Political analyst of PBS's "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer" Mark Shields speaks during a taping of "Meet the Press" at the NBC studios February 17, 2008 in Washington, DC. Shields discussed the 2008 presidential race.
Former CNN host Mark Shields dies at 85
02:28 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and CNN political commentator, was a political consultant for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign in 1992 and served as a counselor to Clinton in the White House. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. View more opinion articles on CNN.

CNN  — 

“Paul, something terrible and dangerous is about to happen to you. You’re about to experience success at a young age. Don’t screw it up and let it go to your head.”

Thirty-one years ago, I was about to go on national television for the first time. I was Harris Wofford’s campaign manager, and Wofford had won a Senate race in an improbable landslide over former Pennsylvania Governor and US Attorney General Richard Thornburgh.

The PBS newscast “MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour” had booked me for a live interview – the first of my young career. Mark Shields, already a star, called me with that warning.

Shields, who died on Saturday at the age of 85, was a Catholic, a Marine and a former Democratic strategist turned TV commentator. He was also a relentless source of encouragement for my business partner, James Carville, and me. When we were journeymen political consultants who had never won a race, Mark Shields believed in us.

Mark had come to know James from campaigns they’d worked on together when I was still in school; I became a beneficiary of his advice and support through that connection. Mark had overcome professional setbacks (like Ed Muskie’s failed presidential campaign in 1972, for which he was a strategist and organizer) and personal challenges (like alcoholism) and emerged stronger at the broken places. Failure and pain, I believe, served to increase his empathy for others who were failing and in pain. Through his example, Mark showed me how to be gracious in victory, resilient in defeat, and humble in the small measure of fame that is the lot of a TV commentator.

I remember having breakfast with him when he was in Austin years ago. The server, a political junkie, was starstruck. Shields was no doubt road-weary. But he stopped our breakfast conversation and talked to that server as if he were a vital source on a key Senate committee. Mark asked earnest questions, probing but not too personal, about his work, his studies and his goals. I was impressed. Mark? He came away more knowledgeable and empathetic about the challenges faced by that young man and millions like him.

To me, Mark represented an inclusive and empathetic liberalism. He spoke in terms of values, not programs. (No one cares that you voted to expand Section 8; but they do care that you helped a poor family afford an apartment.) At a time when politics is increasingly driven by purity tests, Mark wanted everyone at the table. “There are two kinds of political parties,” he would say. “Just like there are two kinds of churches: those who seek out converts, and those who hunt down heretics.”

A Democrat to his core, Mark was quick to find the good in Republicans. His friendship with the late political commentator Bob Novak was a wonder to behold – and one that played out on CNN for years. Novak (with whom I hosted on “Crossfire”) was, well, a bit prickly. Mark was all backslaps and goodwill.

Mark lived the Catholic mantra of “love the sinner, hate the sin.” His debating skill involved wit, substantive knowledge, a suspicion of elites and a bedrock faith that everyday Americans were possessed of good judgment.

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    A decade ago, The Alcalde, the alumni magazine of my beloved University of Texas at Austin, asked me to name the inspiration for my career as a pundit. I didn’t hesitate. “Mark Shields,” I said. “He used to be a Democratic political operative, but he calls them as he sees them. And he’s funny – he could do stand-up.” When Mark read that, he called me and thanked me. But he had it backwards. It is I – and so many others who benefitted from his warmth, wisdom and wit – who need to thank him.

    Many years ago, when I was young, cocky and lucky enough to run into early success, something wonderful and rare happened to me: I had the gift of being Mark Shields’ friend and the beneficiary of his hard-won wisdom.

    So, I thank you, Mark. As your fellow Marines say, “Semper Fi.” And as our fellow Catholics say, “Pax Vobiscum.”