On that dark April day in 1968 when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, a boomer political icon was sanctified. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy broke the news of King’s murder to a black audience in Indianapolis with a speech Joe Klein would, nearly forty years later, call “a sublime example of the substance and music of politics in its grandest form, for its highest purpose—to heal, to educate, to lead.”
“For those of you . . . tempted to be filled with hatred and disgust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I can only say that . . . I had a member of my family killed,” said Kennedy. He quoted Aeschylus on drawing wisdom from pain and closed with a plea for racial harmony. “The vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings who abide in our land. Let us dedicate ourselves to that . . . and say a prayer for our country, and for our people.”
In the carnage that followed the King assassination, hundreds of people were injured and three thousand arrested in a wave of street violence, arson, and looting of major cities. But thanks in part to the eloquence of a Kennedy, Indianapolis stayed quiet. And so did Boston, Massachusetts, thanks to the quick thinking of its own enlightened young leadership.
By coincidence, soul singer James Brown was scheduled to play the Boston Garden the night after the King assassination. The cops, fearful of any large gathering of blacks, wanted to cancel the show. But Boston’s newly elected mayor, Kevin White, and Tom Atkins, the city’s first black city councilor, asked the local public broadcasting station to televise the concert instead in hopes of keeping people off the streets.
This impromptu marriage of musical and political soul accomplished what, in other cities, a show of police force could not. Young black Bostonians stayed home to watch Brown perform and join Mayor White onstage to deliver a fervent appeal for calm. White, who would be on George McGovern’s vice-presidential shortlist four years later, called on the audience to “make Dr. King’s dream a reality for Boston. . . . No matter what any other community might do, we in Boston will honor Dr. King in peace.” It was a proud new chapter in a once-fading industrial city’s renaissance as the capital of the New Frontier. A minor incident in the context of that awful week, perhaps, like any good news about something that didn’t happen. But for relieved and grateful Bostonians, the quick reflexes of White and Atkins were a sneak preview of how young, progressive leadership—the emerging “new generation” touted by John Kennedy—might rewrite the political playbook.
These were its promises: government would no longer be the top-down province of elites, but a new, populist coalition. Graduates of leafy campuses like Williams (Kevin White’s alma mater), Swarthmore (where future governor Michael Dukakis got his degree), and it goes without saying, Harvard and Yale, would take the wheel from an older generation of ward-heeler pols who lacked fancy diplomas. But alongside in the front seat, sharing map duty, would be organized labor, women, and minorities. Unrest over atrocities like the King assassination would be met not with baton-wielding police, but with rhythm and blues and its political equivalent, Kennedyesque appeals to America’s better self. The apparatus of power would be made to work on behalf of the disenfranchised, with progressive principles as a guide. This was not merely a secular goal. As Bobby Kennedy put it, back when religious references in political rhetoric were noncontroversial: “We must recognize the full human equality of all our people—before God, before the law, and in the councils of government. We must do this not because it is economically advantageous—although it is; not because the laws of God and man command it—although they do command it; not because people in other lands wish it so. We must do it for the single and fundamental reason that it is the right thing to do.”
Massachusetts political leaders have held these principles as their marching orders ever since. For a generation known to be inseparable from their loving memories of personal watersheds, it isn’t surprising that the Kennedys, the first political love affairs for many boomers, retain their national mystique. But here in Kennedy country, it’s more like an obsession. In local Democratic circles, if you were too young to have worked for Jack in 1960 or Bobby in 1968, you likely paid your dues with Ted’s 1980 presidential or subsequent Senate runs, or the congressional campaigns of young Joe, Bobby’s eldest. Absent a direct connection, boomer Massachusetts pols still mimic the style, airing TV ads showing themselves in shirtsleeves, tie loosened, rubbing elbows with a meticulously diverse array of grateful citizens. This imagery is as common a sight here as a Dunkin’ Donuts drive-through, and the impact is more than just stylistic. Inspired by the confluence of Kennedy-era liberalism and its own historic activism, Massachusetts has become a prime test kitchen for the boomers’ liberal impulses and political culture. We are quick to expand the notion of commonwealth, most recently defining it to include universal health coverage and full legal marriage rights for gays and lesbians. As one state senator put it during the legislative debate over same-sex marriage. “Massachusetts has always been the conscience of the nation. That is our role.”
Hasn’t it always been? Massachusetts men led the charge against the British and established the first major beachhead of American intellectualism at Harvard. Our best known thinkers—Emily Dickinson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau—still pack cachet. When Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez denounced George W. Bush as “Satan” at the UN in 2006, he brandished the latest book by MIT professor Noam Chomsky, not a tract from some two-bit Berkeley or Ann Arbor academic. We’ve done more than think big thoughts. The populist foundations of American life originated here. Bostonians were the first city dwellers to ride a public transit system to work, the first to attend public schools and enjoy public libraries. When Ronald Reagan referred to America as “a shining city on a hill,” he was cribbing an old nickname for Boston. Our commitment to activist government extends back to the Mayflower Compact of 1620, when freethinking Pilgrims made the formation of a “civil body politic” their first priority. It continues through John Adams, the granddaddy of federalism, to James Michael Curley (“the mayor of the poor”) and—lest we forget—the Kennedys. During this unmatched history of innovation and creativity, Massachusetts has been center stage for some of America’s most profound political debates—over the rights and responsibilities of citizens in a democracy, the immorality of slavery, the moral imperatives of racial justice, and the definition of a just war.
Our robust self-esteem also has deep roots in the Massachusetts political culture. The first seal of the newly chartered Massachusetts Bay Colony in the early seventeenth century featured an Indian begging the Pilgrims to “come over and help us,” a plea imagined by colonists who hadn’t even set foot yet in this allegedly needy New World. More than a century ago, Bostonians modestly called their city the “Hub of the Universe.” The boomers who run the show today, in keeping with that generation’s reputation for immodesty, see no reason to change the nickname. “How we treat our most vulnerable, how we provide the greatest opportunity for our citizens . . . these are the building blocks of a foundation that was established first in Massachusetts,” bragged House Speaker Sal DiMasi, a liberal Democrat, in his inaugural speech. “Massachusetts has been getting it right for more than 300 years.”
Given the state’s disproportionate importance in national Democratic and liberal circles, this hubris seems justified to those who wallow in it. For the past half-century, Massachusetts has held unmatched sway over the national Democratic Party. In addition to that extraordinary run of presidential candidates, the state has been home to two of the last five Democratic Speakers of the U.S. House. Massachusetts has been the source of an unceasing supply of top Democratic political consultants, strategists, field organizers, pollsters, and academic policy wonks. Even our backbencher congressmen are familiar national figures on the cable TV talk shows, from openly gay Rep. Barney Frank to campaign-finance-reform crusader Rep. Marty Meehan. In the Bush era, our senators and members of congress have been the front line of partisan attack.
Massachusetts’s political clout is not a fluke. It has roots in the state’s contemporary history as a powerful cultural and political influence on the boomers.
Growing up in Cambridge, the son of a history professor and an academic administrator, I knew I lived someplace special and influential. By the standards of late-1960s America, the experience was about as hip as a childhood could be, or so we believed. On a sunny Saturday, while Andy of Mayberry out there in flyover country had gone fishing, my teenage friends and I were on our bikes cruising around Harvard Square, pedaling through clouds of pot smoke on the Cambridge Common, watching Sly and the Family Stone play for free for the local hippies, catching the occasional whiff of tear gas left over from an antiwar demonstration.
The first wave of boomers was graduating from college and turning Massachusetts college towns into prime breeding grounds for many of the progressive politicians, policy wonks, and cultural critics who make American liberalism what it is today. Their peers in New York, Madison, Wisconsin, and San Francisco were doing their part. But Massachusetts in the 1960s was a wellspring for a counterculture celebrating rock music and experimentation with drugs. The Who and Led Zepplin first performed for American audiences at local clubs like the Boston Tea Party, and Harvard gave Timothy Leary the space he needed to get to the bottom of LSD. At the turn of the decade, as resistance to the “Amerikkkan war machine” came into vogue, Massachusetts campuses were second to none in springtime student strikes, campus buildings occupied, and nonnegotiable demands issued. We turned out the biggest crowd in the country on Vietnam War moratorium day, the only rally that day Sen. George McGovern chose to address. Two years later, we were the only state McGovern carried in the most lopsided loss in U.S. history. Well before Nixon’s subsequent term was cut short in disgrace, Volkswagens, Volvos, and Saabs across Massachusetts were sporting bumper stickers with smug slogans like “Don’t Blame Me, I’m from Massachusetts” and “The One and Only.”
Massachusetts boomers grew up feeling special and politically superior, a perception ratified by simple comparisons. Rankings of the nation’s smartest populations always put Massachusetts close to the top. While large swaths of America were drawn to the conservative messages of Richard Nixon, George Wallace, and Ronald Reagan (“Ray-gun” to local liberals), prominent Massachusetts politicians of that era included antiwar stalwarts like John Kerry of Vietnam Veterans against the War; liberal technocrat Michael Dukakis from Brookline, where folks balk at pledging allegiance to the flag at town meetings; Ted Kennedy; and Boston’s mayor Kevin White, the New Frontier–era populist who was more likely to spend city funds hosting rock concerts than siding with noise-averse bluenoses. “We’re gonna tell all our friends at Woodstock, this is the best place there is to play music,” said Robbie Robertson of the Band at a 1970 Harvard Stadium concert, an apt testament to the preeminence of our home address.
I know how this inflated the self-esteem of young Massachusetts boomers because I am one of them. I went to private schools with the sons and daughters of the greater Boston intellectual and professional classes, and began my career as a local political journalist after graduating from college in 1977. I’ve had a box seat for the heyday of the Massachusetts economic “miracle” and the Boston anticrime “miracle,” and for their decidedly unmiraculous collapses. I’ve been up close and personal to John Kerry’s quintessentially boomer career, for the full flowering of political correctness in one of its national citadels, for the construction and failure of both an expansive welfare state and history’s largest public-works project. I’ve spent countless hours reporting on the Kennedy legacy, warts and all, from Ted to his congressman nephew, Joe, through a horde of other offspring, hangers-on, and wannabes.
More than forty years after the Camelot analogy was created and spun into American political history by a newly widowed but quick-thinking Jackie Kennedy, Massachusetts’s love affair with itself—still robust despite near-daily indictments of its shallowness—is one of the few remaining artifacts of that high-flying time. But the sixties are gone, and so is most of the supporting evidence for Massachusetts exceptionalism. The state has become an abandoned movie lot where great moments in American civic life and modern-day political liberalism were once played out, but no more.
Despite the unique advantages enjoyed by our moneyed classes, such as the superior health care provided by our world-class teaching hospitals, those benefits don’t trickle down to the common man and woman the way some liberals imagine. Even as local bureaucrats struggled to find a way to provide the low-cost coverage promised in the state’s heavily hyped universal health insurance plan, a late 2006 study found costs for the average worker’s health care had soared to nearly $10,000 a year, fourth-highest in the nation. “Labor is strong, so benefits tend to be rich,” noted one health-care analyst. “High-end providers such as teaching hospitals have higher unit costs for surgery, and there are many insurance benefits mandated by the state.” Yet unless you already have one, good luck finding the stable white-collar jobs needed to keep up with such spiraling costs. Traditional manufacturing long ago fled south and west, followed by alarming numbers of Massachusetts residents. Our vaunted universities fueled a technology sector boom in the 1980s known as the “Massachusetts Miracle.” But the boom faded by the early 1990s and went completely bust at the turn of the century; in the last recession the state lost nearly 150,000 jobs in the tech sector and the professional and business services that feed off it, and only a fraction of those have been recovered. Software and medical labs may still turn out the occasional breakthrough, but chances are the products they yield will be manufactured in other states with lower taxes and higher profit margins.
The high-tech industry that temporarily fueled the boom before it went bust has since found the economic and political climates in North Carolina, Texas, and even blue, high-cost California more to its liking, for good reason. A 2005 report card by the nonpartisan Government Performance Project gave Massachusetts poor grades, scolding state government for providing “no true statewide capital plan [or] forward-looking comprehensive workforce plan . . . sporadic strategic planning and performance measurement . . . minimal statewide planning.” The result? After two decades of Democratic rhetorical homage to the need for enhanced economic competitiveness, a 2006 study by a Boston think tank found that “on average Massachusetts firms have costs 20–30% higher than similar companies in Texas, North Carolina and New Hampshire in nine key industries.”
Meanwhile, Massachusetts leads the nation in precious few measurements of economic dynamism. We are only the nation’s thirteenth largest state, but rank fifth in median housing costs, ninth in per-capita state and local tax burden, ninth-worst in economic burden on small business. We have the fourth-highest average auto-insurance and natural-gas bills, the sixth-highest electricity prices. Caught in the pincer of soaring costs and stagnant incomes, Massachusetts residents grasp at straws; we spend more on lottery tickets than do all but four other states, a desperate $681 per capita extracted almost entirely from folks who can ill afford it. In the contemporary annals of state-level political and economic success stories, we are yesterday’s liberal newspaper in a new world where both newspapers and liberalism seem to be on life support.
But Massachusetts does set the national pace in one unfortunate area: the development and export into the Democratic Party mainstream of bogus political strategies and practices that misjudge, offend, and ignore the very voters to whom Democrats stake the most passionate claim. In his vivid analysis of the nation’s reddest state, What’s the Matter with Kansas? journalist Tom Frank spoke for boomer liberals everywhere when he puzzled over working-class voters “getting their fundamental interests wrong” by siding with wedge issue–wielding Republicans. “For us it is the Democrats that are the party of workers, of the poor, of the weak and the victimized,” he wrote. “Understanding this, we think, is basic; it is part of the ABCs of adulthood.” Add a D to that alphabet—for delusional.
Democrats and their sympathizers can look through the microscope at Massachusetts and see the failures that have too often critically compromised the contemporary liberal argument. Chief among these is the eyebrow-raising gap, often invisible to boomer Democratic leadership, between their cushy lifestyles and those of the folks they purport to champion, and the corresponding chasm between their promises and performance.
For a state chock-full of liberals who love to rant about what Ted Kennedy calls America’s “shameful” gulf between the haves and have-nots, Massachusetts under liberal boomer stewardship has a lot of explaining to do. According to a recent study by the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, a liberal think tank, the earnings gap between wealthy and low-income families grew over the past twenty years at a faster pace here than in all but two other states, New York and Arizona. Billions of dollars in spending on education and child welfare haven’t spared Massachusetts from the nation’s largest gap between the standard of living of low-income and middle- to high-income children. For those lucky enough to afford one of the state’s upper-tier colleges and graduate schools, and for the skilled financial-service or medical specialists holding six-figure jobs in Boston’s elite brokerage firms and hospitals, life here is sweet, a question of which hip restaurant to patronize this weekend. But the average family in the bottom fifth of wage earners is pulling down seven times less than the top earners, with little or no upward movement in their wages. Local researchers say the state’s median annual earnings, adjusted for inflation, have risen a microscopic 1.2 percent since 1989, even as productivity has been goosed by 50 percent. For fifty-four-year-old Felicity Rivera, a widowed Puerto Rican immigrant raising two teenagers, that means a losing battle to get by on her minimum-wage machine operator’s job with a Worcester plastics manufacturer. “It’s so hard keeping up with the cost of living,” she told a reporter. “Everything goes up every year, except my wages.” The benefits of the state’s extraordinary intellectual assets “have not been evenly shared in the last 20 years,” concluded the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center study. The inequities of capitalism and the pressures of globalization are everywhere, but Massachusetts “has more extreme versions of trends that were happening nationally.”
And the sorry truth is that the anguish of being left off the gravy train extends well beyond Massachusetts’s poorest to the likes of Carrie Sylvester, a divorced mother of two with a good white-collar job as an Internet publisher and a home in a bucolic coastal suburb of Boston. “I never expected to live large in this state,” she told a local newspaper. But with constant upward pressure on the cost of living, most notably through a property-tax burden exacerbated by soaring home values and the insatiable demands of municipal budgets, it’s all she can do to keep up her mortgage payments. “I just want to get by, and it’s almost impossible to do it. The cost of everything around here is crazy.”
It was his vague but tantalizing promise to relieve property-tax pressure that helped elect Deval Patrick governor in the fall of 2006. Patrick, the former top civil rights official in the Clinton administration’s Justice Department, was handsome, poised, and an elegant articulator of Kennedy-era imagery. Citing his rise from the slums of Chicago to Harvard Law School and beyond, Patrick cast his candidacy as a beacon of “hope” for the state’s downtrodden. “I don’t have the insider connections and the money the other candidates do,” he told an enthralled crowd of liberals at the state Democratic convention. “But what I do have is a plan to move us forward, and the life and leadership experience to make it real.”
During the campaign against Republican Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey, polls showed the voters preferred Healey’s positions to Patrick’s on a range of hot-button topics, from denying driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants to allowing broad public access to criminal-offender records. But taxes and the overall economic/cost-of-living climate were the big issues. While Healey hammered away at Patrick for opposing a state income-tax rollback that voters had called for in a 2000 referendum, Patrick countered that easing the property-tax burden was more important, even if it meant keeping the extra income-tax revenue and funneling it to cities and towns to help relieve their budgetary stress. By nearly a two-to-one margin, voters agreed.
It’s unclear, to say the least, if Patrick has any hope of delivering on his sales pitch. As he took office in January 2007, the state was looking at a billion-dollar budget deficit. But if he can’t deliver, while the beleaguered middle- and lower-classes of Massachusetts may be disappointed, few will be surprised. While Ted Kennedy issues press releases from the compound in Hyannisport blaming the working classes’ distress on stingy Republicans and Patrick retreats to his 10,000-square-foot summer mansion in the Berkshires—dubbed the “Taj Deval” by a competitor in the Democratic primary—to mull his unfulfilled promises, Cynthia Bashaw of Byfield, a rural town in the state’s “drive-by” midsection that the Boston elites whiz by on the way to their vacation homes, will be nursing her hard-earned cynicism. One morning during the governor’s race, Bashaw saw an aerial photo of the Taj Deval in the newspaper and was moved to write a letter to the editor. “I was at the grocery store trying to figure out how to make the $76.24 in my checking account feed my family of five for five days until my next paycheck. The story made me wonder what kind of principles and philosophy guide a man who builds such a house in a world of need.”
Bashaw’s skepticism proved warranted weeks before Patrick took office, when he stunned even his most ardent supporters by unveiling plans for a weeklong series of inaugural events costing well over a million dollars, far more than had ever been spent on a Massachusetts gubernatorial inauguration; donations from corporate lobbyists were “capped” at $50,000. Wrote one local newspaper editorialist: “This is a celebration more fit for a king than governor of the commonwealth.”
Egomania and the shameless bait and switch have been consistent characteristics of liberal boomer stewardship of Massachusetts. “Mike Dukakis doesn’t just talk about Democratic values,” read a 1988 Dukakis-for-president brochure. “He puts them into action.” The Dukakis campaign went a long way on the promise of a national version of the Massachusetts Miracle, and it sounded just swell. “Mike Dukakis believes Americans, no matter where they live, want the same things for themselves and their families: good jobs at good wages, good schools for their children, decent housing, safe and attractive neighborhoods, affordable health care, a clean environment. Above all, they want a strong and thriving economy.”
But even as Dukakis was getting waxed by George H. W. Bush in the 1988 election, the phoniness of the “miracle” was being exposed for all to see. An unsupportable state budget pumped full of pork-barrel spending on overpriced consultants and patronage hacks collapsed in a heap of social-service cutbacks and tax hikes. Bush famously lampooned Dukakis’s mediocre environmental record by campaigning on a boat in filthy Boston Harbor. A universal health-care plan hustled through the legislature to give candidate Dukakis a campaign talking point was later scrapped for lack of funds, a precursor, perhaps, to the dubious future of the current health-care scheme.
As he accepted his party’s nomination in 1988, Dukakis told the nation the choice was about “competence,” not ideology. But when it comes to providing opportunity and hope for the masses, the competence of Massachusetts political elites, then and now, is highly suspect at best. Census research shows more than 230,000 people fled the state between 2000 and 2005 in search of stable, well-paying jobs and decent, affordable housing. “They want a yard, they want a home, they want to have the American dream,” said one demographic expert reviewing the exodus data. “And it’s persistently unaffordable in Massachusetts.”
If the facts of who doesn’t prosper in the bluest state aren’t enough to undercut liberal boomer credibility, the sight of who is benefiting seals the indictment. In his 1964 book The Pursuit of Justice, Bobby Kennedy wrote: “The problem of power is how to achieve its responsible use rather than its irresponsible and indulgent use—of how to get men of power to live for the public rather than off the public.” Kennedy’s epiphany has been a crucial part of the liberal self-image as reformist and populist; forty years later, star consultant Robert Shrum was still channeling the notion of Democrats “fighting” for “the people versus the powerful” through John Kerry, his seventh consecutive losing Democratic presidential candidate.
Copyright © 2007 by Jon Keller. All rights reserved.