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Shields and Brooks on Mandela’s influence, Obama’s vow to address inequality

December 6, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
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JUDY WOODRUFF:  And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks.  That is syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Welcome, gentlemen.

So, the world is, as we know, mourning Nelson Mandela since we learned of his death.

David, what do you think about when you reflect on his life?

DAVID BROOKS:  You know, I was foreign correspondent for The Wall Street Journal then.  I was mostly covering the Soviet Union in those days, but I took a couple trips to South Africa at the time when he came out, and then later during the — when he was inaugurated.

And if you had asked me to compare the two societies, I would have said that South Africa’s social fabric was worse.  The crime was much worse than in the Soviet Union as Russia emerged.  The sense of ethnic menace — there has been a lot of talk about the white and black violence.  There was a tremendous violence between the ANC and Inkatha rival movement, real sense of menace, a lack of social trust.

So you could have drawn a very negative scenario for South Africa.  And, in fact, I erroneously did so in some of my reporting down there, because I just felt bad social fabric.  And it’s very hard for leaders to counteract that.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Even after he was released.

DAVID BROOKS:  But — right.  And this is — I was involved in riots of people getting killed.

It was ugly.  And yet I think, by force of moral example, this was one of those rare cases when somebody at the top of society really has a cultural effect and leads to — really averts what could have been quite a disaster.  And the country did much, much better in the ensuing years, because — I think because of the sheer moral example.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Mark, what about you?  What do you think of when you think of him?

MARK SHIELDS:  Well, some leaders are respected.  A few leaders are loved.

And Nelson Mandela is that almost unique figure who is both loved and respected virtually around the globe.  It’s a remarkable achievement.  And what I think of is, he described resentment as the poison we drink hoping it will hurt others or punish our enemies or kill our enemies.

And, I mean, the example of magnanimity, of largeness of spirit and perspective — Peter Hart — I never met him.  David did meet Nelson Mandela.  But Peter Hart, the pollster, has that little question he asks of Washington people when he runs into them, just conversational icebreaker — the prospect of meeting what individual in the world would make your palms turn sweaty?

And, you know, this is a place where we meet, you know, celebrities and senators and all the rest of it, and get a little blase.  And Peter said, overwhelmingly, the answer was Nelson Mandela, I mean, even if — it was just universal.

It is a singular achievement.  He made his nation, and he gave us all an example of moral leadership.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Singular achievement, David, but how many — there are so many other places in the world that are still having problems, leaders in the continent of Africa who don’t want to give up power as he did.  Was he just a one-time example of shining goodness?

(CROSSTALK)

DAVID BROOKS:  Well, he was that.  I don’t know how the imprisonment affected him.

It doesn’t always affect you in a good way.  Aging doesn’t always affect you in a good way.  My favorite definition of humility is self-understanding in the context of other-centeredness, meaning your life is devoted to something else.

And through — in that context of life devoted to a movement or to faith, you achieve self-understanding.  And he exuded that.  And so I think that was the center around which he ruled.  It was also the case, that in that time, there were a whole series of world historical figures that came on the scene at the same time. So Deng Xiaoping, I think Pope John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, probably Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Mandela, some would say Gorbachev.

But these were world historical figures, had gigantic effects, big leaders.  They all came on the scene at the same time, I would say fortuitously.  And so we had a reasonably not bad decade, because there were some really great leaders.  China was transformed.  South Africa improved.  Economies in the U.S. and U.K. improved.  And those were, you know, big leaders.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  But maybe it wasn’t meant to last.

Mark?

MARK SHIELDS:  Maybe it wasn’t meant to last.

But just — just one political, historical note — the United States, under Ronald Reagan’s leadership, was of no help, no help.  Ronald Reagan had a blind spot.  He saw the world through the narrow tunnel prism of anti-communism.  And when the United States, just outraged by apartheid, and, finally, the Congress, with a majority Republican Senate, passed sanctions, Ronald Reagan vetoed them against the apartheid regime.

And his veto was overridden in the Senate and in the House overwhelmingly, with, I mean, people like John Warner of Virginia, Dan Quayle, the senator from Indiana, John Stennis, the longtime Democratic segregationist from Mississippi, all voting to overturn.

And it was really a point — a time of moral obtuseness on the part of the leadership.

DAVID BROOKS:  Yes.  Mark’s right, absolutely right about that.  And it was a blind — it’s a black mark on the Reagan administration.

When I was in South Africa, I used to ask people, how much do the sanctions really hurt?  And the common answer, not universal, common answer was, the sports sanctions really hurt.  Their teams get — it’s a sports-crazy country.  And their teams couldn’t play abroad.  And that was like a moral insult that, ‘We’re not worthy to play abroad. ‘

The second thing I just want to say about Africa today, it has become a good news story.  The governance in Africa across many countries in the region is good news.  And you’re seeing I think five out of six fastest-growing economies are in Africa.

So I don’t know if it’s — you can ascribe it to Mandela, but there are a lot of countries where we are seeing unprecedentedly decent governance, and, as a result, economies and societies improving.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  And we tend to focus on the bad things.

Well, you brought up the economy.  Let’s bring it back home. Jobs numbers out today, good jobs numbers, 200,000 — over 200,000 jobs, Mark, created, but, as Paul Solman reported, the number of people who have given up looking for a job still really, really high, 4 million and up.  And then the president goes and gives a speech this week and says economic inequality is going to be the main focus of his administration.

How do you read what he’s saying about that?

MARK SHIELDS:  I thought it was the best speech, certainly on the economy, I have heard President Obama give.

I thought it was a strong and persuasive case.  I think the facts are there.  There can be no doubt about it over — between 1979 and 2007, 13.5 percent of this nation’s total income was transferred to the top 1 percent.  That’s $1.1 trillion for the top 1 percent of families, I mean, just in that period of time.

And it’s not just an accident.  I mean, yes, globalization has contributed to it, but we have trade policies, we have economic policies, we have tax policies, all of which have contributed to — and workers policies, union policies, labor policies — all of which have been directed to, channeled toward helping those at the very top.  And there’s no question about it.  It’s worked.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Well…

(CROSSTALK)

MARK SHIELDS:  Go ahead.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  And we’re going to pick up on that in just a minute.

MARK SHIELDS:  OK.  Sure.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  But we are going to take a short break right now.  We’re going to pick up on this and let David have a chance to weigh in.

But, right now, we are going to take a short break to allow your public television station to ask for your support.  And that support helps keep programs like ours on the air.

(BREAK)

JUDY WOODRUFF:  And we are back now with Mark Shields and David Brooks.

All right, where were we?

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF:  We were talking about — seriously, David, we were talking about income inequality.  Mark was — I asked both of you about the president saying this week he’s — he wants to devote the rest of his time in office to trying to do something about income inequality in this country.

DAVID BROOKS:  Well, it’s one of the big major issues, so that’s a good idea.

And I agree with Mark.  I thought it was an excellent speech.  It was a little lacking in agenda items, realistically, because there’s not that much that is going to be passed.  But there was an interesting elision in it, which elided really two sides of a debate.  And he used it — and they must have been very conscious of this because of the way they structured the speech.

They used the phrase income inequality and social mobility constantly together.  And, of course, they are related problems, but sometimes they point in different policy response directions.  And so, if your main problem is income inequality, then you’re going to want to focus on — maybe on the top 1 percent or the top 5 percent, and you’re going want to have tax policies, health care policies that are about redistribution.

If you are focusing on social mobility, you are probably going to see it as a human capital problem, and you’re going to focus on early childhood education, which the president does, college loans, maybe some family structure issues.

And so you don’t have to choose totally A. and B., but you probably have to pick a priority.  And so it would be — there is a very interesting debate about which path is the more appropriate path to take.  I personally take the social mobility path, lifting more up from the bottom, not worrying as much about redistribution.  But the president sort of fuzzed over those choices.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  So, do you think the president — that they have — the White House hasn’t decide which way they’re going to go, Mark?  I mean, how do you — do you share that analysis?

(CROSSTALK)

MARK SHIELDS:  Well, I think David makes a good point.

I just don’t think the two are mutually inconsistent or incompatible.  And I — we have had a policy which has been upward income redistribution.  I mean, we privatized profits for the corporations and companies, and we socialized losses.

I mean, the public picked up when we had failure.  I mean, when $173 billion went to AIG, American Insurance Group, and they then turned around and gave $165 million in bonuses, and the idea that somehow helping people at the bottom or redirecting part of that national wealth to help those most needing social mobility — and David’s right — it does require an expenditure, and it requires a commitment.

The president did the first thing that’s important in this, and that is to introduce the debate.  You’re not going to get to any decision until you put something on the national agenda.  And I think this was very important to get it.

And, quite honestly, the Republicans, in all due respect, it’s exactly the way they are in medical care.  They — the repeal, but there is no replace.  And I think Paul Ryan and Rand Paul are aware of this, and 2016 candidates potentially, are addressing the subject of poverty, and recognizing that their party’s idea bin is pretty barren right now.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Well, I guess my question is, is this just a speech, or do we see some sign that there’s going to be an attempt to do something?

And, by the way, Republicans are saying this is just an attempt to distract attention from the problems of Obamacare.

DAVID BROOKS:  Well, it is a long-term interest of his.

It is somewhat just a speech.  The one cavil I would have would be that to put an idea on the agenda is usually what a president does in the eighth year of his presidency, not in, what are we, the sixth or something.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Fifth.

DAVID BROOKS:  Fifth.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Yes.

DAVID BROOKS:  And so he should still be focusing on things about which he has actual action items, rather than just putting something on the agenda.  Do that later in the term, but because of the stagnation in Washington and in Congress, I think he’s decided to just be a more rhetorical president.

Just on the one point about the income inequality, if are you talking about the top 1 percent, I agree with Mark.  There has been this ridiculous increase in wages, ridiculous compensation schemes on Wall Street, a lot of the socialization of profit — privatization of profits, socialization of risk.

But if you are talking about the top 20 percent or the top 30 percent, there, I think you have a structural problem that educated people have become really good at marrying other educated people and passing down their advantages to children.

And I don’t think you can do much about that.  The real thing is to give people without those family backgrounds the leg up.

MARK SHIELDS:  Yes.

No, social mobility is — that is why I think it’s two wings of the same bird.  I mean, but the social mobility is crucial.  Right now, the social mobility, that chance in the United States of somebody being born at the bottom, the Al — I was going to say Alger Hiss — Horatio Alger story…

(LAUGHTER)

MARK SHIELDS:  … of somebody coming from nowhere and achieving is less and less likely, and it’s less and less likely than it is in other advanced countries and that has been historically.

And that’s where you have to expend that kind of effort and capital and attention as a people to give them that…

(CROSSTALK)

DAVID BROOKS:  I don’t think there is so much two wings of the same bird, but the one point is that both wings are in the Democratic Party.  The Republican Party doesn’t have a wing.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS:  And so they need a policy…

(CROSSTALK)

JUDY WOODRUFF:  I’m trying to visualize this bird right now.

(LAUGHTER)

MARK SHIELDS:  That’s right.  It’s a beautiful bird.  It’s an American eagle.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  The two of you fly beautifully, can I just say?

(CROSSTALK)

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Mark Shields, David Brooks, thank you.