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Mark Shields, columnist and TV political commentator, dies at 85

Known for his witty political analysis, he was a syndicated columnist and a genial presence on television

Political analyst Mark Shields in 2004. (Melissa Cannarozzi/FTWP)
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Mark Shields, a onetime campaign manager who became one of Washington’s most respected political commentators, both as a syndicated columnist and as a genial liberal counterpart to several conservative sparring partners on the “PBS NewsHour,” died June 18 at his home in Chevy Chase, Md. He was 85.

The cause was complications from kidney disease, said his daughter, Amy Doyle.

Mr. Shields spent more than a decade working on Capitol Hill and managing Democratic political campaigns before turning to commentary in 1979, when he joined the editorial board of The Washington Post. He soon became a nationally syndicated columnist and a regular presence on television, eventually spending 33 years as a commentator at PBS.

The Wall Street Journal once called Mr. Shields one of the “wittiest political journalists in America” and “frequently the most trenchant, fair-minded, and thoughtful.” In a statement, PBS NewsHour host Judy Woodruff said, “Mark Shields had a magical combination of talents: an unsurpassed knowledge of politics and a passion, joy, and irrepressible humor that shone through in all his work.”

He was, by his own admission, a traditional Massachusetts liberal in the mold of one of his political heroes, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.). He helped organize Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign, which was gaining momentum before Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles in June 1968.

Thereafter, Mr. Shields tended to view politics with a touch of sorrow-filled regret. He often mused that if Kennedy had been elected, he would have become the most inspiring and transformative president in a generation. Instead, Mr. Shields measured the aspirations and achievements of later politicians with a bemused sense of humor, brushed with the disappointment of reality.

“I’ll go to my grave believing Robert Kennedy would have been the best president of my lifetime,” he told the New York Times in 1993.

As a political operative in the 1960s and 1970s, Mr. Shields worked in 38 states and managed John J. Gilligan’s victorious 1970 gubernatorial campaign in Ohio. He also directed one of the successful reelection campaigns of four-term Boston Mayor Kevin H. White.

By the late 1970s, Mr. Shields was a fixture in Washington. Waiters at the city’s old power-center restaurants — Duke Zeibert’s and Mel Krupin’s — gave him prime tables and knew his preferred order of crab cakes and Tab. (He stopped drinking alcohol in 1974.)

Mr. Shields stepped away from running campaigns after noting that most of his candidates lost. He joked that he had written more concession speeches than anyone else in Washington.

He began to blend his understanding of politics with his easy likability and gift for storytelling: “Remember the candidate who set fire to his hair with the blowtorch dedicating the sheet metal factory? There we were, trying to stamp out his hair …”

In 1979, he contributed his first columns to The Post, presciently suggesting that President Jimmy Carter’s reelection efforts were in trouble because he could not use the same campaign style that won him the presidency in 1976.

“His survival instinct will be to return to the strategy and tactics which won for him before,” Mr. Shields wrote. “In 1980, however, he won’t be able to drop in on a local activist and tell her something about himself. … What he is doing or not doing as president will eclipse whatever he is saying or not saying as a candidate in Sioux City or Manchester.”

Despite his liberal leanings, Mr. Shields was among the first pundits to predict that Republican Ronald Reagan would defeat Carter in 1980. After leaving The Post in 1981, he continued to write a syndicated column for 40 years.

In 1980, Mr. Shields became the host of weekly political talk show, “Inside Washington,” that was carried on public television stations. He interviewed Republican and Democratic lawmakers and, in a now-obsolete display of bipartisan camaraderie, remained on friendly terms with nearly all of them, including House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) and Republican Sen. Alan K. Simpson (Wyo.).

“He brings a real breath of fresh air to that kind of activity,” Simpson told The Post in 1983. “He’s a dragon-slayer, and he has a spirited, light, pungent, wry kind of humor.”

After “Inside Washington” folded in 1983, Mr. Shields appeared on other panel shows, such as “Capital Gang,” where he was a regular from 1988 to 2005. He joined the “PBS NewsHour” in 1987.

Never a fan of Republicans, Mr. Shields could nevertheless be a scourge to his fellow Democrats. During Bill Clinton’s presidency, he quipped that “George Washington was the president who could never tell a lie; Richard Nixon was the president who could never tell the truth; and Bill Clinton is the president who cannot tell the difference.”

In one of his final appearances on “NewsHour” in 2020, Mr. Shields noted that the Democratic Party had traditionally been the political home of lunch-pail, working-class White men. The problem facing the party in the 21st century, he said, “is one of attitude as much as it is of platform. I mean, the Democrats, that were once a shot-and-a-beer party have become a sauvignon blanc party arguing about which wine is more sensitive.”

He found little humor, however, in the administration of President Donald Trump.

“I mean, what this president has done is not outrageous. It’s not indefensible. It’s criminal,” Mr. Shields said on “NewsHour” in 2019, during the first impeachment inquiry into Trump. “He has totally abdicated, abrogated and corrupted his oath of office.”

Throughout his career, Mr. Shields often matched wits with conservative commentators Robert Novak, Patrick Buchanan, David Gergen, Paul Gigot and, for almost 20 years at the “PBS NewsHour,” New York Times columnist David Brooks.

In 2012, he and Brooks received an award for “civility in public life,” presented by Pennsylvania’s Allegheny College. Accepting the honor, Mr. Shields said his evenhanded approach was encouraged at “NewsHour,” first by hosts Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer and later Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifill.

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He said he sought to remember that “in every discussion that the person on the other side probably loves their country as much as you love our country; that they care about their children’s and grandchildren’s future as much as you do; that they treasure the truth as much as you do; and that you don’t demonize somebody on the other side.”

Mark Stephen Shields was born May 25, 1937, in South Weymouth, Mass. His father worked in sales for a paper company, and his mother had been a teacher.

His family was immersed in the Democratic politics of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, and Mr. Shields grew up reading five newspapers a day. He graduated in 1959 from the University of Notre Dame, then served in the Marine Corps for two years.

(He said that profit-hungry corporations should adopt the Marines’ philosophy that enlisted personnel always eat before officers.)

Mr. Shields then moved to Hollywood, where he worked for a company that rounded up studio audiences for TV shows. He came to Washington in 1964 and was on the staff of Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.) before becoming a campaign worker.

Mr. Shields retired from “NewsHour” in December 2020 and gave up his column in 2021. He taught at the University of Pennsylvania and Georgetown University and was in demand as a speaker and emcee. He was a longtime member of the National Press Club and the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church in Washington.

Survivors include his wife of 55 years, the former Anne Hudson, a lawyer and federal official; their daughter, Amy Doyle; and two grandchildren.

Mr. Shields noticed that many candidates for federal office ran on a platform of how much they despised Washington. But once elected, they tended to stick around. He quoted a line from Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.) as if it were an immutable law: “There are only two ways people leave Washington. By the ballot box or the undertaker’s box.”