The Liberal State | The Nation


The Liberal State

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While the term "Reagan Democrat" is easy shorthand, Massachusetts Democrats were cultural conservatives long before that, at least in part because the state lay under the baleful glare of a Roman Catholic hierarchy only a couple of baby steps removed from the Council of Trent. In 1940, Honey Fitz's reprobate son-in-law, Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., ended up opposing Franklin D. Roosevelt on the not-insignificant issue of what was going on in Germany, and he later sent one of his younger sons to work for his good friend Joe McCarthy. The anti-Semitic broadcasts of Father Coughlin found a wide audience in Boston, as Nat Hentoff recalls in his memoir Boston Boy. Members of the old immigrant liberal population were already Democrats with Reaganite instincts back before the release of Knute Rockne--All American, when Ronald Reagan expired under the tearful gaze of Pat O'Brien.

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Charles P. Pierce
Charles P. Pierce is a staff writer for the Boston Globe magazine, a contributing writer to Esquire and the author of...

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The music on Townes, Steve Earle's tribute to Townes Van Zandt, is simple and literally homespun. There is sinew to this music, and blood in the words.

Gradually, of course, the children and grandchildren of these immigrants became the entrenched political power themselves, although Curley used the old WASP-baiting techniques long past the time when he'd become a successful politician. In Massachusetts, at least, Jack Kennedy was a transitional figure--Honey Fitz's grandson, for sure, but also the New Frontiersman. In him, the old immigrant reformers found common cause with the ambitious younger ones. That couldn't last forever. JFK got murdered, and when the issues that were gathering steam during his presidency--civil rights and Vietnam--finally exploded, they shattered the calcified structures of what had been Massachusetts liberalism.

"It was the war," recalls Barney Frank. "It really began in 1969, when Mike Harrington got elected to Congress. Then, in 1970, you had [Gerry] Studds on the Cape, and Father [Robert] Drinan." This new generation of liberals ran against the old one almost exclusively, the Massachusetts Republican Party being at that point largely a country-club veranda of the mind. Dukakis was elected governor twice and eventually ran for President. Frank himself was elected to Congress in 1980, where he joined the late Paul Tsongas, who'd ascended to the Senate two years earlier and who eventually would establish himself as the early place-horse behind Bill Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992. Senator Edward Kennedy remained beyond category, as he always had been in Massachusetts, long since immunized against most political changes, regardless of their intensity. However, it was this redefinition of "Massachusetts liberals" that helped turn Tip O'Neill against the Vietnam War, and it also helped turn a lunch-bucket congressman like the late Joseph Moakley into a crusader against the various bloody Reagan-era fabulisms in Central America.

"Joe Moakley was an old-line New Deal liberal in that he believed that government should have a conscience, and that it should protect those who are vulnerable," explains Representative James McGovern, who was a longtime Moakley aide before being elected to Congress himself. "His views never altered, although the language had to change a little bit as the new questions popped up. So when he discovered that the US government was supporting people who went out and blew away six priests in the middle of the night, it offended everything that he'd always valued."

This movement was already well under way when Kerry moved to Massachusetts in 1970. Even though he lost his first race for Congress, he quickly became part of it when he chose to take a job with the Middlesex County District Attorney's office, in which he married liberal outrage to prosecutorial zeal. "We were conscious of being products of this period of time," Kerry said shortly before clinching the nomination. "Like we were the Class of '74. It was a reaction because people felt burned, and that accounted for a lot of our passion about openness and inclusivity and empowerment."

Kerry carried this passion to his work in the Senate in the 1980s, when he drove many of the investigations into a secret foreign policy manifested most conspicuously in the Iran/contra scandal. The hearings that Kerry conducted were pure reformist Massachusetts liberalism. If the stakes hadn't been so high, and the activities in question so bloody, Kerry might well have been chasing down a cabal of crooked building inspectors, or a state representative's idiot nephew and his no-show job.

Now, Kerry has a chance to prosecute corruption on an even grander stage: insider graft (Hello, Halliburton!), nepotism (What's up, Mike Powell? Eugene Scalia?), the perils of secret government (Yo, Wolfie?) and the unbridled use of largely unbridled power (Sing it for us, Reverend Ashcroft!). All it will take is an invigorated national movement of what the old Massachusetts pols used to deride as "the goo-goos," which meant good-government types bent on eliminating the grease that had made the old guys rich. They mocked the goo-goos until the goo-goos started sending the old guys off to the sneezer. What's important to remember is that both sides were Massachusetts liberals, sons and daughters of the Commonwealth (God save it!). Conservatives need not apply.

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