Pixel Tracker

Thursday, January 17 , 2019, 7:38 pm | Fog/Mist 58º


Mark Shields: Isn’t It Time We Americans Got to Know Each Other?

The late Tom Pettit, who covered American politics so well for NBC News from John Kennedy in 1960 to Bill Clinton in 1992, was missed even more during this year’s uninspiring presidential campaign.

My personal favorite Tom Pettit professional moment was when he was interviewing Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz, who served in the Cabinets of both Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. Butz, an unrelenting critic of the food stamps program then under his department, unloaded on the “greedy” exploiters of food stamps he and his people were chasing down.

Pettit asked Butz if he knew anyone who had used food stamps. Butz spoke about how he was no stranger to supermarkets, that he accompanied his wife on the grocery shopping and that he had personally seen people at the checkout counter paying with food stamps.

Pettit pressed Butz: Did the secretary know anyone — personally — who depended on food stamps to feed her children? After an extended silence, the obviously displeased agriculture secretary answered the question, “No.” The only thing that followed was the close: “Tom Pettit, NBC News, Washington.”

This anecdote reminds me why the military draft between 1940 and 1973 educated so many of us about what it meant to be an American and, more important, tells me why in the second decade of the 21st century the United States desperately needs every 18-year-old American to give two years of national service, military or civilian, to their country.

First, a personal note: At Parris Island, S.C., in Marine Corps boot camp, for the first time in my life I slept in the same quarters with African-Americans and took orders, as a matter of course, from African-Americans. In that boot camp platoon, there were six college graduates, four young men who, given the option by juvenile courts, had chosen to enlist rather than have the judge impose a sentence and one of us, who proved to be both a gentle giant and a superb rifleman, who had never gone beyond the eighth grade.

We were mostly Catholics from the North or Baptists from the South. But we also included four Jewish Marines and even a couple of, to the manor born, Episcopalians. After the longest 13 weeks of our lives, we all came to know that while our ancestors may have come to America at different times and in different ships, now we were all in the same boat — and that each of us was an American.

The draft — when three out of four male college graduates as well as high-school graduates served — guaranteed that Americans of all classes, all social strata and all areas of the country would shoulder the responsibility of defending their nation. And that in doing so they would rub shoulders with and — while sharing bunks, a weekend pass and, sometimes, even foxholes — get to know, and to depend upon, other Americans very different from themselves.

Which brings us back to a variation of Pettit’s great question of Butz: Do you, Mr. Commentator, or do you, Madame Senator, personally know anyone whom your arguments or your votes have sent into combat? Have you attended the funeral of anyone whom you personally knew who was killed in Iraq or Afghanistan?

A “Support Our Troops” decal on your SUV or a flag pin in your lapel does not qualify. The American Establishment — political, economic, academic and journalistic — has next to no personal stake in men and women who risk their life and limbs to defend the United States. Our military is increasingly integrated by race and increasingly segregated by class.

Tragically, most Americans today only know people exactly like themselves. Universal national service would introduce Americans to each other and to what it means to be a citizen.

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.

Support Noozhawk Today

You are an important ally in our mission to deliver clear, objective, high-quality professional news reporting for Santa Barbara, Goleta and the rest of Santa Barbara County. Join the Hawks Club today to help keep Noozhawk soaring.

We offer four membership levels: $5 a month, $10 a month, $25 a month or $1 a week. Payments can be made using a credit card, Apple Pay or Google Pay, or click here for information on recurring credit-card payments and a mailing address for checks.

Thank you for your vital support.

Become a Noozhawk Supporter

First name
Last name
Select your monthly membership
Or choose an annual membership

Payment Information

Membership Subscription

You are enrolling in . Thank you for joining the Hawks Club.

Payment Method

Pay by Credit Card:

Mastercard, Visa, American Express, Discover
One click only, please!

Pay with Apple Pay or Google Pay:

Noozhawk partners with Stripe to provide secure invoicing and payments processing.
You may cancel your membership at any time by sending an email to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

  • Ask
  • Vote
  • Investigate
  • Answer

Noozhawk Asks: What’s Your Question?

Welcome to Noozhawk Asks, a new feature in which you ask the questions, you help decide what Noozhawk investigates, and you work with us to find the answers.

Here’s how it works: You share your questions with us in the nearby box. In some cases, we may work with you to find the answers. In others, we may ask you to vote on your top choices to help us narrow the scope. And we’ll be regularly asking you for your feedback on a specific issue or topic.

We also expect to work together with the reader who asked the winning questions to find the answer together. Noozhawk’s objective is to come at questions from a place of curiosity and openness, and we believe a transparent collaboration is the key to achieve it.

The results of our investigation will be published here in this Noozhawk Asks section. Once or twice a month, we plan to do a review of what was asked and answered.

Thanks for asking!

Click Here to Get Started >

Reader Comments

Noozhawk is no longer accepting reader comments on our articles. Click here for the announcement. Readers are instead invited to submit letters to the editor by emailing them to [email protected]. Please provide your full name and community, as well as contact information for verification purposes only.