Desperately Seeking Deval

Patrick circled back to the issue that was foremost on his mind, the tension between winning the political game and governing on personal values. “There are changes we have to make today that, if we make them with courage, we will be better off for in the long run. There may be a political price to pay, but they’re worth doing. Look, I want to get reelected, but there are things worth losing an election over, to get them right. There are decisions that are politically expedient, and things that are the right thing to do. I’d like them to align, but…” and he let the thought hang there. For a guy who wants to be governor for five and a half more years, he talks a lot about losing elections.

Patrick has put his bets on the table, convinced that if he can weather the short-term hits, the gambles will eventually pay off. The state’s economy is showing signs of a nascent recovery. A local breakthrough in clean energy or a major discovery in life sciences wouldn’t hurt, either. Meanwhile, “reform before revenue” has given him a legislative win, and he always has a potent hole card to play: his close relationship with the president of the United States. Massachusetts has already secured more than its proportional share of stimulus money, and he can call on Obama himself to provide a welcome boost during the campaign. Just the thought of Air Force One touching down on the runway at Hanscom Air Force Base would strike fear into the hearts of Patrick’s opponents.

But even if some of those bets come in, he still faces a major crisis, one partly of his own making. Reform, taking on the legislature, opening up the State House—those issues served him well in 2006, but they no longer carry the same weight with the electorate. Even if long-range planning and staying the course are the best way to handle the financial crisis, they aren’t winning over potential voters, and Baker will soon be wooing independents with “Read my lips: no new taxes.” Keeping one’s eyes on the prize is an estimable virtue, as long as you don’t forget a critical caveat: You have to win to stay in the game, and that means playing by the rules, no matter what you think of them—short-term news cycle, dueling sound bites, and all.

Patrick, who majored in English and American literature at Harvard, brought up a passage in Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi that has remained a touchstone for him. As a boy, dreaming of becoming a riverboat pilot, Twain was smitten by the river’s beauty, but his romantic view of it changed when he actually learned to do the job. A scenic ripple became a warning of a boat-snagging hazard; sunlight on the water became a portent of wind:

Now when I had mastered the language of this water, and had come to know every trifling feature that bordered the great river as familiarly as I knew the letters of the alphabet, I had made a valuable acquisition. But I had lost something, too. I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry, had gone out of the majestic river…. All the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat. Since those days, I have pitied doctors from my heart. What does the lovely flush in a beauty’s cheek mean to a doctor but a “break” that ripples above some deadly disease? Are not all her visible charms sown thick with what are to him the signs and symbols of hidden decay? Does he ever see her beauty at all, or doesn’t he simply view her professionally, and comment upon her unwholesome condition all to himself? And doesn’t he sometimes wonder whether he has gained most or lost most by learning his trade?


“It’s a beautiful passage,” said Patrick, and fell silent, contemplating it. Birdsong punctuated the stillness. Out in front of the house, a rental company delivered a rather elegant port-a-potty for a campaign fundraiser the Patricks would be hosting over the weekend. After a long pause, the governor went back to talking about The Building.

CARLO ROTELLA is director of American studies at Boston College.


  • Anonymous

    I had no perspective of Gov. Deval before my 2008 return to Boston. Early, petty snafus damaged his, public persona, but I welcomed this article to provide a bit more insight into him and his mission to battle old-guard-bureaucrats. I continually remind myself that journalists are in the business of creating interest, sometimes with little merit – creating news is their job.

    This state achieves private-sector success despite Beacon Hill. With a rare competitive advantage by an annual influx of new talent and an education workforce, this state’s business policies and infrastructure drive away more business than cultivates. This state, my native state, needs more long-term thinking, however at odds it is with short-term political cycles of voter appeasement.

    Having lived around the world and developed economic assessments across Asia and Europe my return to Massachusetts shocked me. Many of the business attitudes I expected in Asia and Eastern Europe, but here it is shockingly an