In Her Own Words

I looked around me in the “bunker,” as the Emergency Operations Center near State Police Headquarters on Route 9 in Framingham has come to be called. It's a not particularly secret Cold War-era warren of rooms deep underground, with heavy, vaultlike doors right out of Dr. Strangelove and a command center that looks like Mission Control. All around me were skilled and experienced public-safety officials responding to an unimaginable terrorist attack and the resulting uncertainty and fear.

But as I sat at the head of a conference table on that morning of September 11, 2001, as filled with disbelief as everybody else in the room, I had an odd realization: I didn't know these people very well.

Each of them was looking to me to make some decision or to back up the flurry of decisions they had already made. Colonel John DiFava of the state police was telling me where he had dispatched extra patrols. Fire Marshal Stephen Coan was relating how firefighters from all over the state wanted to leave immediately to help in the search and rescue efforts at the World Trade Center towers. Attorney General Tom Reilly was incensed about reports that Secretary of State William Galvin planned to cancel the Ninth Congressional District election to choose a successor to the late U.S. Representative Joe Moakley, which was already under way.

Some observers think my decision to go ahead with that election was a high point of my term in office. “Particularly admirable,” one columnist called it. “She evidenced uncommon qualities of leadership at a time that called for clear-headed and sober thinking.” Opined the usually combative Herald: “Her finest moment to date.” What they don't know is that, without my knowledge or consent, preparations had already begun to stop the voting.

My State House aides, who were gathered in my office in Boston, called to tell me Galvin was preparing to shut down the polls. They assumed this was his purview and did not suggest I intervene or overrule him. But the reaction in the Framingham bunker was much different. From these experts who were trained to respond to threats, the advice was loud and clear: Don't cancel the election. Don't give in to the terrorists.

I ordered that the voting go on.

I learned a critical element of leadership that day: to listen to the right group of advisers. On September 11, that group was the one in the bunker, not my staff in the State House. These were the appropriate advisers because of their training and skills, regardless of whether or not I knew them very well.

It's natural to respond with trust and affection when you work with, and become dependent upon, a team. That's why, to this day, another notable event of my term in office remains so painful: the controversy three years ago over whether members of my staff should have been allowed to babysit for my infant daughter while I was lieutenant governor. To this day, it troubles me that some who follow Massachusetts politics think of me primarily in relation to the “babysitting scandal.” The feeling that I let down my staff, my family, and the public by my actions and by how I handled the explosive aftermath continues to nag at me.

Most people are no doubt aware that crisis management became an unintended hallmark of my tenure. Some of the crises of my time in office were self-inflicted media storms; others had to do with major public policy decisions following extraordinary events in our state and nation during my four years as lieutenant governor and governor. I made some good decisions in these situations, and some bad ones.

Who wouldn't love to recast history in a more attractive mold? Of course I would relish leaving office with accolades, high poll numbers, and flattering tributes to my service. I expect that will not be the case. So I will not attempt to draw a portrait of a brilliant, popular, and thin Jane Swift.

My purpose in writing is simple: I care deeply about public service, and I hope some of the lessons I learned will help others interested in leadership. My thoughts here are by no means exhaustive — simply a few personal reflections.

I never planned to become governor. I am a strongly pragmatic person. I did not believe that a Republican woman from the smallest city in the farthest-flung section of the state was going to have a future in statewide politics. My unlikely ascension to the corner office has been the greatest professional privilege of my life. I view even the most painful moments as the price of admission for the rarest of opportunities.

It would be nice to think that the difference between my good decisions and my bad ones was based solely on my experience in office — that I made bad decisions early and better decisions later in my term. That's only partly true. I think I made better decisions on pure policy problems and responded less effectively when topics turned more personal. It's easier to be dispassionate, thoughtful, and decisive when your own emotions aren't involved.

My emotions were very much involved in the so-called babysitting scandal. Had I made better decisions, there would have been no crisis to manage. Wishing that you hadn't made mistakes, however, doesn't mean you can't learn from them. I have two very strong memories that speak to my poor handling of that controversy.

The first is of my initial reaction to the story when it broke just after the new year in 2000. My strongest feelings weren't about the accuracy of the reporting or the potential crosscurrents this controversy could provoke in the debate over working mothers. Instead, I was consumed with maternal guilt. I wondered whether I had ever entrusted my then-14-month-old daughter Elizabeth to someone who felt angry or inconvenienced watching her.

The second important memory is of a meeting I had with a handful of advisers in my office as the controversy raged in the media during those frigid January days. “Not Too Swift” was the headline on the editorial in the Globe. “Swift suffers from delusion,” wrote Globe columnist Eileen McNamara, who called me “high-handed” and “arrogant.” Three of my closest advisers and friends batted around conflicting suggestions and advice. But what was most noteworthy was the degree of emotion and anger in the room.

It may be obvious to others — although it was not, at the time, to me — what the problems were with my management of this firestorm. I know now that it was virtually impossible for me to take advice and make decisions when I was responding emotionally as a mother, not thinking rationally as a public official. I also know that seeking help only from those closest to me almost guaranteed that I would not get the advice I needed. To receive the best advice, you have to have the courage and clear thinking to consult the right people.

I was far too late in accepting responsibility. “You know what,” I said at first: “I am not going to apologize for trying to be a good mother and a good lieutenant governor.” Later I was fined $1,250 by the state Ethics Commission, which found that the episode created “the appearance of impropriety.” “Maybe I should have come to this conclusion earlier,” I told reporters finally, “but I am willing to accept responsibility for my actions and to say when I've been wrong.”

“So how was the coverage?” I asked in the lingo with which my husband, Chuck, and I came to speak about the evening news. The long drive from Boston to our home in the Berkshires may have given me time to finish paperwork and return phone calls, but it also meant that I was rarely able to watch the TV news myself. As usual, the dinner hour had long since passed by the time I had walked through the door of our farmhouse after a long day spent answering reporters' questions in the hall outside my office. And I could tell by the look on Chuck's face that something wasn't right.

I put our twins to bed, popped Beauty and the Beast into the VCR for Elizabeth, then turned to my husband and asked him for the lowdown.

“You looked angry and uncertain,” he said.

“But I felt very comfortable, and I knew exactly what I wanted to say,” I responded defensively.

“That's not how you looked,” he said.

“Well, there's not much I can do about it now,” I retorted more than a little sullenly.

That scenario played out in our home on many nights. When you're in the public eye, perception of your leadership abilities is shaped by your communication skills. And communicating on TV was not my strong suit.

I had not expected this. Since my earliest days in politics, I had prided myself on my speaking ability — what longtime presidential adviser David Gergen calls “the capacity to persuade.” As a state senator and a congressional candidate, jobs that mainly called for personal contact, I had used my skills to good effect, convincing Senate colleagues to vote my way or administration officials to do the right thing for my district. I got positive reviews when I spoke in front of business groups and academic audiences.

Then I became lieutenant governor. What I thought had been my greatest strength was suddenly a significant weakness. It was obvious that my capacity to persuade would now depend on my ability to project through television. Not only did I fail to recognize my weakness in this area as quickly as I should have, but my defensiveness delayed me in assembling a team to help correct the problem.

I can almost guarantee that when I speak in person to a group or meet someone even briefly, I will hear that I am “so different” from what was expected — nicer, more articulate. I used to take solace in such compliments. I should have seen them as a wake-up call. Most Massachusetts residents will know me only through TV. If even my husband saw something different from what I wanted to project, there was a problem.

I was in the midst of endless difficult budget meetings, poring through revenue projections and looking for ways to slow the seemingly endless flow of red ink, when my schedule called for me to take time out and offer greetings to an advocacy group awaiting my arrival in the Great Hall of the State House.

I walked out of my office and down the wide marble stairs, hastily reviewing my notes and speaking points. I was preoccupied by the hard decisions still awaiting me. After welcoming the group and offering a few words, I started to make my way back to my office.

A young boy eight or nine years old was trying to get my attention. I was often asked by youngsters for an autograph or to pose with them for a picture. I loved those moments. But this boy had a more determined look about him.

“Governor,” he began in a very grown-up voice, “thank you for the funding you saved for mental health programs. You can't know what it means for my brother, my family, and me.”

I was a bit taken aback. I think I gave him a quick hug and a mumbled thank you. Then I headed back to make those “big” decisions.

Most of the power of the governor comes through the allocation of state tax dollars. Setting a budget is really about setting a public agenda. I took that responsibility seriously and actually enjoyed it. Of course, as revenue collections collapsed with the tanking stock market and an economy that slowed still further after the events of September 11, those decisions grew more difficult. Over the last year, I had to unilaterally veto or reduce spending by $850 million. And I was constantly confronted with proof of how the choices I was being forced to make affected very real lives — including those of people who were not quite so delighted.

Another encounter was as poignant as my meeting with the youngster in the State House — but in an entirely different way. Shopping for groceries gives Chuck and me a few quiet moments to talk. One weekend day, while my mother watched Elizabeth and our twin daughters, Lauren and Sarah, we went to the local Stop & Shop, filled our cart, and headed for the checkout line.

There I saw a former schoolmate packing groceries. In middle school, this girl had been one of those standouts the rest of us envied: bright, pretty, popular, and fairly well-to-do (at least, by North Adams standards). Unlike most of us, she went off to a prestigious private high school. I don't remember if the car crash that caused her debilitating head injury happened there or in college. But since I had begun to see her at her job, I'd been thinking a lot about the frailty of life — and the challenges some people have been forced to overcome.

As I made small talk with the cashier, I realized that my former schoolmate was trying to get my attention.

“Jane, do you remember me? We went to school together,” she said.

“Sure, I remember you,” I said, smiling but a bit uncomfortable. I found myself wondering how much she actually remembered about her school years and whether her injuries had spared her any mental anguish about how dramatically her life had changed. She quickly jerked me back to the present.

“I had an accident, you know, Jane, and now I'm on MassHealth,” she informed me, referring to the program that administers Medicaid and children's health insurance in Massachusetts. Before I could think of a response, she continued: “Why are you eliminating dental coverage for MassHealth? What am I supposed to do?” I think I mumbled some lame answer while wondering if I should launch into my speech about the depth of the fiscal crisis or the problems the program had securing dental services for children. I knew it wouldn't matter to my girlhood friend that we were going to use some of the savings from adult coverage to pay for children's services. I resisted launching into a technical conversation about optional versus mandatory services in the health plan. A sympathetic manager shuttled my one-time schoolmate off to another checkout line.

I'm proud of my response to the fiscal crisis that affected my term in office. I was determined not to shirk responsibility for tough decisions, and I'm comfortable with them. But my encounter at the Stop & Shop was another uncomfortable reminder of how each of these decisions affected real people.

For many people in Massachusetts and across the country, I will be remembered as the first governor to have given birth while in office. To me, this was more than a distinction for the record books. My family is my top priority. The first week I was lieutenant governor, I made a rule: I would not work on Sunday. I would go to church and spend time with my family. I was rigid in rejecting requests for appearances on Sundays. The routine of 9:30 Mass, dinner with my parents, and a leisurely afternoon is treasured by my daughters, my husband, and me. We know that Sunday is coming, even in the craziest weeks.

This has caused some problems. One of my staunchest longtime Berkshire supporters, a person of significance in the community, withdrew his support after I declined to attend an event on a Sunday afternoon. While I regret the outcome in that instance, I treasure the Sundays I spent over a four-year period going to church and creating my one reliable family routine. It was my husband who told me that four years would come and go: I could meet and impress every person in the state, but I might miss watching my daughters grow up. Because it was so widely known that I had children at home, most people were gracious about my Sunday rule.

There was something else important about those Sundays. For me, a key to maintaining my perspective is my faith. Raised as a Catholic, I was an altar server and then a lector in my school years, and my mother teaches in a Catholic school. During earlier periods of my adult life, like many of my peers raised in devout Catholic households, I was mostly a Catholic by baptism, not practice. But like many lapsed Catholics, I found my way back to church when I had children of my own.

I have not openly discussed my faith because I have public positions that contradict church doctrine — notably, I am in favor of a woman's right to choose. First in deference to my mother and later to protect my own ability to worship, I opted not to raise my Catholicism in a public way.

During my time as lieutenant governor and governor, faith has centered and sustained me. I have come to believe that not mentioning its role in my life denies a central element that has guided my commitment to public service. Each week as I struggled with important policy decisions or the internal politics rampant at the highest levels of state government, I would use the teachings at Mass or the comforting ritual of the service to center and challenge myself. Our pastor, Father Cyr, had a real gift for practically applying each week's sermon to the worldly challenges of daily life. And the parish itself has a nurturing sense of community that is a balm for my soul.

Among other things, my faith helped me manage the dehumanizing element of public life. When you are a public person, you learn to accept that people talk about you, sometimes in the harshest terms. I have heard people standing 5 feet away speak about me in a normal tone of voice as if I wasn't there. (The most biting commentaries and personal critiques, of course, are usually delivered from a distance.)

Church is rehumanizing for me. I can relate the day's teaching to some challenge at work or at home. The other parishioners, particularly those with young children, offer greetings or thoughts that are only tangentially related to my “day job.”

I have also found another, more unlikely source of strength. While I was an athlete in high school and played rugby in college, my attempts at exercise as a young adult were sporadic. Over the last year and a half, I have enjoyed a running program that provides me with time to recharge my batteries.

I started running when the twins were six weeks old. At first, I would run on an old racehorse-training track on our farm. It's either three-tenths or four-tenths of a mile around, depending on whether you talk to Chuck's aunt or his uncle, who also live there.

I am a great admirer of the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation and its “Race for the Cure.” A close college friend lost her mother to breast cancer, and I was devastated when one of my bridesmaids died of cancer in 1997. I decided to run in the Albany 5K Race for the Cure in October of 2001. I finished in a respectable time, but, more important, I enjoyed myself.

Shortly after bowing out of the race for governor, I made the commitment to channel my newfound time and excess energy into this other kind of running. I decided to run a half-marathon in Portland. The timing was good: The race was in early October, allowing me to do a lot of the necessary training in the warm summer months.

In mid-August, at a fundraising conference in Wyoming for the Republican Governors Association, I sat at dinner next to the most fit politician in America. Governor Gary Johnson of New Mexico runs several miles a day and has finished the Ironman Triathlon. When I sat with him in Wyoming, he had just completed a 100-mile bike race. He encouraged me to follow a much more aggressive training schedule. I started running five or six days a week, either early in the morning or in the evening after I had put the girls to bed.

The day of the race dawned sunny and cool. It was perfect running weather. I headed to the starting line with my college friend, my campaign director Stacey Rainey, and the two troopers working my security detail.

I was very nervous. I had done several 10-mile runs but I had never run 13.1 miles. The last half-mile was tough, but I could see the finish line. I was pushing myself as fast as I could go. I saw the look of surprise and joy on Chuck's face as he saw me chugging in at the 2:13 mark. Running is very different from politics — especially long-distance running. Running is objective: The more you do it, the better you get. That rule does not apply universally to politics.

“How do you do it?” asked the nurse before her shift ended.

I had been confronted with that question so many times, I shouldn't have been surprised that even the nurse treating my sudden bout of viral meningitis in November would feel compelled to ask it. I gave the simple but honest answer: “I have a lot of help.”

One of the best things about my job has been encouraging girls and young women to take on leadership roles in public service. Sometimes I have been rewarded with flesh-and-blood examples of the difference I could make.

For instance, the young woman who sheepishly approached me at an event recently. “Hi,” she said.

“Nice to meet you,” I offered.

I could see her screwing up her courage, “You wouldn't remember, but we kind of met before. Well, we didn't meet, but I saw you speak at another women's forum. I asked you what you would tell a young woman who was interested in getting involved in politics, and you said, 'Run!' So, I did,” she said, and let the story taper off.

“You did?” I wanted to hear what had happened.

“Yes,” she said shyly. “And I won. I ran for town-meeting member and 5 people out of 13 were elected, and I won.”

I really was excited for her. We talked a bit about how she could prepare for future office and what a joy a first electoral success is. That conversation made my whole day.

I've thought a lot about the subject of women in politics. My motherhood received exhaustive attention. While it was and is the central role in my life, it is not the dominant factor in my professional decision-making. Yet it overshadowed many of the policy or political initiatives I undertook.

It's an unending balancing act. I often felt that by refusing to allow reporters a glimpse of my children during personal times, I was denying my family's important role in my life. Undoubtedly, the press — and, therefore, the public — never got a full picture of me as a person. Meanwhile, refraining in public from a typical mother's gushing over her children's latest accomplishments took enormous discipline.

My strong feelings about this made one aspect of the gubernatorial campaign this past summer and fall particularly hard for me. Sitting on the sidelines, I was bothered a lot by the occasional inference — or, for that matter, the outright allegation — that my time in public office might make it harder for other women to succeed in Massachusetts politics. I hope that, whatever future professional challenges I encounter, I'll have the chance to keep promoting broader opportunities for women.

I won't forget the faces of young children, particularly girls, who looked at me with admiration and affection. I once caught a girl whispering in the front row and shooting surreptitious looks my way, for example, as I made my way to the front of a school auditorium.

“Are you really the governor?” she asked doubtfully.

“Yes, I am,” I replied — I hope confidently. “Why?”

“Because you're a girl,” she said, and promptly dissolved into quiet giggles with her girlfriend.