opinion web
Conservative Opinion General Opinion
Mark Shields
Mark Shields
6 Feb 2016
Cracking the Code of Campaign-Speak

"Do you ever get the feeling," asked humorist Robert Orben, "that the only reason we have elections is to … Read More.

30 Jan 2016
Is There Only One True Progressive?

Mark Shields is off this week. The following is a column by Joe Conason. In our polarized politics, the … Read More.

23 Jan 2016
The Man Who Drowned Democracy With 'Sewer Money'

Mark Shields is off this week. The following is a column by Joe Conason. This week marked the anniversary of … Read More.

Obama Without the Poetry


The late Adlai Stevenson of Illinois, a political leader of surpassing eloquence, once introduced John F. Kennedy, the man who defeated him for the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination, this way: "Do you remember that in classical times when Cicero had finished speaking, the people said, 'How well he spoke,' but when Demosthenes had finished speaking, they said, 'Let us march'?"

Stevenson's words came to mind after listening to President Barack Obama in his most recent hour-long nationally televised press conference on health care reform. The president was knowledgeable, well-spoken and, in the blunt words of one generally admiring Democrat, "tiresomely academic." Whatever one's reaction to Obama and his earnest lecture on health-care policy, nobody was confusing him with Demosthenes, which is to say that nobody was shouting, "Let us march."

In Stevenson's acceptance speech of the presidential nomination, he said memorably: "Let us talk sense to the American people. Let's tell them the truth that there are no gains without pains." After winning the presidency, Obama on "Meet the Press" appeared to faintly echo Stevenson when he said, "The kind of notion of shared benefits and burdens is something that I think has been lost for too long, and it's something that I'd like to see restored."

But that was then, and this is now. When asked, at the July 22 press conference, by Jake Tapper of ABC News about "the sacrifices that Americans might have to make" under his health-care reform plan, President Obama's answer demanded precious little in the way of blood, sweat or tears from his fellow citizens: "They're going to have to give up paying for things that don't make them healthier."

In the judgment of one respected Democratic professional who understandably did not want to be quoted by name: "The president's (nationally televised) case for health-care reform was dismal and boring.

His answers were not crisp and too long. Given the high stakes, there was nothing you would remember, no poetry."

It was Mario Cuomo who famously observed that politicians "campaign in poetry, but have to govern in prose." Still, when five out of six Americans do have health care coverage and when, according to a recent CNN-Opinion Research national survey, nearly three out of four of us said we were "generally satisfied" and not "dissatisfied" with our "health insurance coverage," any national leader who seeks to overhaul that admittedly flawed system had better be able to motivate and inspire.

In making his press-conference case, there was neither poetry nor music in Obama's words. He has yet to challenge us to rise above the self-centeredness of the "Me Generation" and the narrow, constant "Am I better off?" and instead to enlarge that test to "How are we doing?" To answer different questions: Are the strong among us more just? Are the weak among us more secure?

The current reports of health-care reform's death are greatly exaggerated. The Congress' failure to pass health-care reform legislation in some form before its month-long August recess is hardly the end of the world. It would be far more damaging to the ultimate prospects for reform if the Democratic leadership in the House or the Senate were to bring up a health-care bill and then not have the votes needed to pass it on the floor.

But if he is to persuade an electorate of mostly insured, mostly satisfied voters of the wisdom and the need to dramatically change that health-insurance system, the president must be a lot less like Cicero and a lot more like Demosthenes. He needs to convince us that, together, we "must march."

To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at




9 Comments | Post Comment
Sir;... When I am not wearing the droopy drawers of a retired Ironworker, I am wearing the soft shirt and jammy bottoms of a Moralist... As a moralist I understand something essential to moral behavior...There is no rational argument for moral behavior... Behind all of the rhetoric of Mr. Obama is an argument for morality... You see that so few escape medical attention entirely because even while the insurance companies throw people to the wolves, the government goes broke trying to give moral treatment to all without insurance...In arguing for moral treatment of others Mr. Obama is missing the fact that we no longer have a common community in America, and no common nation... Why should the whites cover the blacks???.Why should the rich pay for the poor???Why should the young cover the old, or the old cover the young... Reason is always reasonable for the individual...Injustice is always justified for the individual...When people act morally it is not reasonable, but is irrational... What kind of fool risks his life for another??? What sort of intellect lets himself get hung on a cross for humanity???When people do good it is not because of the rewards, or the consequences, but because of a human connection... ...I went to a viewing yesturday, and I could well go to a funeral today... The man was an smooth Operator, and a Roman with the name of Tom Boyd...He never much cared for me...I date our friendship to a few kind words spoken many years ago...The guy was decent, and a professional... He died for riding a vintage Husquavarna in a race...He was a winner of national events in the past, but his front tire got stuck in a rut, and he went over the handle bars, and that was that for his poor neck...The thing is, that this 64 year old Roman made the decision, and he faced his death like a man, and told them to pull the plug...It was not just the indignity of wasting away life like super man, sitting in his own crap until some one made a point of taking care of it...People can live like that...It was: To not have all the wealth that was built up for thirty odd years dribbled away paying for pointless treatments, and expensive co-pays...Considering the future, this man, long on courage, faced reality, and accepted consequences. ...Too often, those who make such heroic choices are truly poor...They loose limbs that might be saved because that is what the government will afford...They do not run to the doctor when they hurt, but see one in time to die...They do not see the shrinks they need, but self medicate, and instead of costing the medical system, they cost the criminal justice system...Sooner or later, health problems spill over into the general sense of injustice that palgues us... Sooner or later, the price of private wealth can be measured in life and death, in pain and illness....It is not all money...We universally value money, but we need to value life and health if we will have national health care, and that is the rational argument...You cannot tell people what, or who to value...The dollars they would shoot out of a cannon if it would save their lives they pinch till the presidents puke...How do you teach such people that other human being suffer as they, and cling to their miserable existences as though the greatest of treasures...Some people look at the poor, and wonder why they don't just work and die, and ask for nothing more... If it were our family, and we had some reason to care for them, then we would feel differently, and the difference would be morality... We HAVE to connect to care...And the whole point of our political system has been to divide the people upon every possible line so that political power could be held over each side...It is on these lines of division that every injustice in America rests...Upon these injustices all fortunes have been lost and built... Our problem is not how to make America well, or how to keep us solvent in the process of staying well; but how to put this Humpty Dumpty people back together again...No morality is possible without community..How can we be made whole???.We need a real community, and a real nation in this country... We cannot have unity, of heart and spirit, so long as we must do so over the agents of division in government...One goal of government is perfect union...Not really...That is a stated goal, but the real goal is more obvious... And it should be pointed out that this division, which has cost the great masses of the people their wealth, is now costing many lives, and it will cost more...Reason divides us... We need that common feeling, and no person can pull that out of their ear... It would be great if the government were not working against the people, and making unity impossible...We have government to make everything impossible possible...Now our government makes everything possible impossible... It is not a rock of ages, but just another impediment to progress...If the government can do no good, it should leave... And I know they will not leave on their own...But they should be gone...Thanks...Sweeney
Comment: #1
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Sat Jul 25, 2009 5:59 AM
One big difference between Obama and Adlai Stevenson is that Obama got elected. Yes, his press conference speech may have been academic, but is that all bad? He gave the American people facts that have been sorely neglected in the health care debate. He explained why the status quo is not acceptable - maybe not marching orders but reason to march.

Even David Brooks said Obama is being effective in Congress. Perhaps the best Obama needs do with the public is keep them from marching against.
Comment: #2
Posted by: Ellen Rubert
Sat Jul 25, 2009 10:25 AM
Mr. Obama has indeed set the stage for getting tough. He's tried to be nice, he's bent over backwards to that miserable herd of non-leaders in Congress, and he's turned the other cheek to those right wingers exhorting us to make his presidency fail and sounding like they are just about a step or two away from calling for outright overthrow of the government.

It is indeed time for the gloves to come off, and no one will blame him for taking them off except those who have been dedicated to bringing him down from the start. In fact, some of us are starting to fear that he can't stand up to a real fight. He needs to talk straight, and he needs to say things about healthcare with a directness people have not heard before. He needs to speak with the same stature he marshalled with his "race" speech during the campaign. His main message: We are falling behind the rest of the civilized world.

He needs to say that, and the misery of healthcare iin the U.S. is just about the best illustration of the point, although if one asks ordinary citizens whether they'd like their taxes to go toward building a new bullet train instead of a new battle ship the point will get across just about as well. He needs to tell us, nicely, what idiotic consumers we are, what chumps--take a look at what's happening in the rest of the world--they're leaving us in the dust!

He needs to talk about typical situations in Europe or Japan where someone who loses their job stil gets healthcare, and how that gets paid for: How they go to the doctor, what kind of quality to they receive in their medical care, how they pay for it, do they ever get a bill, etc. No one can picture what "healthcare reform" really means. He needs to paint the picture so that it sticks so clearly in people's minds they can't get it out--especially when they're making a trip to the doc's office, or perhaps realizing they can't afford to.

And if he really wants to be the FDR of the century he needs to dump that hooey about how we could go to a single payer system if we were starting from scratch and admit that starting from scratch is our only hope to get rid of this miserable, inexcusable, barbaric system of non-health care that has us all in a python's death grip. We must stop trying to slither our way out--our captor is far better at that than we are. Our only chance is to slit that damn snake's throat.
Comment: #3
Posted by: Masako
Sat Jul 25, 2009 11:29 AM
Re: Masako;...Sir, owning a Python gave me a lot of respect for rats... Even if they could not escape they would use their last strength to dig in their teeth, and fight back...The disappointment of this land is the great number who simply give up and blame themselves...People give up all they have worked for, and that their families have worked for without ever realizing they were playing a fixed game they we never expected to win...I had a cat for a while, and one day the snake got hungry and hit the cat...I tried to peel him off the cat, but the cat just gave up, and went all glassy eyed...I thought; If you're not going to fight for your life, why should I...America should fight for its life, and grab everything hard in the process... For too long we have been taking promises instead of a ring...We have been taking an IOU instead of money on the check...Now they ask who is going to pay... Well, who has all our money??? They have run this place broke....They are not broke... They can bear some taxes... But the taxes the majority pay run them ever closer to poverty...What ever happened to the rich supporting the country???The place was made with them paying all the support, and now they won't pay any... Trust me on this... Rats got more spunk as a species than the whole of America's brave people... We have been lucky so far, but if the python has us, it is time to agree...Let's all role over and play dead until reality makes our play our reality...Meow...Thanks...Sweeney
Comment: #4
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Sat Jul 25, 2009 6:55 PM
Re: James A, Sweeney. You're right, America's brave people seem to have lost something. It may be the human race as a whole, as we continue like rats to breed ourselves into a dangerously crowded cage. Maybe we don't deserve to be saved any more. I feel for all animals, even people, but I would have cut the snake's throat to save that cat without hesitation.
Comment: #5
Posted by: Masako
Sun Jul 26, 2009 10:17 AM
Re: Masako;...The cat was free, and the snake cost a lot of money... The same situation is true of our python, and your analogy.... The more money the government puts into propping up capitalism the more it will bend over to deny our rights to our government and to the products of our labor....The pet stores used to give me big old rats no one would ever call a pet... We just throw intractables into prison where their life expectancy actually improves...I'm telling you; I don't know what is keeping us all together here if not gravity...We hate each other, and the powerful, our priest and politicians feed that hatred to keep power... We need each other...We cannot live with all those who profit from our pain... If we rebuild this world there will have to be a few classes left out...We allow the churches and the press free...What do they do but use their freedom to attack the class most deprived of freedom...Mr. Shields is an exception, and there are other exceptions, but even he rather admire the sharp witted politician, when if that wit is not turned to the public good. and to education, it is wasted...We forget the meaning of nation, that it is one people, and we are not, and our government and our common spirit, of liberty and justice for all have not united us... Yet they must...Government must be the place where we resolve differences, and communicate instead of being the place where solutions are frustrated, and miscommunication is practiced to perfection...Thanks...Sweeney
Comment: #6
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Mon Jul 27, 2009 7:56 AM
Re: Ellen Rubert;...I hate to make this comparison, but Lincoln too, was roundly aboused, even by members of his cabinet; and yet, he was always their master, and usually the master of the situation...One must always sieze the possible out of every impossible situation...The congress should cross the Rubicon, and pass some kind of bill, and then give the congress the power to imrove or ruin it...There is no getting around the fact that what we have does not work and that even those happy with their coverage cannot afford it, and picking up the slack is killing the government...Either the government needs more money to do nothing, or it must have more to do some good...Thanks...Sweeney
Comment: #7
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Mon Jul 27, 2009 8:04 AM
Re: James A, Sweeney, second time around: Regarding those big rats no one would call a pet, how satisfactory it would be to feed about three quarters of those rodents in Congress to your python. And I count the "blue dog" democrats among the juiciest menu items. Save the rats, I say. And I agree, Mr. Shields has refreshing candor, reporting there as he does from the belly of the monster. Cheers and keep on giving em hell.
Comment: #8
Posted by: Masako
Mon Jul 27, 2009 8:08 PM
Re: Masako;...Sir, we give those rats their power, and it is power that makes them rats... The greatest change to the constitution has never passed the consent of the people... If we had one representative for every thirty thousand instead of the one representative for every 600K, the whole face of government would change... The Senate, the President, and the Supreme Court would be eating out of the hat of the house...They built a chamber for the house that is big enough to hold the Senate, but then they limited the number of members to increase their power... They limited their power because to have parties in power, huge numbers must be denied representation...A safe district is one where one party has five percent more supporters than the others... That leaves forty five percent without a voice...More than this, it makes the slim majority pliable to its extreme elements... The true elections are in the primary, even when they are a done deal most of the time...I wouldn't care if the house had to meet in the sun, in a foot ball stadium, or in a factory...If they do not represent their districts, and their system is designed to deny people their representation, and their consent, then their government is not legitimate... Those people can get away with giving themselves the best because they have too much inidividual power...They can deny us our rights because they have too much individual power... But if they were an army, with each one knowing the needs of their own small district, this country would not be tied up and raped repeatedly by bad government in bed with illegal business...We are divided by our government, and not united... We are divided so we can be ruled...But majority rule is not democracy...Democracy is self government, and we could have it here... We have the literacy, and the technology, and all we need is an understanding of the limits of government...Thanks...Sweeney
Comment: #9
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Tue Jul 28, 2009 7:20 AM
Already have an account? Log in.
New Account  
Your Name:
Your E-mail:
Your Password:
Confirm Your Password:

Please allow a few minutes for your comment to be posted.

Enter the numbers to the right: comments policy
Mark Shields
Feb. `16
Su Mo Tu We Th Fr Sa
31 1 2 3 4 5 6
7 8 9 10 11 12 13
14 15 16 17 18 19 20
21 22 23 24 25 26 27
28 29 1 2 3 4 5
About the author About the author
Write the author Write the author
Printer friendly format Printer friendly format
Email to friend Email to friend
View by Month
Marc Dion
Marc DionUpdated 8 Feb 2016
Mark Shields
Mark ShieldsUpdated 6 Feb 2016
Susan EstrichUpdated 5 Feb 2016

27 May 2011 Do Special House Elections Mean Anything?

6 Sep 2014 Exceptionally Good Luck

22 Sep 2007 Greenspan Is Right ... About Gerry Ford