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Mark Shields
Mark Shields
13 Feb 2016
Make America Great Again -- at Torture!

The undisputed front-runner for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination who, like every other remaining … Read More.

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30 Jan 2016
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Mark Shields is off this week. The following is a column by Joe Conason. In our polarized politics, the … Read More.

Strangers to Self-importance


This past week, I sat for an hour-long, one-on-one interview with Brian Lamb, the man who created C-SPAN, where citizens could see and hear, frequently unscripted, the public officials whose decisions shape and touch their lives.

Advised by the show's producer, Mike Holden, that Brian might ask me to name the memorable politicians whom I had met, I tried to figure what, beyond their all having been respected leaders during careers in the U.S. House of Representatives, Democrats Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill of Massachusetts and Morris K. "Mo" Udall of Arizona and Republican Gerald R. Ford of Michigan had in common. Each of these men, I concluded, was in the inspired phrase of the late, great columnist Mary McGrory: "a stranger to self-importance. "

It's true that Tip O'Neill is the only speaker of the House in history to hold that demanding post for 10 consecutive years. Though he was regularly invited into the company of presidents, prime ministers and popes, he never forgot the less-than-toney people from whom he came.

Speaker O'Neill, on the record and with the camera running, told me the following story. He was on the House floor when Eleanor Kelly, his secretary, told him that Eddie Anderson was on the phone. Although they had grown up in the same working-class neighborhood, O'Neill explained: "I haven't seen Eddie much since I was a kid, and to be perfectly truthful, life hasn't gone that well for Eddie. I figure he's got a problem, so I went to the phone.

"'Eddie, what's on your mind? I know you wouldn't be calling me unless you have a problem.' Eddie said, 'Listen, Tip, I'm in a bar in Somerville, and I told the guys that I went to school with Tip O'Neill ... They didn't believe me. They said, 'Get him on the phone.' Listen, Tip, will you say hello to my friends?'

"I said, 'Eddie, is that all you want?' And Eddie said: 'Listen, Tip, we love you. We're proud of you. And by the way, Tip, on C-SPAN, you look like W.C.

Fields up there."

The speaker immediately shook with laughter at the joke of which he was the butt.

Mo Udall was Congress' leading voice and legislator on both environmental protection as well as on political and campaign finance reform. He ran for president in 1976 and finished second to Jimmy Carter. Early in that year's campaign, before the New Hampshire primary, Udall recalled: "I was thousands of miles from home, with my car stuck in the snow. My advance woman urged me to shake hands in a nearby barbershop. I stuck my head in the door and blurted, "Mo Udall, I'm running for president!" The barber replied: "Yeah, I know. We were laughing about it just this morning." Mo never even met self-importance.

I worked for Mo Udall in that 1976 campaign and believe he would have been an excellent president. But because he was so wise and so sane, Udall could never convince himself that the fate — make that the survival — of the Western World depended upon his election to the White House. The Oval Office could always benefit from a large dose of self-deprecating wit.

The definitive Jerry Ford story was written by the late Jim Naughton, a wonderful journalist, who aware of the difficulties Ford's son, Jack, had in adjusting to life in the White House, had, after watching Jack campaign for his dad for a couple of days, written, as Naughton recalled in his memoir, a piece that said "Jack Ford was better at campaigning than his old man."

Summoned during the next campaign trip to a private audience with Ford, Naughton, instead of enduring any words of presidential displeasure with the story, instead heard Ford say, "Betty and I really want to thank you," confiding that Naughton's piece had convinced them that their son "had turned a corner and would be OK."

"That was the real Jerry Ford," Naughton wrote. "In the middle of a fight for survival in his party's most important contest, he was meeting me not as the president, but as a parent, a caring father. "Three exceptional public men, and each a stranger to self-importance.

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




3 Comments | Post Comment
Sir;... I think if I were a politician, I would soon lose my sense of self, and my honor between the will of the people and the need to fund my re-election...We hear of politicians voting on principal... What in the hell is principal but going against the will of those who elected you???... It is one thing to get elected on your honor, but what is your honor if it does not mean representing faithfully the will and needs of your electors...
Now, for that democratic body, that one that is supposed to reflect the will of the people, the problem of representation has been made fatal by districts too large and deliberately divided by gerrymandering... In every safe district, the margin is only a difference of 5% of the vote as I understand it, on average; but it is enough to make the districts into rotten boroughs...
This wide spread effort of state and national parties to control government by mastering a slim majority, and to victimize, and deny government to that other portion of the population is backfiring on the parties with a vengeance... The slim majorities kept by radicalization are now radicalizing government to such an extent that it will not work...Is it even possible for representatives to represent fairly such vast numbers??? Is it just, or wise for parties to regularly on both sides deny so many a representative of their choice???...
WE know, on numbers alone that the republicans would not own control of the house were it not for their gerrymandering, but would it be more fair if the shoe were in the other mouth???...Not one of these parties has a greater claim to fairness or better representation, and it was a concerted effort on their part that led to a fixed number of representatives- which means far less representation per person than our founding fathers had...
The house was meant to grow... That end of growth spelled the end of democracy and the rise or partocracy...I do not expect the house to mend its ways...I do not expect any of these selfless politicians to give up a particle of their power to the people, even though the result would be a people and a house of representatives more powerful than the presidency, or the supreme court...I do expect the government to die on account of too little representation given to the people...
No representative has any business representing his party in congress... Every one of them should vote the will of their people, as impossible as the parties have made that act... If they find it necessary to go against the will of the people they should resign if they cannot change the will of the people... They are not entitled to principals other than the principal that they should do as they are told, as loyal servants of their electors... This would be so much easier done, if their districts were small, and undivided... They might not get all they want, but then, why would others be voting on issues concerning only them???
Part of this point is, that representatives from divided districts can go either way on votes, and hide behind principals; but when people say it is the principal of the thing and not the money, it is always the money... Too few representatives makes the house a seller's market, and no ones price should ever exceed the value of their honor... The only way to lower the price of a representative is to increase their number... It is a matter only of supply and demand...
Comment: #1
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Fri Jan 25, 2013 6:31 AM
You've been on a nice ride Mark.
Right on, Sweeney. Well said. You've articulated beautifully the problems and fearlessly state conclusions and opinions I'm in total agreement with. Anyone who thinks or argues our government is what it started out to be or that our government is by the people and for the people or that any but the wealthy have representation or equal representation is just...well, probably very happy in their delusion.
Some stats I find interesting:
Section 2 of the Constitution prescribes no more that one representative for each 30,000 people.
No MORE than one for each 30k.
Many misinterpret that as one for each 30K.
2010 Census shows, each Representative in the House of representatives represents 'a section' of their state that has a population of about 700,000 people. 700 thousand! One person representing seven hundred thousand!!
The House of Reps holds 435, Senate 100. 535 Representatives deciding the fate of >300million. Astounding!
Now compare that to 1800 census, when the population was 5.3 million and each Congressman represented just 50,000
Close to 900,000 of that 5.3 million were slaves so they're not factored in.
If we were to meet the criteria of one for each 30k it would require approximately 10,400 representatives for the <312,000,000 US citizens.
Couldn't we do better if we had at least one for each 300K? Wouldn't that come a little bit closer to representing the people?
And yet, even while representing over 700,000 people each, our "representatives" are only required to work 100 - 110 days annually and outright bribery and selling votes is accepted as "how we get things done in Congress and the Senate".
"It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly American criminal class except Congress." -- Mark Twain, 1894
Think I'll just have to check back here every so often to read all the naysayers comments. We both know they're coming.
Comment: #2
Posted by: morgan
Sat Jan 26, 2013 10:38 AM
Re: morgan....Large districts reflect many different interests, each entitled to a vote and a voice speaking up for them... Instead the parties divide people in gross, and now even want to base presidential votes on gerrymandered districts... It does not matter how many representatives there are if we have democracy... First, people have to learn to not vote on issues that do not concern them... Not all issues are national, but the parties make them so...
Then; even vast forums can agree... 70K people may fit into basketball stadium, and all agree on who won and who lost... Republicans are finding themselves powerless against the radicalism they have spawned, and though they have divided their districts to make them safe, they are anything but... Government is not working for anyone, and the method so long used of counting on brand loyalty and giving the people no choice is leaving the whole population angry, sullen, and in a slow burn...
Government has got to work... It can not all be an exercise of ideologues mastering ideology... Good has got to come out of it, and my friend Mr. Shields, is too hooked into the nostalgia of days of comity... Those days are passed...The fast way to make things work is for the house to take its proper constitutional position, and this would require the members in office now to reverse former house rules, and sacrifice a little of personal power for the power of the institution... If the house would work, almost everything would work...
Thanks...And Best to Ya.... Sweeney
Comment: #3
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Sat Jan 26, 2013 4:10 PM
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Mark Shields
Mark ShieldsUpdated 13 Feb 2016
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