Last weekend was going to be sad, no matter what. Our beloved 14-year-old rescue mutt passed away on Thursday. As a friend remarked to me Monday, pets take up such a small space but occupy a big place in your heart. Sunday marked the 10th anniversary of my Dad’s death. One of our two sons, David, was grieving over the 10th anniversary last Wednesday of a favorite Army sergeant, Nicholas Fredsti, who was killed on a patrol during their deployment to Afghanistan in 2012.
It was in this sad frame of mind Saturday afternoon that an email arrived from a friend letting me know that our friend Mark Shields had passed away that day, attaching a photo he had taken of me and Mark at an event in Washington years ago.
Many know Mark for his 33 years as a mainstay on the PBS NewsHour, paired on Friday nights with David Brooks for the last 19 years before he stepped back in December 2020 at the age of 83. Before that, Mark had been a Marine, a Democratic campaign consultant, an editorial writer for The Washington Post, and later a nationally syndicated columnist, hosting several television shows along the way. Mark had a heart of gold, yet a wicked wit along with a keen sense of justice, something that really came through in both his Post and New York Times obituaries.
Mark was one of those who helped this young Capitol Hill staffer who quit his job in early 1984, withdrew the $6,000 he had in his Senate-employee retirement account, and with a $10,000 bank loan cosigned by his father-in-law started a political newsletter. Early many afternoons, I would excitedly call my wife, Lucy, at work to report any new subscriptions that had come in that day. If by late afternoon she had not heard from me, she knew the mail brought no new subscriptions. I could tell when she was getting nervous about money. She would buy a lot of chicken and pork for the freezer, like a squirrel stocking up nuts for a cold winter. She was (and is) a real trooper.
At a number of points, I seriously considered throwing in the towel and “getting a real job.” Along with Democratic pollster Peter Hart, Shields was one of a handful of people in Washington journalism who gave me encouragement and opportunities in a way that made all of the difference. I will never be out of their debt.
In terms of bullet points on a résumé or in a bio, key breaks for me were when Bob Merry gave me my first column at Roll Call in 1986, just two years after I had started The Cook Political Report. A dozen years later, National Journal Publisher John Fox Sullivan convinced NJ’s owner David Bradley to lure me over from Roll Call. Roll Call put me on the map; National Journal went far to feed, house, clothe, and educate our kids.
Al Hunt, then Washington bureau chief of The Wall Street Journal and later of Bloomberg News, was a relentless and shameless promoter of my cause. I am convinced that more than a few Journal reporters were ordered to call me for quotes for pieces they were working on, or to fish around for story ideas. Each mention was a deposit into my Washington credibility bank. Hunt and Shields were the closest of friends, sharing season tickets for many Georgetown Hoyas and Washington Nationals campaigns. In recent months, Hunt was taking Mark for his weekly dialysis—that's what half-century friends do.
Hunt's wife, Judy Woodruff, then the co-host of CNN’s must-see daily weekday show Inside Politics, had me and my direct competitor and dear friend Stu Rothenberg on almost every week. Stu had taken over a different struggling newsletter and turning it around—what became The Rothenberg Political Report. At the end of this year, Judy is stepping down from her position as anchor of the remarkable PBS NewsHour, capping off an amazing 50-year career in television news. In the early 1990s, Tim Russert took a chance putting me on Meet the Press. Fourteen years ago last week, Tim tragically died at just 58 years old. It was in the midst of the fascinating and historic 2008 presidential campaign—a blow to millions of NBC viewers who valued his rigorously researched, tough but never snarky questions. Later that year, while driving in midtown Memphis, I saw on a big sign in front of a liquor store, usually hawking what was on sale, the question, “How can we have a presidential election without Tim Russert?”
Recognizing, acknowledging, and thanking people while you still can is so important, and so is paying it forward, helping those coming up behind you. Mark’s "Keep at it, kid, you’re doing great” and Hart’s “Keep it up” still ring in my mind. An important lesson for all of us is that few succeed without help from others. You honor those who helped you by continuing the practice.
There were few conversations I ever had with Mark, either in person or on the phone, that did not end with the words, “Take good care.” If it was in person, he would look you in the eye while saying it and usually have his hand on your arm. It’s that kind of warmth and compassion that people never forget.
The article was originally published for the National Journal on June 21, 2022.
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