Saturday, October 30, 2010

Paying forward or passing through

I heard an interview with Charlie Baker on the radio just the other morning and I liked what I heard. It was a relaxed conversation meant, I'm sure, to simply show the human side of the candidate. On that level the endeavor worked to show a good guy with some potentially good ideas and good intentions. I liked the part when he was asked if he could "have a beer" with anybody in history who would it be and he chose Abraham Lincoln. He said he admired the 16th president for the humanity, even the humor and most especially the grace with which he faced some the hardest decisions ever to confront a public leader.

Humor and grace... I liked that.

The piece didn't make me want to change my vote though. I'm firmly in Patrick's camp. (And from what I read in some opinion pages I guess that bespeaks a core flaw in my character.) The radio interview did leave me lamenting that better debate I know we could have had —had the chosen tenor of the campaign been a bit different.

I've met Governor Patrick in person a couple of times, enough to have my own sense of his humor and grace and integrity. I've not always agreed with his stands on every issue, but I have always had some basic sympathy and understanding for those stands, for where he's coming from and where he's trying to go —his goals and his approach toward them.

I've always had a sense of that same respect coming from him, even when he's hearing it from someone who doesn't agree with him on a particular stand.

It's about balance —you could maybe even call it a balance sheet. Patrick talks about Massachusetts, our commonwealth as something he owes a debt to, he talks about being simply aware that he has benefited from certain blessings that are very much of this place and its history: the passion for learning, the deeper cultural calling to social justice, the sense of community based in ideals —on the level of personal history, he talks of being quite simply aware of the opportunity he was given. These gifts comprise a debt in Deval Patrick's ledger and public service is about not paying it back, but paying it forward.

That's a distinction I would have liked to see explored in our politics. It would have been worthwhile debate I think: these different senses of the balance sheet. I don't for a minute doubt that Charlie Baker is genuine in his belief that the books demand balance and I don't think anyone would disagree that this involves the courage to make hard decisions. I'm sure he sees the reconcile function as a public service, too. But, in how we approach the books, there are discussions we have to have about what we value most —what are the costs simply passing through, whether as deferred debt payments or grant anticipation notes, as taxes or health care premiums or tolls —and what more permanently remains.

And then there's grace.

I've heard this said through clenched teeth so many times over the past weeks and months—see you at the polls! —coming from each side of the debate we have ended up with —see you at the polls! ...It comes off sounding like a threat.

As we come to the end of the campaigning, let me just suggest a little more of that grace, no matter how you see the books, passing through or paying forward.

And —oh yeah— see you at the polls!

Monday, October 18, 2010

All history is supposed

I've reached an age where fifty year chunks of time don't seem so big. My own lifetime is nearly such a chunk, now. And so it is that I've been looking at what we call history a little differently of late. Centennials, Bicentennials, I can remember when talk of such milestone increments of time always went to the topic of the settled facts of history. Things of a certain past were etched in stone.

I was about three years old when Martin Luther King Jr. gave his 'I Have A Dream' speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, so just about as far back as I can remember that speech has always been given —a given— and the godlike monumental figure seated as in some sacred temple behind him, he was always already long enshrined, like an embodiment of unquestionable timeless truth. I would read histories where that god spoke of a fiery path we'd passed through defining ourselves as a nation irrevocably. That's the way Lincoln described it, as he sought to bind slavery and freedom to the war cause he led, a fiery path that would light us down to honor or dishonor —in spite of ourselves, that is what he said, as he introduced the Emancipation Proclamation, that is what he said.

There are histories that describe that speech Martin Luther King Jr. gave a hundred years later as some final consummation, a belated historical conclusion. There is that reading that what he laid claim to in the true meaning of our creed was that long overdue conclusion, honorable at long last even in spite of ourselves. King's own rhetoric spoke to that sense of our history —of history itself. He once described Justice as something that travelled through with the geometric certainty of an arc.

Fifty year increments of time.

This November 6th marks the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's election to the presidency. We'll soon be seeing those other anniversaries of that fiery path coming round again: December 20, the secession of South Carolina, the first Southern state to withdraw from the Union. Every terrible battle to follow.

I think back to my own first understandings of the supposed historical facts. My oldest brother read every history he could get his hands on during the Civil War Centennial, he collected every piece of memorabilia. I couldn't play with my toy soldiers on the den floor without him intervening to arrange them along the battle lines he'd read about in a Bruce Catton book or some article from American Heritage Magazine. He'd lecture on 19th century battle tactics while I marveled at the plastic sculptures of soldiers and canons and cavalry horses at 1:48 scale. It was my brother who saved up the gas money, doing odd jobs in the neighborhood. He saw to it that my family made the pilgrimage to Gettysburg that summer vacation —to visit hallowed ground.

Fifty year increments of time. Those days as family memories and my first awe at the whole idea of history. I remember the cyclorama paintings of battle scenes, entering a dark room and being suddenly surrounded by the images of glorious battle, sound effects and the sober narration sounding all around us, telling the story of three days of horrific bloodshed, as the lighting shifted our attention from scene to scene. I remember the long walk up circular stairs to a tower that surveyed the same landscape, so beautifully quiet the next day. We had climbed up in the still early morning. I held my mother's hand. Mist rose up from below. We had a long ride home and wanted an early start back. I remember the way my father was moved at the sight of a memorial monument to those fallen of a Union regiment of Irish "volunteers" —a dark bronze of a wolfhound sleeping at the foot of a celtic cross.

It was only later I became conscious of the working provisional nature of that history, that sacrifice supposed to long endure, the very real visceral levels on which the fiery trial continued. The summer of the Gettysburg Centennial was the same summer of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech. It was the summer of the Birmingham campaign and the fire hoses trained on peaceful protesters, Bull Connor's dogs tearing at their skin.

These were called current events at the time, not history.

Thinking back nearly fifty years I can remember how a hundred seemed like eternity. But think back just twice those fifty years again and Lincoln's own first battles of the fiery trial were going on and nothing of the ensuing history was yet established. It's these increments of time scaled to my own experience that have me positing that perhaps all history is supposed... provisionally. And its meanings, while they are supposed to bind us together as a nation, we are not with any kind of certainty —fixedly— a nation bound.

There is that price to freedom.

I thought of this as I read the news one recent morning. A woman moves in to a small South Carolina town, a neighborhood known as Brownsville, and off a pole on the front of her house she flies her Confederate flag. And her black neighbors plan to march in protest. They have already petitioned her to take down the flag, but Annie Chambers Caddell says it is her right to honor her heritage. She's hung a sign on the chain link fence outside her home that marks her sense of address: 'Confederate Boulevard.'

“I know she has a legal right to do that on her property. But just because it’s legally right, doesn’t make it morally right,’’ said James Patterson, a 43-year-old crane operator who lives in a mobile home next door. Some of Ms. Caddell's neighbors can remember when that flag she's flying was more than an allusion to "heritage" —when it was a chosen deliberate symbol of oppression and intimidation. They remember "the Ku Klux Klan that used to ride through the town," said Violet Saylor, a 74-year-old retired social worker. That's what she sees when she sees her neighbor's Stars and Bars on display. She said the flag brings back memories of Jim Crow in the neighborhood she has lived all her life.

It was just fifty years after the Civil War ended, in 1915, that film-making pioneer, D.W. Griffith released 'Birth of a Nation' —just another of those increments of time. The prior fifty years had seen the Reconstruction of the post war South devolve into corruption and disappointment and the bloodied-but-unbowed resurgent supremacy of Southern Whites had become the narrative, at least for some. Griffith's film took that narrative up and defined it as a national history. "lt is like writing history with lightning" was how President Wilson described it when he saw the groundbreaking silent movie, noted for its "innovative camera techniques and narrative achievements." The film's sympathetic treatment of the Ku Klux Klan would help lend legitimacy to racism and vigilante violence moving into the next fifty years.

We try to find meaning in events, in the stories and struggles. There are the outcomes we perceive, the ones we intend and those we are confronted with whether we intend them or not. We believe them concluded. We might like to believe there are larger verities we can cast in stone. But even as we carve that stone, even as we pretend to define what is true or just or good about us and say that it is fixed somewhere removed from us in history, we must realize that the narratives that make up our history are all ultimately personal and present for all of us. What we share and sustain and what we ignore and deny is up to us: The honor or the dishonor in spite of ourselves. The same measure of years applies to our own lives as applies to our history.

And like Faulkner said, the past isn't ever even past.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The debate that wasn't

The other night in Holliston we were supposed to have a debate. The chairs of the Holliston Democratic Town Committee and the Republican Town Committee had actually put together a common effort to host a forum for the candidates for Lieutenant Governor. The competing contenders were supposed to show up, introduce themselves and take questions from the audience, maybe even each other. I was actually quite proud of my town and my DTC for having advanced the idea, as Democratic Chair Beth Greely described it in her opening remarks, the idea of a basic civil civic conversation, where the differences of approach are acknowledged, but also something of the common goals.

But as we all know there can sometimes be something of a slip betwixt the cup and the lip.

It was just last week we learned that we wouldn't have a Lt. Governor candidate from the Cahill campaign. Holliston's own Paul Loscocco put the kybosch on that one. (Enough said.) And then it was just the day before the event that we learned Lt. Governor Murray wouldn't make it... a scheduling conflict. So it was that we ended up the night of the event with a debate where only one candidate was there to speak. Senator Richard Tisei did show up (and I credit him for that) and so in fairness to him he was afforded a few minutes to stump for the Baker-Tisei campaign and then take questions from the audience. He took a few softballs thrown underhand in the middle of the plate from supporters, but even the questions from those more critical and skeptical of his candidacy (myself included) never rose to the level of debate. There was no one present (on stage and with a microphone) to follow up on and challenge his answers, question his contentions. I was reminded of those one-sided conversations one has with one's dentist —after he has numbed your mouth and filled it with the contents of his toolkit.

My attempt was this: I pointed out that candidate Baker, in one of the ealier televised gubernatorial debates, had been pretty darned dismissive of the ethics reform bill Governor Patrick signed last year. Baker had said it was essentially too little, too late...obviously not enough. I remembered that a certain Senator Tisei, someone very much resembling the Lt. Governor candidate, had actually published an op-ed applauding the bill back when the Governor signed it into law. I tried for a laugh and asked if this was an indication of a rift within the Baker-Tisei campaign —if he was considering coming over to endorse Patrick. (No such luck by the way.) But my follow was of a more serious nature. I asked him to cite just one policy initiative of the Patrick administration that he did applaud and support and would want to follow up on in a Baker-Tisei administration.

He sidestepped the policy question altogether in my estimation. He said that, like Patrick and Murray, he hoped to continue showing up at funerals for fallen Massachusetts servicemen.

Now, of course that's a perfectly laudable and reasonable practice to continue —and of course it completely evades the intent of my question. And believe me I know this is not the first and only politician to evade a reasonable question in the course of this political season. But up out of the dentist's chair I have to say how frustrating it is when we come around to campaign season and the candidates can't credit even an ounce of respect for their opponents' ideas or views.

I have no way of knowing whether Tim Murray would have handled a comparable question with any less spiteful reserve. He wasn't there. I do recall that when candidate Patrick was asked the same question back in '06 he pointed to some of the Romney administration's Smart Growth initiaives that were worthwhile and should be considered further, maybe even funded. We might have a worthwhile conversation where we challenge the Governor for not following through on that comment in any measurable way. He might have valid reasons and he might not. That would be interesting to hear. It would be an actual discussion of policy with real implication for the citizens of this commonwealth.

It would be real debate.

I think that's the point of my complaint here, that we missed having a real debate the other night in Holliston was disappointing —I'm sure it was probably disappointing no matter what perspective you started off with—but in some ways we have been lacking that better debate all along —even in the fare we're served on TV with all the candidate's present. We get caricature and dismissal of our opponents' views, maybe a little ad hominem from time to time, but so precious little candid discussion where those common goals of a community are addressed constructively, where we are maybe even trusting of the other's intentions —even if only for the sake of argument, a better argument.

We're into the election contest now and it is probably not a realistic time to hope for a better discussion from our candidates. Any and all communication the next four weeks is going to be more strategic than candid. Maybe somewhere down the line we'll get past that opacity to where we talk with each other, rather than at or around.

I'm still proud of the debate we tried to have the other night, though, right here in our town. We did have Republicans and Democrats, as just plain citizens, working together to put together the event. People of differing views wanting to be heard, but also just maybe willing to listen to each other. I think the folks who set up the tables and chairs, and who put them away when "The Debate That Wasn't" was over, ultimately brought what mattered most, maybe just the beginning of a willingness —and a lot more than any candidate who showed or didn't show.

Anyway, it was a start.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

October surprise: nothing was delivered

Just a quick thought or two on Paul Loscocco pulling out of the Cahill campaign. My esteemed colleague, Dan Haley and I were talking the other night on Mary Greendale's HCAT show 'Just Thinking' and one of the topics that we touched on briefly was the notion of third party candidacies. There was some sense of the quizzical kicked about on the whole prospect of running a campaign without a realistic chance of winning. Who would want to do such a thing?

I'll admit I've watched Cahill-Loscocco with a lot less fascination than I have had for the apoplectic umbrage on display from Baker people (and Dan in particular) at the very idea of their campaign. There has been some guilty pleasure in that particular watching, I do confess.

But as to 'who would want to do such a thing?' I think there is a valid place for third party candidacies. If I recall correctly when Cahill-Loscocco launched there was talk of a sort of 'Third Way' approach to the politics, with the ticket balanced between old stalwarts of differing parties who were set on looking past the old paralytic dialectic of Right v. Left. While I am still a Patrick supporter, when I first heard talk of that "third" perspective being brought to the debate my thought was it would be a welcome one.

Here we are these months into the campaign, though, and like Dylan sang in one of my favorite songs from 'The Basement Tapes' —"nothing was delivered.""

Paul Loscocco deserves credit for the candor in his statements bowing out. And he and Cahill together deserve to be challenged for their failure, too. We never heard word one on that 'valid third way' beyond the partisan paralysis of our current politics. We got another setup of political egoism to choose.

Loscocco acknowledged as much in remarks, that the Cahill-Loscocco campaign had come down to that, with his homage to the Reagan of his childhood and his confession that he saw the race as about not much more than beating Deval Patrick. He allowed as how Baker-Tisei had beaten Cahill-Loscocco in a de facto Republican primary.

I don't agree with Paul Loscocco's politics a lot of the time. But as for his confession/concession assessment, he got that one just about right.

The "very idea" of a viable third way should indeed be available to voters. We should be able to hear of it offered in third party candidacies. We should be willing hear of it from within the two major parties when candidates voice balanced ideas envisioning consensus policy, rather than their side winning always the next contest. But again, I give credit to Paul Loscocco for ultimately admitting that that wasn't what he and his running mate came to offer. Patrick supporters shouldn't be accusing Loscocco or the Baker campaign of back room dealings. They shouldn't be calling this an October Surprise, some underhanded connivance to steal the election. Candor shouldn't ever be cause for such empty finger pointing accusation. And Paul Loscocco deserves credit for his candor. Read between the lines and he could be singing his old running mate out on that old Dylan tune.

"Nothing was delivered
And I tell this truth to you
Not out of spite or anger
But simply because it’s true
Now, I hope you won’t object to this
Giving back all of what you owe
The fewer words you have to waste on this
The sooner you can go..."