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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
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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.

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.

The Political Press's Dirty Little Secret


DES MOINES, Iowa — Remember back a short two months to October, when New York Sen. Hillary Clinton was coasting confidently — even inevitably — toward the Democratic presidential nomination? Polls in the first two state contests, Iowa and New Hampshire, in addition to national surveys, all showed her with comfortable — bordering on lopsided — leads over Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and 2004 vice presidential nominee John Edwards. The press had an explanation for that near-total Clinton dominance.

With a stunning uniformity, we in the political press corps marveled both in print and on the air at the "flawless," "professional," "masterful" and "exceptionally disciplined" campaign that Hillary Clinton, a skilled and unflappable candidate, had assembled and led. By contrast, the campaigns of her trailing opponents, while committed and enthusiastic, it was regularly reported, simply could not compete with the professionalism, the personnel and the remarkable political sophistication of the Clinton juggernaut.

Now with barely two weeks left in the Iowa campaign, the Clinton candidacy has stumbled. Her once-commanding leads in Iowa and New Hampshire have disappeared. Campaign staffers have had to resign — and Clinton, herself, forced to publicly apologize — for negative statements made and circulated about her leading challenger, Obama. There are reports of tensions and possible personnel shake-ups involving the leadership of the front-runner's campaign. Suddenly, the Obama and Edwards campaigns are getting more positive and respectful press coverage.

Here, you have on public display the dirty, little secret of the political press corps (of which I remain a card-carrying member). Every four years, and more often when necessary, the political press relies upon the identical formula to explain the outcome of the presidential contest: The campaign manager, staff and counselors of the winning candidate are truly brilliant, uniquely in touch with the nation's mood and shrewder at every turn than their opposite numbers on the other side.

It's simple — winners are geniuses and losers are seriously flawed humans.

Here, after the last candidates' debate before the caucuses, I asked David Axelrod, Obama's strategist, what had happened in the last two months that had miraculously transformed him from a Chicago provincial, an overmatched amateur, not quite ready-for-prime-time, into the suddenly diabolically clever David gravely threatening the Clinton Goliath in Iowa and New Hampshire. His answer is a cautionary note for all those with press passes reporting on this campaign: "You're never as smart as you look when you're winning, and you're never really as dumb as you look when you're losing."

Axelrod is right. Everybody — that's right, everybody — is an amateur at running for president.

When George W. Bush won a majority of the popular vote and a second term in 2004, what was the press' explanation? Simple: Karl Rove was a political genius. And when an unpopular President Bush and his stewardship turned into the albatross that cost the GOP control of Congress, what was the consensus? Karl Rove was manifestly no longer a genius.

Get ready. If the Iowa Republican winner turns out to be overwhelmingly outspent former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabe, we will read about his "dedicated band of gifted 'country-slickers,' who grasped the moment and the momentum to write political history," etc., etc., etc. Or maybe it will be Mitt Romney's "coolly composed professionals on a mission" or maybe even Fred Thompson's "indomitable, inventive believers, who ignored the scoffs of opponents and the media to turn the political world on its ear."

There you have it, the dirty little secret of the political press to explain the outcome of our national elections.

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




3 Comments | Post Comment
Dear Mr. Shields:
I have enjoyed and benefited from your commentary on the Lehrer News Hour for years, and I have recently begun reading your online essays. Because of your passionate, modest, and always insightful commentary, I think you are one of our national treasures!
I have recently established a simple blog entitled "," on which I provide information about online resources as well as book reviews for Democrats. My goal is to try to bridge the gap between the highly educated "reading" class and Americans who could probably be better informed if guided toward the right material. Currently on my blog are reviews of Al Gore's "The Assault on Reason" and Barbara Ehrenreich's "Nickled and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America," and I am currently reading John Dean's "Broken Government," which I hope to review in a couple of days. I also have about two dozen other recent books in-house that I plan to review.
I hold a graduate degree in political economy (though most of my career was in technical and business writing), and I have a fairly broad exposure not only to the political and economic literature but also to the humanities. I think I have a somewhat ironic though not off-putting writing style--my goal is not to shock but to engage readers. I am currently working with the local county Democratic Party organization and have asked them if they will link to my blog on their Web site, which I think will happen. However, I do not know if my reviews deserve broader exposure. Would you consider looking at my work to see if you think I should seek to reach out? (You can scroll past the upfront information.) It should only take about 10 minutes of your time.
Whatever your response, I will continue to be an ardent fan and reader of your opinions.
With utmost respect,
Ray E. Hardesty
Comment: #1
Posted by: Ray E. Hardesty
Wed Dec 19, 2007 2:46 PM
You know Mark, I expect that garbage from Lehrer and Brooks. I thought we elected leaders for what they could do to lead the country and make the lives of ordinary citizens better. Look what we got because a slim majority of American thought they would rather go have a beer with Bush than Kerry. Hillary Clinton want to move this country forward. But hey, the free market will solve everything; Just ask Nataline (Natalee, seems the MSM can't get anything correct) Sarkisyan.
Comment: #2
Posted by: Leo Dohogne
Fri Dec 21, 2007 5:58 PM
Dear Mark, I would like to relay an observation that I think is very important and one that I have not seen or heard by anyone so far. The short observation is that "THE SOUTH" is " GREECE. I have broached the idea that since the end of the Civil War till right now, the Northern and in recent years "The Blue" states have subsidized the South and many Western States (Alaska, need I say more). Higher wages, and taxes, etc, going to the Federal Government, and then going to the States that have low wages and low taxes. It is like having your wife's brother in law living in your basement and complaining about the cooking. I live in Missouri and have made the same case with people live outstate. St. Louis and Kansas City are the economic engines that drive the state, but we are hamstrung by outstate legislators. Souther Senators and Representatives scolding me about fiscal policy is hard to take. Your skill at pointing out that the electrification (TVA, super highway system (Ike), and now the information super highway (Gore , he really does deserve some credit) has been on the Blue State dime. Give the North the deal that the South has had for 155 years. Thank you Denny Clancy
Comment: #3
Posted by: dennis clancy
Sat Oct 29, 2011 12:40 PM
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