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Mark Shields
Mark Shields
13 Feb 2016
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The "Real" Paul Kirk


Let me begin with a confession. On Aug. 28, 2009, the Friday following the death of Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, on PBS's "NewsHour With Jim Lehrer," David Brooks of The New York Times and I were asked by Judy Woodruff: If somehow Massachusetts Democrats were able to change their state law that denied the state's governor the authority to fill the vacant Senate seat, who then might be appointed to the Senate by Gov. Deval Patrick?

David and I agreed that it would require a nominee of "towering reputation" to overcome the taint of being viewed as the beneficiary of a sleazy, back-room deal.

We both mentioned Michael Dukakis, the former governor and 1988 presidential nominee, and I then added, "Paul Kirk, somebody like that who is respected across the board."

There is absolutely no evidence that Patrick saw, heard or paid any heed to my "nomination" of Kirk. I mention it just to admit upfront that, since I first met him working in California for Robert Kennedy's 1968 presidential campaign, I have liked Paul Kirk, who for the next four months will be the junior senator from Massachusetts.

The first thing you should know about Paul Kirk is that he is the soul of discretion. You will not see him, I'm willing to bet, on cable talk shows or calling press conferences. Rare for Washington, he has had a passion for anonymity and was generally so tight-lipped he "would not tell you if your coat was on fire." He keeps his word, and he would keep your secret.

OK, so he was a loyal friend and lieutenant to Ted Kennedy, but what kind of a leader will Kirk be on his own?

For that answer, you have to go back to 1985, the year after Ronald Reagan won a 49-state landslide re-election and Democrats' spirits were lower than a whale's ankles.

The national party was broke and widely viewed as a collection of coddled special interests.

The national Democratic Party then was constitutionally incapable of saying "no" to any semi-organized clique based loosely upon gender, ethnicity, occupation, geography or personal conduct that sought status as a sanctioned party caucus. Caucuses — seemingly from the Transvestite Taxidermists against the Metric System to the Irish-Jewish Federation for the Terminally Short — were forever issuing their own non-negotiable demands upon fearful party leaders. Chairman Kirk — over the noisy threats of caucus addicts — straightforwardly abolished Democratic Party caucuses.

He announced that the Democratic Party would again compete in the South by his decision that Atlanta would be the site of the party's 1988 national convention. He directed that the written party platform would no longer be an endless compilation of the wish lists of every influence-seeking faction.

Heading into the 1988 general election, the party was solvent, remarkably united and running on a platform that was a relatively succinct, if deliberately vague, statement of principles. Paul Kirk was one of the two best Democratic Party chairs I have ever watched.

But Kirk will hourly be reminded of the loss of his friend, the man whose seat he now occupies. He may recall the words written after Oliver Cromwell's agents assassinated the Irish chieftain Owen Roe O'Neill:

Sagest in the council was he, kindest in the Hall,

Sure we never won a battle — 'twas Owen won them all

Your troubles are all over, you're at rest on high;

But we're slaves and we're orphans, Owen — why did you die?

We're sheep without a shepherd, when the snow shuts out the sky —

Oh, why did you leave us, Owen? Why did you die?"

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




3 Comments | Post Comment
Thanks for your elegant history lesson, Mark. One always comes away from your columns with a gem or two of wisdom and new or previously overlooked information. Regarding the appointment of Mr. Kirk--it was a brilliant thing to do and if the Repubs think it isn't fair, well they should remember good old Jimmy Carter's famous observation that life just isn't fair. Of course the Repubs know that better than everyone else and sure appear lately like they want to keep it that way. Time for the Dems to emulate the Repubs by playing mean, and to distinguish themselves from the Repubs by displaying some competence.
Comment: #1
Posted by: Masako
Sat Sep 26, 2009 10:39 AM
Thank you for the fine introduction to Mr. Kirk. In many ways, I am enthusiastic about the 60th Democrat in the Senate. I believe he will be a superior choice. However, I fear we may be justifying a breach of character by its favorable outcome. Had the appointment been a right-wing extremist, we all would be screaming "foul play!" And we would be right. I believe Massachusetts should have played by their own rules and waited for the election as had been mandated when it was a Republican governor. Judging process by results is what the Bush Administration wanted to do so often. We must be true to our own standards or we are no better than those we condemn.
Comment: #2
Posted by: Mike Ohr
Sun Sep 27, 2009 8:35 AM
Sir;... God love you, and you are a good man, but you miss the entire point of a democracy...The object of democracy is not to build up chiefs that we cannot live without, but to find people with the honor to execute the will of the people, or resign... In our sham democracy all our districts are under represented, and so divided that only the leaders have real power... What shall the leader do??? If he votes with the minority, or votes with the majority, or follows the course money charts for him, he has cover...He may not forever be able to deny the will of the people, or their needs; but he can water down legislation, or not fund what he has voted for, or put its implimentation off for another day... The big money bets on no improvement of our general condition, and money always win...You sing in lamentation of the lost chief... We should have democracy... Look about you...In this land that makes a myth of the individual everyone follows the fashion of the day...Everyone talks the language of the day, and buys off the shelf...We praise the individual, and hate his guts... Who among us can be free enough to follow his own will, or do as he pleases??? Only the wealthy, and politicians are free...We can only direct the course of our government by the most indirect and inefficient means...In olden days the chief was nothing without his men, and he knew it, and kept a close touch upon their pulse...So long as chiefs like Caesar, and Napoleon, and hitler gave their people victory their positions were secure...When their stars faded they departed from the pages of life, and into history....And they left their lands destroyed, and fought over, and empoverished...If we were a democracy the chiefs such as we have would defer always to the will of the people... They would not divide their population so they could have personal wealth and privilage, but would seek unity so their whole people could have strength and survival... These people who divide us, your stock and trade, our politicians -are traitors to this people and to humanity... We have unity at a great price and it has been cashed in...Is it not one clearly stated goal of our constitution, and justly so??? These chiefs of ours have made the world hate us, and then divided us in the presence of the enemy... Where is the consensus and the seeking after consensus that is the mark of every successful democracy???. Consensus has been given up to have chiefs... We need the whole population to have the courage of a brave individual, and with the will to act as they see best... We cannot count on our chiefs, at long distance and with short money to make us virtuous or give us strength... If we are individuals really, then we should have the courage to act without chiefs or leaders or the support or consent of our neighbors... If the chiefs have wrecked our democracy then we should make our anarchy universal...Let us all take freedom and act freely until society decides it must organize again for justice, general welfare, liberty, tranquility, defense, and unity... Chiefs are the enemies of democracy no matter how much they ride the public will... Every person should be their own chief, and entirely in touch with their own political power... We should not give it to others, but only the authority to act as we would act, and then demand such action...The people must govern to have democracy...Thanks...Sweeney
Comment: #3
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Mon Sep 28, 2009 8:55 AM
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