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The Liberal State | The Nation

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The Liberal State

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About the Author

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.

Well, it's nice to be back, I must say, we liberals of the Commonwealth (God save it!). Nice of you all to have us back, too, since your last experience with one of us as a Democratic presidential candidate didn't work out that well. You'll be happy to know that Mike Dukakis is still doing fine, and staying out of armored vehicles whenever possible, and that Susan Estrich, the mastermind behind the 1988 Dukakis juggernaut, is comfortably ensconced in her new career as a wind-up Liberal in the Fox News Channel playroom--although, to those of us who are liberals here, watching Susan Estrich on television giving advice on how to run a national political campaign is rather akin to taking a course in navigation from Exxon Valdez Capt. Joe Hazelwood. Anyway, it's nice to be back, as I've said, and I'm glad that nobody holds a grudge too long.

I should explain, now that Senator John Kerry is the presumptive nominee, that the phrase "Massachusetts liberal" doesn't mean what it's said to mean in the feverish fundraising letters of the lunatic right. I should explain this particularly now, as gay people are marrying each other here in the Commonwealth (God save it!), a development that likely will cause Massachusetts to be portrayed as Gehenna's vestibule over the next several months. In mid-June, in fact, our Republican governor, Mitt Romney, went before a Senate committee and made pretty much that case against the state over which he at least nominally presides. Save us from ourselves, Mitt wailed plaintively, while back home, more than a few people wondered whether Governor Mitt was auditioning for the day when Dick Cheney decides it's time to spend more time with his family.

In any case, we're nothing of which to be all that afraid. Dukakis didn't lose primarily because he was a liberal. He lost because he was the 1962 Marv Throneberry of presidential candidates running the 1962 New York Mets of presidential campaigns. He lost because he wasn't politician enough to keep that liberalism from being hopelessly caricatured even by as hopelessly maladroit a public presence as George H.W. Bush. He lost because he couldn't even define his own public career. He lost because he couldn't even define the political culture in which that career was formed. Give John Kerry this. He's maddeningly allusive, and he constructs his positions the way that Great Auntie Cabot built her beach house on Nantucket--rambling, with a porch just where you think a bay window should go--but he's sure about who he is and where he came from (even if, occasionally, he seems like the only one who is).

Massachusetts politics never has been about conservatives and liberals. The same people who listened religiously (you should pardon the pun) to the radio ravings of Father Charles Coughlin, and the same people who cheered on Joseph McCarthy, still voted in stunning ensemble for the local Democratic Party. Even though the state's last four governors have been Republicans, the GOP hasn't been able to elect anyone to much of anything else, and the Democratic Party still holds a three-to-one advantage in registered voters. And all four of those governors--William Weld, Paul Cellucci, Jane Swift and Romney--were notably silent on the hot-button social issues, until the state's Supreme Judicial Court forced Romney's hand on gay marriage last fall. The tide of "Movement conservatism" elsewhere in America rolled back at the Massachusetts border.

Massachusetts politics always has been about established power and the reform impulse, and, since the beginning of the last century, that struggle has taken place within a liberal Democratic context. That is the tradition that produced John Kerry, and it's not a bad tradition to come from when you're running against an Administration that seems to stand for power, and for its exercise, and for very little else.

Many years ago, almost everybody in Massachusetts was a liberal, even the Republicans, although the Republicans didn't know they were liberals at the time. The successive waves of immigration--most particularly, the nineteenth-century flood tide from Ireland--set up a dynamic that locked Massachusetts Republicans forever into the position of established power based on inherited privilege and high-end Protestantism. Considering that these people were the historical heirs of the radical abolitionists of the mid-1800s, when the movement against slavery began in Episcopalian, Congregationalist and (especially) Unitarian pulpits, it was quite odd for the children and grandchildren of the firebrands to find themselves cast as the defenders of an entrenched elite. However, the immigrant Massachusetts Democrats managed the not-inconsiderable feat of casting themselves as "reformers" while simultaneously perfecting virtually the entire gamut of modern American political corruption. Specifically, the very real discrimination that these immigrants felt from the Massachusetts establishment, and from the nativist mobs working at its tacit behest, created a political culture in which ethnic nepotism was transformed into self-defense and, thus, into a durable language of revolutionary reform.

The basic appeal of the legendary Boston political bosses--from James Michael Curley, to John "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald, to Martin "The Mahatma" Lomasney, who once explained, "Never write when you can speak. Never speak when you can nod"--was deeper than simply "Where's Mine?" There was more than a little bit of sticking-it-to-The-Man about it as well. This was echoed by the lesser satellites throughout the Commonwealth. In Worcester, my birthplace, a city with proud progressive Republican roots in both abolitionism and in the various movements for women's rights, the citizens once elected a mayor named John C. Mahoney, who campaigned on the slogan "Me hands are tied. Me back is to the wall. And the Protestants are after me." The constituent-service liberalism born when the immigrants came to power was, at its heart, extraordinarily reactionary.

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.

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.

In June the Republicans trotted out Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey to accuse John Kerry of shirking his senatorial duties. Healey was startlingly animatronic for a lieutenant governor--an extraordinarily vestigial political office even by the standards of the Commonwealth (God save it!), which also has a Governor's Council, which hasn't been relevant to anyone's life since John Hancock and the Adams boys packed Thomas Hutchinson off to Nova Scotia. Anyway, Her Excellency opined that Kerry should leave his Senate seat because he couldn't give the job its due because of the demands of the campaign trail. She essentially was accusing Kerry of having a no-show job, which was pure goo-goo, no matter how transparently insincere it was. The argument lasted about one news cycle before it degenerated into a brawl over how Kerry might be replaced, and by whom. There's the arc of contemporary Massachusetts liberalism: Everything that starts out as a good-government issue eventually devolves to the fundamental political question of "Where's Mine?"

It may not seem an improvement, but it's certainly superior to banging ourselves on the head over an issue like gay marriage, which seems to be the domain of Governor Romney. His Washington testimony didn't play all that well here at home, where the primary TV images of the "heated" debate have been angelic, happy children with balloons helping Dad and Dad, or Mom and Mom, tie the knot. As long as people throughout the Commonwealth (God save it!) don't start turning into pillars of salt, the issue may not be as useful in constructing an effective cartoon as the people in Karl Rove's workshop think it will be.

However, gay weddings may be all the Republicans have left with which to turn John Kerry into their concept of a Massachusetts liberal. Soft on national defense? A guy who found his way to the Mekong Delta when the incumbent was struggling to find Alabama? Soft on crime? A guy who was manifestly better as a prosecutor than, say, Kenneth Starr? In its frustration, the Bush campaign may find itself running against a genuine Massachusetts liberal, an heir to Lomasney as well as to Kennedy and Dukakis.

"It's going to be tough for them to create what they think a 'Massachusetts liberal' is out of John Kerry," explains Barney Frank. "He's a guy who's actually shot Communists and, when he was a district attorney, he locked up murderers." And an heir to the oldest school, as well--that noisome bunch of bandit merchants who first moved against the arrogant stupidity that is the inevitable product, and the ultimate weakness, of unaccountable power. It's time to welcome those old enemies, again, to the real Commonwealth of Massachusetts, God save it. Bring it on, if you like, and we'll see what ends up in the harbor this time around.

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