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Mark Shields speaks during an NBC appearance

Mark Shields speaks during a taping of "Meet the Press" at NBC's studios on February 17, 2008 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images for Meet the Press)

Remembering Mark Shields, Friend and Mentor

He was one of the last points of joy and light in the bastard city of Washington, DC, home of the scheme and the fraud.

Michael Winship

For more than six months, I have written very little. In part this is because—for now at least—I’m not on the paid roster of any particular publication or TV show and as Dr. Johnson famously noted, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”

Cynical, yes, and untrue for many, certainly, and God bless them all. But the promise of a check is definitely a lure. On the other hand, one might say that to blame it on a lack of payment is just an excuse for writer’s block, a lack of creativity, or general sloth. And one might be right.

In truth, events and other responsibilities have dominated more of my time this year than perhaps they should. And it’s definitely the case that the national and world happenings of the past few months have been daunting and disheartening to such a profound extent that the firehose of information and untruths now seems like an overpowering tsunami. It’s difficult to respond in full or even a modest amount—for me, at least.

"He saw clearly what Donald Trump and his Republican creep squad were doing to his city and nation, despised it, and called out the calamity for what it was and is."

To see the world right now is to look into a vortex of calamity: the continuing outbreaks of Covid—and now monkeypox, for God’s sake; Donald Trump’s ceaseless lies about the 2020 election, the ever-mounting evidence from the January 6 committee of his frightening and criminal attempts at a coup d’état, aided by an ascendant violent right, and his reported plans to run again in 2024. The dangerous egomaniac and his cult refuse to vanish and just leave America alone. Their actions are indefensible.

There are heat waves and wildfires, racial and economic inequity, Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin’s unrepentant greed, the mass shootings here at home that make opposition to gun reform less tenable and more ridiculous than ever. Buffalo, Uvalde… the deaths at the Fourth of July parade in Highland Park, Illinois, were the country’s 309th mass shooting in a year barely half complete; in fact, there were 220 shot and killed that holiday weekend alone.

The Supreme Court decision overturning the New York State law restricting concealed carry of forearms was just one of multiple decisions at the end of its session that deny the public majority and threaten more transgressions to come: they approved restrictions on the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate carbon emissions, limits on the separation of church and state and vaccine-or-testing mandates, and most grievously, the overturning of Roe v Wade, violating a woman’s right to decide what’s best for her own life and her reproductive health.

The list goes on.  And just to add a little more to the misery, a month ago, my friend and mentor Mark Shields died. He was 85.

This is more significant to all of us than some may think, because Mark was one of the last points of joy and light in the city of Washington, DC, home of the scheme and the fraud. He was a commentator and analyst, syndicated columnist, and a wry and perceptive mainstay of the “PBS NewsHour” as well as such past shows as “Inside Washington” and CNN’s “Capital Gang.”

He knew whereof he spoke. As obituaries noted, Mark was one of the first to correctly note that President Jimmy Carter’s reelection in 1980 was in deep danger from his GOP challenger Ronald Reagan. And in the fall of 2018, he sat with some of us in a restaurant and predicted that in the midterms Democrats would pick up 41 seats in the House of Representatives and that’s exactly what they did. What's more, he saw clearly what Donald Trump and his Republican creep squad were doing to his city and nation, despised it, and called out the calamity for what it was and is: “...criminal... [Trump] has totally abdicated, abrogated and corrupted his oath of office.”

In the sixties and seventies, Mark was a political operative on Democratic campaigns both large and small, some successful; others, gallant exercises ending in defeat. “At one point,” he claimed, “I held the N.C.A.A. indoor record for concession speeches written and delivered.”

In 1968, he worked on Bobby Kennedy’s campaign for the presidency and believed that had he not been assassinated, a second President Kennedy profoundly would have changed our nation for the good. RFK was fond of quoting the poet Tennyson—“Come, my friends. ‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world”—a sentiment that until his last day Mark held dear.

A lover of politics and democracy, he kept a clear eye on our mess of a nation but fought back with love of that same nation, moral clarity, a lifetime of knowledge, and most especially a sharp wit that was incisive and hilarious but never mean-spirited. It would be no exaggeration to suggest that for a long time many of the funniest lines spoken by Democratic officeholders at banquets and campaign stops were ghosted by—or stolen from—Mark. 

Nevertheless, when it came to skewering politicians, he could be an equal opportunity impaler, albeit a gentle one. “George Washington was the president who could never tell a lie,” he said. “Richard Nixon was the president who could never tell the truth; and Bill Clinton is the president who cannot tell the difference.”

We first met forty years ago when I was hired to write a documentary about political television ads as part of a mini-series on various aspects of the media. The producer and I went to Washington for a couple of days to meet with potential interviewees. Back then, Mark was on the editorial board of The Washington Post and hosting a Saturday morning radio show. We caught up with him at his office and walked to a nearby park to speak.

Every one of the shows in the series required a different host, someone who was known for their expertise on the program’s subject. With Mark, we knew instantly that he was our guy, and although the production had its ups and downs his involvement remained key and improved the entire experience.

We shared a writing credit on the show, became friends and over the years, whenever I was in Washington we tried to get together. His loyalty was profound; if I was involved in an event or a screening in DC, he did his best to be there, and he almost always was, ready to celebrate and encourage.

Early in the Obama administration, the Writers Guild East, of which, full disclosure, I’m president, held a party in DC that featured standup from a number of late-night TV comedy writers. Mark and his wife Anne were in attendance. I worried that the material had been too blue for them (For that very reason, C-SPAN, which was taping the event, entirely eliminated those performances from its telecast). The next morning I asked Mark and he thought that dirty jokes weren’t the problem; for the crowd of journalists and politicos the comedians “didn’t talk enough about Washington.” Profanity was kind of okay; failing to cater to some of the self-centered navel gazers of DC was not.

Another time, when the TV at a family home was tuned to “The Capital Gang,” an infant great-nephew, riveted by Mark’s face on the screen, rushed up to put his face and hands on the glass. I took a picture and mailed it to Mark. Tongue in cheek, he mailed back an 8x10 glossy of himself, effusively autographed to the great-nephew. I hope the kid, now an adult, still has it.

At a moment of personal crisis, Mark was the very first person I called. He ordered me to meet him and some of his friends in Washington who could offer advice and support. I did, they did, and my life was changed for the better. Many can tell you Mark stories similar to mine.

And now he’s gone.

But Mark was needed elsewhere and lucky them, wherever they are, who now get to revel in his empathy, sincerity, curiosity, and laughter. A man of good deeds and good humor; the last few times we spoke, he was trying to help me find the next gig and urging me to start writing again, to write true and when it feels right, funny. And so I’ll try. Whether that’s seen as a promise or a threat, I leave to you. I know what he’d say: keep going.

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Michael Winship

Michael Winship

Michael Winship is the Schumann Senior Writing Fellow at the progressive news outlet Common Dreams, where he writes and edits political analysis and commentary. He is a Writers Guild East council member and its immediate past president and a veteran television writer and producer who has created programming for America’s major PBS stations, CBS, the Discovery and Learning Channels, A&E, Turner Broadcasting, the Disney Channel, Lifetime, Sesame Workshop (formerly the Children’s Television Workshop) and National Geographic, among others. In 2008, he joined his longtime friend and colleague Bill Moyers at Bill Moyers Journal on PBS and their writing collaboration has been close ever since. They share an Emmy and three Writers Guild Awards for writing excellence. Winship’s television work also has been honored by the Christopher, Western Heritage, Genesis and CableACE Awards.

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