Desperately Seeking Deval
The governor and his staff take the community forums to heart, but Patrick’s belief that getting beyond the echo chamber of the State House is a matter of physically leaving the building may very well create another, subtler sort of echo chamber, one that travels with him no matter how far across the state he roams.
The community forums also raise a question that will matter a great deal between now and next November: Why doesn’t the Deval Patrick who wowed them in Marblehead show up very often in the media? Some of the answer can be found in the awkward fit between the governor’s political style and the shape of the news hole. Most people do not learn about the issues by taking a couple of hours to knock them around in an intimate setting. And Patrick’s aversion to the short-term news cycle can also come off as disdain for the game of politics as it’s played and watched by most Americans—the game he calls “two heads screaming at each other on TV.”
Patrick’s undisguised disapproval of the media’s priorities in reporting on politics (early in his governorship, he told a gathering of newspaper publishers that the media’s cynicism made it oblivious to the significance of his election) helps explain the retributive glee with which his mistakes have been reported. But what really stands out when you compare his performance at community forums with, say, his on-camera turn when asked to respond to Therese Murray’s calling him “irrelevant” is the difference in the level of patience he displays with those on the other side.
At the forums, he extends a courtly regard to every speaker. He let the antitax crusader Barbara Anderson have her say in Marblehead, even when she said government would “steal even more from us, they’ll pick us off one bracket at a time” and incorrectly claimed that Massachusetts had the nation’s fourth-highest taxes. He was patient to a fault with the Ayn Rand zealot and the Larouchian who sat together at a Braintree forum and asked bizarre questions. When a white-haired gent named Tom rose to assail the proposed gas tax, Patrick suggested ways to strengthen Tom’s criticism of Patrick’s own plan.
But with the TV cameras on him and only a few seconds in which to deliver a response to Murray, Patrick looked as if he was counting to 10 to avoid snapping at somebody—visibly curbing his impatience with Murray for descending to name-calling, with the press for treating it as news, with what he clearly regarded as the whole disappointing business of politics as it usually shows up on the news.
Patrick admits that impatience, with himself and others, is his principal temperamental failing. At times it breaches the air of measured, far-seeing reserve he has done his best to inherit from his grandfather. “A lot of his life was about delayed gratification,” Patrick said of his grandfather, who worked as a janitor at a bank for 60 years. “Sticking to your knitting, building toward something, humility.” Patrick may have been born in his grandfather’s bedroom and grown up under his influence, but he’s also a product of corporate boardrooms and high-powered law firms, a member of the elite who is comfortable in command and not inclined to turn the other cheek. “I have feelings,” he said one day in the car on the way to another event. “My stomach gets to churning. I get angry and short.” When that happens, Patrick can look like a holier-than-thou rich guy who’s getting testy because lowly functionaries—such as the duly elected legislative representatives of the people of Massachusetts or the sensation-grubbers of the Fourth Estate—are preventing him from getting his way. Even as he has brought more State House insiders onto his staff, Patrick still radiates suspicion of those who live by The Building’s traditions.
When the community forum in Marblehead was over, a gangly teenager in a blue blazer, the president of Marblehead High School’s student body, came up to ask the governor if he had any advice for a fellow politician. Patrick thought for a moment, then said, “Know your values. Govern by them. Run on them. If you lose, you lose.”