Mark Shields: Missing Kate O’Beirne
My adopted hometown of Washington has been accused, not always unfairly, of being a city full of scheming climbers who are frantically courting the company and the favor of the powerful. In this and so many respects, Kate O’Beirne — the conservative leader and writer who died too soon, at 67 on April 23 — was anti-Washington. Kate was not about making contacts (although the powerful, especially Republicans, regularly sought her approval). She was always about making — and about keeping — friends.
To watch her at some Washington reception was to see a blond, stylish 6-footer seeking out and introducing herself to the nervous newcomer back in the crowd, whom Kate would then deliberately make feel welcome, comfortable and interesting. Kate never had to have the spotlight; she was the spotlight.
For 10 good years, Kate and I — along with the late Robert Novak, Margaret Carlson and Al Hunt — were mostly friendly sparring partners every Saturday night on CNN’s “Capital Gang.” Kate and I were both Irish Catholics — she from New York, I from Massachusetts. My family was committed to JFK, and I later worked for Sen. Robert F. Kennedy of New York. Kate’s dad was a charter subscriber to William F. Buckley’s National Review, and she worked for James L. Buckley (Bill’s brother and a most admirable man), who was elected, as the nominee of the Conservative Party of New York State, to fill the Senate seat previously won by the assassinated RFK. In short, Kate and I came, politically, from very different places.
Many have written, accurately, about what a generous and encouraging mentor Kate was to young men and women, about what a devoted wife she was to her husband Jim, about Kate’s being the proud mother of John and Philip (who enlisted in the Army and fought in Afghanistan) and a proud grandmother, and about Kate’s being a believing and committed Catholic. She was godmother to converts Judge Robert Bork and Bob Novak. With her irrepressible wit, Kate could kid about how cute Novak, invariably seen in public in three-piece suits, had been in his little white christening gown with matching booties.
But as her colleague and opposite number in debates, I want to speak instead about how I believe that Kate O’Beirne’s passing will diminish Washington and our nation’s public life.
Kate, I can testify from personal exposure, had a truly rare gift for deflating the self-important and for refuting your argument in a single grammatical and clever sentence. But she always rejected the corrosive Washington habit, now so prevalent, of demonizing your adversary. You hear it hourly: my unworthy opponent is not simply mistaken or wrong; he is obviously narrow-minded, mean-spirited or, even worse, desirous to hurt America. That was never Kate. She did not personalize any argument. She could cut you down to size yet still leave no wounds. Instead, she left good spirits in her wake. In 10 years, even after heated disagreements about going to war, I cannot recall ever once leaving our “Capital Gang” set in anger or bitterness. Kate O’Beirne taught us that we could lock horns and afterward be able to shake hands and laugh. How desperately our American public life needs her great example today.