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Ursula Carlson: Character above all

By Ursula Carlson

As an immigrant child growing up in western Michigan, the political party designators “Republican” or “Democrat” meant nothing to me. Party distinctions were as innocuous as whether one drove a Chevy or Ford.

I continued to feel neutral about political parties when I turned 21 and began voting.

The Watergate hearings of 1972 and ’73 had a profound effect on me in two respects.



First, I admired the congressional dedication to uncovering truth and dispensing justice. The Republicans, men like Howard Baker and Lowell Weicker, were as neutral and fair in their assessment of the facts as were Democrat Sam Ervin and Joseph Montoya.

In addition, I became a fervid watcher of PBS News and its Friday night program Washington Week in Review which during that period was anchored by Robert McNeil. I got to know these journalists the way we get to know people who become our friends. They were (and still are) civil and knowledgeable. Generally, they have their special beats: the military, the White House, Congress, State Department, etc. What distinguishes them and their commentary is that it’s factual and well researched. They are nationally published in newspapers, journals, and books. They are learned men and women.



Two of my long-time favorite journalists, Mark Shields and David Brooks, have appeared jointly every Friday evening for the last 19 years on PBS News to discuss politics. Although they are not labeled as such, Shields generally has a more liberal perspective, whereas Brooks is more conservative. This past Friday was Shields last regular appearance (at age 83). He and Brooks spoke warmly about each other and it was clear that their respect and friendship meant more to them than any differences they might have politically.

In a column that Brooks wrote that Friday in the New York Times he points out that Mark was “imprinted with the idea that politics is a deeply noble profession, a form of service, a vocation.” He tells us that Mark’s father was the first Catholic to serve on their town’s school board; that he saw his mother cry for the first time when Adlai Stevenson lost to Dwight Eisenhower in the 1952 presidential election.

It was no surprise that Mark, a good Catholic, went to Notre Dame University to college and then served in the Marine Corps before working as a congressional aide. Brooks reminds us that Harry Truman had had the courage to integrate the military, so Mark had served with Black Marines and saw the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. Passing these bills wasn’t easy, Brooks observes, but he writes that “everybody took for granted the legitimacy of the system and treasured the country and the way it worked.”

Mark Shields still “puts the character lens before the partisan lens” Brooks tells us, and “has been quick to criticize Democrats when they are snobbish, dishonest or fail to live up to the standards of basic decency – often infuriating some of our viewers.” Brooks himself puts character before partisanship, I think. He says that character includes a sense of egalitarianism, the belief that “I’m no better than anyone else and nobody is better than me.”

Brooks writes that he worries that people with Mark’s social conscience, and his “constellation of values are fading away,” but Mark doesn’t see things that way. Instead, Mark says he is “more optimistic than I have been. The two hallmarks of American politics are optimism and pragmatism.” And, Brooks concludes, Mark pointed to the optimism of FDR and JFK and Ronald Reagan.

I, too, am cheered. More by people like Shields and Brooks, maybe, who value truth and ethics and who are not afraid to call out those who do not.

Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., is professor emerita at Western Nevada College.