Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.

Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}


On D-Day, Military Service Was More ‘Inclusive’


Beneath the perfectly manicured lawns and under the pines and elm trees at the Normandy cemetery lie 9,388 Americans who died during D-Day or in the liberation of France that followed. Among them is a most unlikely combatant, a 56-year-old Army officer who was a wounded veteran of World War I also suffering from a heart condition and arthritis. With his cane, he was the only general in the first wave under heavy Nazi fire on the beach that day. His name was Theodore Roosevelt Jr., the son of the Republican president. One month later, he would die of a heart attack.

In my home state of Massachusetts, both U.S. senators were Republicans. Henry Cabot Lodge became the first senator since the Civil War to resign to go into military service, as a tank commander fighting in North Africa. Sen. Leverett Saltonstall’s son Peter left Harvard to become a Marine sergeant and was killed in the battle of Guam.

This was a time when the children of privilege and power served and sacrificed: 18-year-old Stephen Hopkins — whose father lived in the White House, where he was the president’s closest adviser — joined the Marine Corps and was killed in the Pacific. Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., the son of President Franklin Roosevelt’s ambassador to England, died flying a dangerous mission in Europe. FDR had four sons: Elliott became an Army Air Corps pilot and flew 130 combat missions; Jimmy joined the Marines and, in combat against the Japanese, earned both the Navy Cross and a Silver Star. Navy Lt. John Roosevelt earned a Bronze Star while Lt. Commander Franklin Roosevelt, Jr. won the Silver Star for bravery under heavy enemy fire. One sickly young man used his father’s influence to pull strings so that the Navy would permit him go into combat and captain a PT boat in the Pacific. Sixteen years later, he would be President John F. Kennedy.

Americans once did believe that “war demands equality of sacrifice.” We had accepted our first income tax to pay for the Civil War and enacted a permanent income tax on the eve of World War I. After Pearl Harbor, Americans accepted the rationing of sugar, butter, meat, alcohol, gasoline, cigarettes. Civilians in their neighborhoods planted 20 million “victory gardens” which collectively provided 40 percent of the nation’s vegetables. One out of 4 American men wore his country’s military uniform. In the 1950s, 3 out of 4 male high school graduates and 3 out of 4 male college graduates served in the military.

That had, sadly, changed by Vietnam. Prominent sons of influence so often used their family’s contacts to avoid military service. The all-volunteer military, ending the draft, all but guaranteed that America’s upper classes would be spared the burden of defending their country. As eminent historian David Kennedy pointed out, among American males ages 18 to 24, some 36 percent had some college, while in the same age group in the military’s enlisted ranks, fewer than three percent had ever been in college.

Without the real prospect that their sons might go to war, American families lost immediate personal interest in U.S. foreign engagements. Americans have now been fighting in Afghanistan for 18 years, which is longer than the Civil War, World War I, World War II and the Korean War combined. But instead of tax increases to pay for our wars, we have lobbied for and welcomed three different tax cuts at a cost to the nation of $5 trillion in accumulating debt.

That’s tragically what you get when the “we” generation is replaced by a succession of “me” generations

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

IMAGE: Acrylic screen print of John F. Kennedy in PT-109, the Navy patrol craft he helmed in World War II.

American Politics Is Very Imitative, So Remember — And Beware

It’s a better than even bet that in Massachusetts today there is more than one ambitious young Democratic candidate running for local office who is deliberately pronouncing the word “again” so that it rhymes with “a pain.” Why, you logically ask? Because that’s how the martyred John F. Kennedy pronounced “again.” American politics and campaigns are frankly imitative.

Half a century ago, in 1968, then-presidential candidate Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, discarded his suit jacket, rolled up his shirtsleeves and waded into the campaign crowds who came to see him. The unspoken message was clear: This leader in shirtsleeves was a regular guy, unpretentious, ready to go to work and even, if pushed too hard, prepared to defend, mano a mano, the less powerful against the Rich Bully.

How many times have we seen the candidate in her campaign TV spot listening attentively to children or to retirees signaling to us voters that this candidate truly cares about the next generation and also honors the older generation? Then there are the obligatory images of the candidate of the people (who may actually be on his way to a high-number fundraiser with hedge fund managers) smiling comfortably and respectfully in the company of blue-collar workers in hard hats or firefighters or cops; I’m a regular Joe at home with ordinary Americans who, unlike me, actually shower after work instead of before.

Why do we see these canned and unoriginal political TV spots year after year? Because they work and politics is imitative. That may be insulting to us voters’ intelligence, but it is usually not a threat to the nation. What can be a threat to the nation and to our public life is when a candidate runs and wins and becomes a major national force the way that US Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy (R-WI)., did when on Feb. 9, 1950, he told a Republican party dinner in Wheeling, West Virginia, “I have here in my hand a list of 205 … a list of names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy at the State Department.” In Salt Lake City, McCarthy’s number of communists would be 81; in Reno, Nevada, it was 57.

So politically powerful did McCarthy become leading the Red Scare that Dwight Eisenhower, a national hero, failed during the 1952 campaign in Milwaukee to defend publicly his close friend and Army chief of staff General George Marshall — who served as secretary of state and received the Nobel Prize for authoring the Marshall Plan that rebuilt a war-devastated Europe and stopped Soviet aggression — after McCarthy had falsely accused Marshall of “a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man.”

Baseless charges and unfounded accusations of treason were Joe McCarthy’s M.O. Nobody on his “list” was ever arrested for treason. The guilt of no alleged spy was ever confirmed, but dozens of would-be Joe McCarthys ran as his disciples and imitators across the country, and too many won ruining the lives of American citizens with vicious unsubstantiated charges. McCarthy made cowards of all but a handful of U.S. senators. Sound a little familiar in America 2019?

If anyone still wants to know why the 2020 presidential campaign matters so greatly, just understand what the reelection of Donald Trump would mean to American political life and to the hundreds of ambitious young politicians who would rationally, if not admirably, conclude, “I see. That’s how you run and you win.” American politics is, do not forget, highly imitative.

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

Is Beto O’Rourke The Next Kennedy Or Obama?

For decades, the Democratic Party has been haunted by a specter: the specter of John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy. Liberals have yearned for a young, handsome, eloquent and charismatic man to move them, enchant them and return them to Camelot.

They’ve never quite found him, though Gary Hart (1984) and John Kerry (2004) tried to fill the role. Even Ted Kennedy didn’t quite measure up. Bill Clinton — who was serendipitously photographed at 17 shaking JFK’s hand — managed a faint resemblance that he strove to heighten.

I thought Barack Obama had put that dream to rest. He had some of the same qualities as Jack and Bobby, and he had a successful two terms in the White House. But the Kennedy hunger apparently still lives on in the Democratic body politic, like a dormant virus that occasionally causes a spike of fever and delirium. How else can the Beto O’Rourke frenzy be explained?

He was a legitimate phenomenon last year, when he came close to winning a U.S. Senate race in a red state. Being a Texan whose skin crawls at the mention of Ted Cruz, I am a member of a group that numbers at least 4 million, judging from the vote O’Rourke got. But nearly upsetting Cruz in a Senate race is like winning your high school talent show. It doesn’t mean you’re ready for Broadway.

O’Rourke, however, has joined the presidential race, propelled by his mysterious sense of destiny. “I want to be in it,” he told a Vanity Fair scribe. “Man, I’m just born to be in it.” If an ego as big as the Ritz is mandatory in a presidential candidate, O’Rourke qualifies.

His main assets are his boyish good looks, complete with the RFK-like shock of hair falling over his forehead, and his flair for oratory, or what passes for oratory these days. Something is working: In the first 24 hours after announcing his candidacy for president, he raised a record $6.1 million.

Some of his admirers don’t see him as another JFK; they see him as another Obama. Former Obama strategist Dan Pfeiffer is one of them, scorning “political elites” who say of O’Rourke, “He hasn’t paid his dues” or “It’s not his time.”

Wrote Pfeiffer in November, “These are the exact arguments people made to me when I told them I was considering working for Barack Obama 10 years ago.” Of course, they are also the same arguments made about countless other unready candidates who have been forgotten because the “political elites” were right about them.

O’Rourke is a former member of the El Paso City Council and a three-term congressman who did nothing to distinguish himself from most of the other 434 House members. That’s no crime; making a mark in the House usually takes many terms. But his service there is hardly thorough preparation for a job that is normally one of the most challenging on earth. (For Donald Trump, it’s not a challenge because he doesn’t really do the job.)

Obama’s political resume was also thin — three terms as a state senator and four years as a U.S. senator. But besides his broad life experiences, he had shown intellectual heft, formidable discipline, gravity of purpose and genuine oratorical brilliance. Being African-American, Obama also brought a vital perspective that had never been present in the White House. O’Rourke doesn’t.

Obama was a highly exceptional figure, which makes him a poor model for lesser mortals. Just because Kevin Garnett went straight from high school to NBA stardom doesn’t mean other high school players — even stars — would be equipped to do the same.

Nor has O’Rourke offered a comprehensive program that sets him apart from other Democratic candidates who have compiled more substantial records. On the issues, he manages to be both completely conventional and annoyingly vague.

A measure of his low-content approach is that his campaign website provides no policy statements. It does, however, offer “Beto for America” T-shirts.

Another indicator is his claim, “I don’t ever prepare a speech.” In one appearance, O’Rourke recalled to Vanity Fair, it felt as though “every word was pulled out of me. Like, by some greater force.” He seems to see this campaign as an exercise in self-discovery.

The Democratic field features several candidates with weightier accomplishments and down-to-earth policy solutions. But flying high at the moment is one who is lighter than air.