Elephants and Asses

How big a political joke is Massachusetts?

Big enough to elicit sarcasm from one of the world's leading news organs, the Economist of London. “Mitt Romney does not seem like someone from Massachusetts,” the magazine snickered in an article about the gubernatorial race. He is “too friendly” and has anachronistic “good looks.” So how is it that Massachusetts voters have warmed to this alien presence? “Romneyphilia . . . is really just the flip side of Massaphobia. Voters are furious about their state's giant budget shortfall, its faltering economy, a deadlocked Democratic legislature, the Big Dig (a disastrous attempt to build new roads), and the antics of Queen Jane, as [acting Governor] Swift is known. An outsider, fresh from the feel-good Olympics, seems the perfect antidote.”

In other words, the welcome Romney got here grew from our disgust at what we see in the mirror. Or could it be that the blokes at the Economist are simply reflecting the low regard in which our political culture is held outside the confines of the civilized world, known to locals as the Massachusetts border?

There's no denying the ugliness of our condition. To the Economist's litany of economic malaise, budget free fall, public works fiascos, political incompetence, and the uninspiring gubernatorial campaign, add rudeness, ruthlessness, and, above all else, spectacularly unwarranted hubris. But we're from Massachusetts, oblivious to and contemptuous of the opinion outsiders hold of us. We're full steam ahead on building a colossal new convention center almost no one wants to visit. We're spending millions on an almost-surely futile effort to bring a political convention here, as if coming to Boston would provide either the Democrats or the Republicans with a shred of political benefit. And for the third time in the last five election cycles, we're poised to share our unrequested wisdom with the nation in the form of a presidential candidate, insufferable multimillionaire John Kerry. Then again, if the Economist chaps are right about the electorate's Massaphobia, maybe it's a sign that arrogant, out-of-touch, incompetent Massachusetts is finally starting to catch on to its own failings. “Massachusetts voters,” the magazine wrote, “want someone who's not like them at all.”

If we are ready for a long-overdue self-evaluation, some of us may be surprised to find that Massachusetts still carries three decades' worth of outdated ideological baggage. Despite a series of tax cuts and the election of two Republican governors during the 1990s, our national image remains that of a liberal Brigadoon, frozen in time. Outsiders “regard Massachusetts as a left-wing outlet that doesn't have anything to do with the rest of the country,” says Michael Barone, coauthor of the Almanac of American Politics.

That stereotype took root after the 1972 presidential election, when Massachusetts was the only state to vote for George McGovern over Richard Nixon. Subsequent events proved Nixon to be an abysmal choice, prompting a crop of bumper-sticker boasts like “Don't Blame Me, I'm from Massachusetts” and “The One and Only.” But even after Bill Clinton's repudiation of McGovernism in 1992 ended years of Democratic presidential futility, much of the Massachusetts political culture has been preserved as a sort of Sturbridge Village of 1960s liberalism. As Capitol Hill's Roll Call newspaper noted in a 1996 article about left-wing Worcester Congressman Jim McGovern: “Only in Massachusetts would a Democratic House hopeful trumpet his ties to George McGovern.”

By then, our status as a liberal aberration had been cemented by the spectacular flop of Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential race. From the damaging news that town-meeting members in Dukakis's hometown of Brookline had opposed reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, to the crippling disclosure that Dukakis thought it wise to release convicted murderers for weekend furloughs, Massachusetts' liberal quirks accomplished the impossible: They made blueblood George Herbert Walker Bush seem red-blooded. Hissed during a debate for a disparaging remark painting Dukakis as a typical Boston liberal, Bush correctly noted that while “several Bostonians don't like it . . . the rest of the country will understand.”

Dukakis was just one in a seemingly never-ending series of high-profile local political figures who have left outsiders wondering what's in the water up here. There was the late House Speaker Tip O'Neill of Cambridge, a much-beloved icon here and inside the Beltway but seen elsewhere as a caricature of bloated, big-spending liberalism, an easy foil for Republicans during the '80s. There were the two gay Bay State congressmen, Barney Frank and Gerry Studds — one caught consorting with a gay prostitute, and the other, with a teenage congressional page — yet both reelected easily to the nation's amazement. And always, there's Senator Edward Kennedy, seen locally as a tireless provider and principled champion of liberal causes, but better known nationally as a boozy lecher whose out-of-control personal habits mirror his tax-and-spend politics.

Our unshakable embrace of them all leaves much of the rest of the lower 49 baffled, according to veteran political consultant Claibourne Darden of Atlanta. “Massachusetts is an isolated part of America in terms of political behavior, to the point where folks outside of it do not understand it,” he says. That's already a problem for Kerry, who hopes his Vietnam heroism and centrist rhetoric can overcome his home state's ideological toxicity. “It's the land of Ted Kennedy and Michael Dukakis, and I think Democrats are wary of a candidate with those connections,” says Vaughn Ververs, managing editor of the Hotline, a Washington-based political newsletter. “The view among political junkies is that is a big minus in Kerry's presidential column.”

You don't have to be a conservative to disdain Massachusetts, where the self-righteousness of voters and decision-makers often has nothing to do with righteous causes. The Fells Acres child-molestation case, in which three members of a family were imprisoned after police and prosecutors egregiously manipulated testimony from young children who attended their daycare center, has become a national symbol of unrepentant prosecutorial excess. Forty-eight states let people walk along privately owned beaches at low tide; here, it's considered trespassing. Other states, such as California and Arizona, help rid their legal systems of crushing backlogs by paying to treat low-level drug offenders; in supposedly progressive Massachusetts, a so-called “drug peace” referendum was defeated. State budgets are tight everywhere, but Massachusetts, purportedly an educational citadel, was one of only four states to cut funding for public higher education this year and the only state already planning further cuts for next year. The One and Only, indeed.

Massachusetts' arrogant attitude toward outsiders is legendary. John Adams wrote two centuries ago that “the morals of our people are much better; their manners are more polite and agreeable; our language is better, our taste better, our persons handsomer, our spirit greater, our laws wiser.” At least back then, we had some legitimate grounds for crowing. It's harder to justify our contemporary Napoleonic impulses, such as our attempts to micromanage international trade by cutting off businesses that deal with politically incorrect foreign nations such as Indonesia and Myanmar. (As one analyst wrote in horror of a 1998 attempt by Barney Frank to tamper with federal trade policy: “His plan . . . would allow the state of Massachusetts to set American trade, defense, and foreign policy.”) “There's a surrealness to the arrogance of the place,” says lifelong resident and former Congressman Peter Blute. “And believe me, the other states sense it.”

Humility would seem more in order in the wake of a string of national news stories that paint us as brutish and backward. Newspaper editorialists around the country were aghast when House Speaker Tom Finneran unilaterally pulled the plug on voter-approved public financing for political candidates, then threatened to redistrict away the career of a national leader of campaign-finance reform, Congressman Marty Meehan, when he dared to protest. There's the costly embarrassment of the financially mismanaged Big Dig, the details of which prompted Senator John McCain to remark at a congressional hearing into project cost overruns: “I don't know many places in the world that would . . . accept this kind of performance.” Then there was the all-night session at the State House during which lawmakers partied, drank, slept, and played juvenile pranks on one another while Finneran gaveled through nearly $200 million in amendments to the budget without debate. And it hasn't escaped notice that in the immediate wake of the terrorist attacks last year, when the rest of the country set aside petty differences, Massachusetts politicians never downshifted. As former Massport director Virginia Buckingham noted in her account of the September 11 aftermath, while President George Bush was embracing and rallying his embattled government, Governor Swift and Boston Mayor Tom Menino were giving Massport the cold shoulder. “In Boston,” noted Buckingham, “politics still ruled.”

All right, so we aren't smarter, handsomer, or more progressive than the rest anymore. But don't we at least still have our cachet as the place where the nation's political intelligentsia stop every four years on their way to covering the New Hampshire primary to drink beer, rub elbows, and dope out the future of the nation? “Nobody cares,” says Barone, who covers presidential campaigns for U.S. News & World Report. “The idea of spending an evening in the Parker House bar . . . now that there are nonstop flights from Reagan National to Manchester, there's no reason to ever go to Boston anymore.”

Now that really hurts. But take heart if you still cling to the notion that Massaphobia is just some jealous Brits' way of implying that our political superiority complex is, in reality, a loser's consolation prize. Say what they will, we still possess a unique asset that sets us apart from the out-of-state philistines, a talisman of our specialness that no one can ever deny or duplicate. Says Snickers Ververs of the Hotline: “You still have the Red Sox.”