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Journalist defends D.C. life

Ryan Sydlik | Monday, September 11, 2006

1959 Notre Dame alumnus Mark Shields, now a prominent CNN and PBS political commentator, shared his views on Washington D.C. politics to an enthusiastic crowd of over 70 people in the Hesburgh Center for International Studies auditorium on Friday.

Shields’ lecture was part of a promotion for Notre Dame’s Washington program – a United States-based alternative for sophomores and juniors to “study abroad” for a semester in Washington, D.C.

Shields, who majored in philosophy and history, is a veteran in the world of politics, having been a part of four presidential campaigns and covered seven others. He spoke Friday about the current state of affairs in Washington and how today’s realities compared to those of the past, mixing seriousness and humor to give his impressions of politics.

“I do come to you from Washington D.C., a city much maligned by many late night monologists, John Stewart among others,” he said. “I stand in defense of Washington D.C.”

Shields cited the recent bird flu epidemic as a “great issue” in the capital city and used that topic to compare the viewpoints of various Washington bigwigs.

“Secretary Don Rumsfeld wants to bomb the Canary Islands, Senator Hillary Clinton proving her hawkish credentials wants to nuke the Canary Islands and President [George W.] Bush wants to know where the Canary Islands are,” he said.

He later changed gears to emphasize the value of politics in modern life.

“I believe in politics; I believe that politics is nothing more and nothing less than the peaceable resolution of conflict among legitimate and powerful interests,” he said. “I don’t know in a nation as big, broad, sprawling, diverse and wonderful as ours, how else we would resolve our differences – except through the commitment, the care, the compassion, the sense of justice, the intelligence and the dedication of people involved in the political process.”

Shields spoke about the satisfaction he gets from the political process, and he encouraged others present to get involved.

“There is truly no enterprise in life, I believe, that compares to involvement in a political campaign … all emotions are laid bare,” he said. “I would encourage any and all of you … to get involved in politics. It is something that once it’s in your blood, it will be hard to get out.”

Shields said that most people go through life trying to avoid rejection facing quiet victories and defeats, but politicians are the only individuals who have rejection exposed publicly.

“I particularly like politicians who can accept the verdict of the voters … with dignity, with poise,” he said.

According to Shields, nobody exemplified that better than Dick Tuck of Los Angeles.

“The people have spoken, the bastards,” he said after losing a primary.

Shields then spoke about the very serious topic of courage, saying Harry Truman was exemplary for ending segregation in the armed forces despite numerous objections from Congress, because Truman thought it was fundamentally unjust and un-American to discriminate against those fighting and dying for their country.

Shields spoke highly of several others who stood out in the political environment, past and present.

“I liked Ronald Regan because he was able to make fun of himself and neutralize his critics,” he said, despite the fact that Shields often disagreed with him.

Shields commended former majority leader Michael Mansfield for his work trying to restore the Republican Party’s position on civil rights after it was perceived as having sold out on the issue. Mansfield, Shields noted, had also served in all three military branches by the time he turned 20.

He also praised former four-star Marine general Anthony Zinni for his pre-war caveat. “When we go into Iraq and invade,” Zinni warned. “We shall become the Western, Christian, pro-Israeli invading and occupying a Muslim Holy Land.”

According to Shields, America’s leaders ought to have listened.

“I don’t know what part of that phrase George Bush and Don Rumsfeld don’t understand,” he said.

Shields said politics and government were at their best when working for justice, citing accomplishments of his era including the G.I. Bill and the cleaning of the Great Lakes from industrial pollution.

“I believe that politics at its best … can make ours a world where the powerful are more just, where the weak will be more secure,” he said.

Shields also said that this is the reason graduates of the University should be involved in politics.

“The fundamental questions you will face … will be confronted, and I hope resolved in the political and governmental area,” he said.

He said the greatest issues for Notre Dame students today are those of war and peace.

“The values of justice … that you learn here … are absolutely essential to that debate,” he said.

He offered his thoughts on war and then challenged the audience.

“War demands equality of sacrifice,” he said. “This is a war where all the sacrifice is being borne by less than one third of one percent of all Americans.

“That should be morally unacceptable to Americans. I would hope that would be something you would think about and do something about.”

Before closing, he invoked the social and economic progress of the past and hope for the future through a new generation.

“Each of us has been warmed by fires we did not build, each of us has drunk from wells that we did not dig,” he said metaphorically. “Together with your energy, your idealism, your commitment, you can do a lot more.”

In a post-lecture interview, Shields reiterated his encouragement for Notre Dame students to go to Washington.

“Come to Washington,” he said. “Washington needs you, Washington needs Notre Dame, [and] Notre Dame needs Washington.

“Bring your passion, your energy, your idealism, your intelligence. They’re always in short supply.”