National Catholic Register


Pro-life Democrat, Mark Shields Doesn’t Flinch

Defense of the unborn 'is part of' Catholic social teaching

BY William Murray

January 19-25, 1997 Issue | Posted 1/19/97 at 2:00 PM


Mark Shields, 59, is a veteran of many political campaigns. A native of Weymouth, Mass., and an alumnus of the University of Notre Dame, Shields worked for Sen. Robert Kennedy (D-N.Y.) in the Nebraska, Oregon and California (where he was assassinated) presidential primaries of 1968. He has held leadership positions in political campaigns in 38 states, including that of Ohio Gov. John Gilligan, who won in 1970. Shields also directed Sen. Edmund Muskie's (D-Maine) run for the 1972 Democratic presidential nomination.

In 1979, he turned to newspaper and television journalism. After a two-year stint as a political editorial writer and columnist for The Washington Post, Shields started writing a syndicated column—which has run now for 15 years—and began appearing on NBC and CBS News. He appears as principal analyst, with Paul Gigot, on the MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour and as moderator on CNN's program, Capital Gang.

Shields and his wife recently celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary. They have a 24-year-old daughter who has taught at an inner city Catholic boys'school in Boston.

One of the county's most prominent pro-life Democrats, Shields recently spoke with the Register at his Washington office.

Register: How did you arrive at your pro-life position?

Shields: I hope that my Catholic teaching and faith have influenced and shaped my public attitudes and personal philosophy in a preference for the poor; economic and social justice; and support for civil rights. It's a part of a whole: I can't say I came to my pro-life position separately from other Catholic teaching.

I always felt the case made by Cardinal Bernardin for the “seamless garment;” was persuasive and totally consistent with the economic and social teachings of the Church. His death is an enormous loss for the Church and the country. I wish I could say there was an epiphany in arriving at my pro-life stance. “There I was waiting for the Metro (subway train) late at night and had this remarkable insight,” but I can't. I've been writing more lately about how pro-choice became the dominant position in the Democratic party and how the prolife argument has been stifled.

Pennsylvania Gov. Robert Casey being prevented from addressing the Democratic Convention in 1992, for example?

I couldn't believe that the governor of one of the biggest states was denied the chance to speak. At first, they said it was because he hadn't endorsed Clinton, but they allowed the Republican pro-choice woman who ran against Casey in 1990 a chance to speak at their convention.

I remember managing Sargeant Shriver's campaign in 1972 (as George McGovern's running mate) and Casey showing up in Pennsylvania, where he was solicitor general. We were about to have our heads handed back to us in the election in every state. When you're working in a campaign that's doing so poorly, you remember the people who showed up because everyone else had bizarre excuses for why they couldn't be there. “Gee, I'd love to be with you, but my nephew's graduating from driving school.” Bob Casey's loyalty and fidelity to the Democratic Party is long established. The fact that he was deprived of a chance to speak was offensive to me.

Do you think the country is pro-life or pro-choice?

It's not unique to me, but there's the insight that America is pro-choice but antiabortion. When you ask Americans “what about a woman who consults with her conscience, her confessor and her physician who faces a difficult, painful choice— should that be illegal?” They say “no.” But when you ask them what they think about abortion, they say “I hate it.” So there's this enormous ambivalence about the issue.

There's no question that the advocates of legalized abortion have been, for the most part, more comfortable dealing with the media. They have access to the media, by virtue of their educational, social and economic backgrounds. They've been able to frame the debate. As long as the debate is about who is deciding, it favors the prochoice side. When it shifts to what is being decided, then the pro-life position becomes a lot stronger and more persuasive.

Was that the case with partial-birth abortion?

Yes. What was being decided on was so much like a baby that the act itself was so gruesome to so many people that it became a horrendous act. It is an issue that goes without being debated in most upperincome, upscale circles. The assumption is that you're pro-choice because you believe in women's rights, as opposed to robbing them of their opportunity.

They've also made their arguments to a very friendly audience in the media. The editor of political newsletter, a very smart Republican, said that on the press's part, there's a tendency to overanalyze the election results when a pro-choice candidate wins. If the pro-life candidate wins, they tend to ignore it and act like his being a pro-life candidate didn't play a role in the victory.

There's no diabolical conspiracy; it's more like the military service issue: People at Washington dinner parties don't know people who are serving in the military, just like they don't know pro-lifers. It's easy to caricature the other side when you don't know them.

Do any examples of that kind of caricaturing come to mind?

When the Webster v. Casey decision by the Supreme Court came down, the bias showed itself. On Nightline, they had Faye Waddleton, the president of Planned Parenthood representing the pro-choice side, and Randall Terry, the leader of Operation Rescue, for the pro-life side. Here's this drop-dead, gorgeous black woman who speaks like Winston Churchill, and there's Randall Terry. Everyone puts a face to a movement—we all do—by whom we quote. Wouldn't you rather have Helen Alvare, the U.S. bishops' pro-life spokeswoman, speak than Randall Terry? I sure would.

It's the messenger, not the message.

What is your sense of where the partial-birth abortion ban issue will go from here?

The Democrats don't want sustaining the president's partial birth abortion to be a centerpiece of the 1996 election. Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) in late November said that he was going to push for legislation that would severely limit, circumscribe and define when partial birth abortion would be allowed, a move he feels 100 senators could support. I think that's an overly optimistic perspective on his part.

At some point, the pragmatic nature of Americans wins out. We are not a terribly ideological people, we are more pragmatic, with certain guiding principles. Our politics is not narrowly ideological, with a farmer's party, a religious party and a green party. We have two broadly-based parties. There's no question that partial-birth abortion is very unpopular with the population at large. If there's a follow-up campaign on it, it will be a losing issue for the Democrats.

What are your thoughts on the death penalty?

It's interesting to look at the public attitudes over the past 30 years. In 1963, three out of four Americans who where polled said they trusted the federal government to do what was right all of the time or most of the time. Ten years later, after President Lyndon Baines Johnson, Vietnam, Spiro Agnew and Watergate, the number went down to 49 percent of Americans. Athird of those who professed to trust the government changed their mind.

By 1983, it had dropped to 26 percent of Americans. Now, it's about one in five Americans who trust the federal government to do what is right all of the time or most of the time.

Part of the optimism and confidence many Americans had in the federal government apparently has to do with the death penalty. In 1963, a majority of Americans opposed the death penalty. Now, they overwhelmingly support it. Random acts of impersonal and threatening violence have contributed.

Some credit has to go to local television news, which loves to lead off the 11 o'clock news with the latest grisly murder. Crack cocaine and drugs have increased the level of violence in the inner cities. Cardinal Bernardin's message opposing the death penalty, to me, was admirable and courageous.

What should we look for in the next few years politically?

It's a pretty dismal time, frankly. (The '96 election) was a dismal campaign. Hubert Humphrey once said that the great thing about running for president is that you have a chance to tell people what's really important. It was a chance that was blown by Bill Clinton and Bob Dole. It was a very tactical race. Clinton positioned himself effectively against the excesses of the Gingrich-led Republican Congress. He became the remainder man, as it were, of reasonableness, protecting government legitimately. He was helped by the excesses of the other side, there's no question. And Dole never made the case for why we should change.

The issues went undebated. We've done a marvelous job of eliminating poverty among people older than 65 in this country. There are very few places in America where you can go today and not see widows having a nice lunch. We've extended the life expectancy through universal health coverage … those are great achievements. We're saying that if you make it to 65, you've got something to look forward to. But what about kids?

The tension in our political system right now is what I call the Protestant versus Catholic tension. Protestantism—and I don't mean any disrespect—is a more individualistic ethic. If you're a good person in your own right and are individually kind to the people around you, then you've fulfilled your mission. Whereas the [Catholic] sense of community is that we're all responsible for the good of the community; and that's also how we're judged.

How do you resolve that tension?

That's the struggle. It's a philosophical struggle as well. You can see it in America's history—the struggle between individualism and the responsibilities to the community. America is a nation that needs big dreams and big ambitions, and we don't have any right now. The '96 campaign was not one of big dreams or big ambitions. In fairness to the leadership we have, it's tough—when only 28 percent of the people have confidence in the federal government— to launch a bold initiative. But the campaign that just passed was an opportunity lost.

There are good reasons to be suspicious of government, but there are a lot of things we should be proud of. Contributing to the suspicion, I think, is a divided government. For most of a quarter century, we had the Republicans dominating the White House and Democrats controlling Capitol Hill. The two parties didn't simply attack each other—which is fine—they also attacked that branch of government that the other party controlled. As a result, there was no celebration, no acknowledgment of our successes.

Can you give an example?

Take the environment. In 25 years, we have gone from a point where three-quarters of the nation's rivers and lakes were unswimmable and unfishable to one where three-quarters are swimmable and fishable. We saved the Great Lakes.

We removed 98 percent of the lead from the air, despite the direst warnings of our good friends in management and labor in Detroit that it was going to kill the automobile industry. Those stories go untold.

We have the greatest public university system in the world: Wisconsin, Michigan, California, Texas, Virginia. It's an amazing achievement. We started to build it in the middle of the Civil War—signed by Abraham Lincoln—at a time when only one-half of 1 percent of Americans had been to college.

The confidence required to do something about the problems that remain central to our society only comes from acknowledgment that we've succeeded in the past.

—William Murray