Wednesday, July 18 , 2018, 6:38 am | Overcast 64º


Mark Shields: The ‘Real’ Paul Kirk

The new junior senator from Massachusetts will be following a legend ... quietly

Let me begin with a confession. On Aug. 28, the Friday following the death of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., on PBS’ 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?

Mark Shields
Mark Shields

Brooks and I agreed 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 Kirk, who for the next four months will be the junior senator from Massachusetts.

The first thing you should know about 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 news 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 President 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. Kirk was one of the two best Democratic Party chairmen 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?”

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.

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