Mark Shields, a PBS commentator, Washington columnist, and Catholic layman, died on June 18, 2022, at the age of eighty-five. Mark offered a positive vision of politics, an example of faith in action, and a sense of humor and humility that we will greatly miss. His combination of Catholic values and civic virtues offered a way out of the angry polarization and failing leadership that often demoralize Washington and undermine both public and religious life.
He grew up outside Boston, in Weymouth, Massachusetts. He often said he was “born a Democrat and baptized a Catholic.” He was a proud product of Notre Dame University and the United States Marine Corps. Those ties endured through a life of service in politics and journalism. He served as an assistant to the late Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wisconsin). As a campaign strategist, he helped John Gilligan become governor of Ohio and Kevin White become mayor of Boston. He had a long record of working in noble but unsuccessful presidential campaigns, including the tragic crusade of Robert Kennedy and the campaigns of the “inevitable” Ed Muskie and improbable Mo Udall, as well as Sarge Shriver’s quixotic vice-presidential run in 1972.
After this life in campaigns, he became an editorial writer and columnist for the Washington Post and other newspapers. He survived two weekly political roundtable shows, The Capital Gang and Inside Washington. He became most widely known for his thirty-three years as a regular politics commentator on the PBS NewsHour, outlasting William Safire, Paul Gigot, and David Gergen. He was then paired with New York Times columnist David Brooks, who called Mark the “best of American liberalism” at his 2020 retirement and “one of the finest and beloved men I’ve ever known” at his passing.
At his funeral, I shared my first and last meetings with Mark Shields, and what I learned in between. For years, I was one of many who thought Mark was one of my best friends, though I had never actually met him. When I finally did, I took him at his request to visit Catholic Charities homeless shelters. He engaged with empathy, sharing his own story of alcoholism and recovery. Mark asked me what he could do to help, beyond writing a check. I said he could use his gifts as a speaker. Mark’s version of this story was that I asked him if he believed in free speech, and that when he said “yes,” I told him: “Good, you’re going to give one.” In fact, Mark did give many “free” speeches, including those through his regular participation in the annual Catholic Social Ministry Gathering, and as Public Dialogues at our Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University.
And for the last sixteen years, I spent Saturday mornings with Mark as I tried to join him on the path of recovery with others who treasured his friendship and his sober example.
Mark was not trendy. He thought a blue blazer, a striped tie, and a patterned shirt were high fashion. But when he died, he was trending on Twitter, as people praised his decency and mourned his passing. We used to joke that there were only three of us left on AOL and we didn’t know who the other one was. No, Mark wasn’t trendy, but rather traditional in the best sense: principled and loyal, consistent and persistent, not shifting with the wind or following the elite consensus.