going to make a difference that will be better for the country, and especially for widows and orphans and people who don’t even know your name and will never know your name. Boy, that’s probably as good as it gets.”