Kevin Baker: Defending Massachusetts from Republican Attacks

Roundup: Historians' Take

Kevin Baker, in Am Heritage (April-May 2005):

The seemingly interminable 2004 presidential campaign is well behind us now, but I’m still not willing to let it go yet. I want to hear an apology from someone about the most egregious smear to emerge from the campaign. I’m not talking about the Swift Boat Veterans, or “flip-flopping,” or anything perpetrated by Michael Moore. What I mean is the decision to transform my old home state into an epithet.

I didn’t have the privilege of being born in Massachusetts, but I did grow up there, and I never thought I would hear one of our 13 original states used as an insult during a presidential debate (though it did take some punches during the 1988 Dukakis campaign). Yet there was President Bush, throughout his third go-round with Sen. John Kerry, telling us that “only a senator from Massachusetts” could believe this or that. The charge that Mr. Kerry was from Massachusetts was repeated again and again throughout the election, the implication being that simply hailing from such a bizarre, addled, liberal place ought to be enough to disqualify anyone from the Presidency.

Well, as George Washington Plunkitt once said, “Politics, it ain’t beanbag.” But I thought that if no one else is going to, I might write a few words myself in defense of Massachusetts.

I thought of pointing out that Massachusetts is not nearly as “liberal” as Mr. Bush would have it, either in the traditional meaning of that word or as the pejorative that assorted right-wingers have tried to make it. The state is currently working on its fourth straight Republican governor, and a Utah Mormon at that. It was also one of the first states to launch a tax revolt, back in the 1970s. Of course, a much earlier Massachusetts tax revolt produced results that even Karl Rove might appreciate.

I considered writing about that Revolutionary heritage. About how many of the fathers of our freedom came from Massachusetts: Samuel Adams and James Otis, and John Hancock and Paul Revere. Of how the first battles of our War for Independence were fought by those gun-toting yeoman farmers on Lexington Green and Concord Bridge, or of how Massachusetts was not only the cradle of liberty but the birthplace of Presidents from all parties: the Adamses, Kennedy, and our forty-first President, George H. W. Bush (paging Dr. Freud).

I thought of tracing my state’s ancient history of tolerance and open-mindedness. Of mentioning how Massachusetts was the first state to elect a black U.S. senator after Reconstruction, Edward Brooke—another Republican!—and how it was Massachusetts that raised the first black regiment in the Civil War, the gallant 54th, so magnificently commemorated by the famous Saint-Gaudens sculpture on the Boston Common.

To be sure, tolerance was not exactly at a premium in 2004, as voters in one state after another chose to preserve the sanctity of marriage. Massachusetts was much excoriated for not engaging in this curious intellectual exercise. But in fact, as a rash of studies after the election showed, the Bay State is a veritable paragon of “moral values”—with the lowest divorce rate, practically the lowest percentage of suicides, and the highest percentage of individuals with bachelor’s degrees in the country.

I even considered waxing rhapsodic about the sheer beauty of the place. The winding cobblestoned streets on Boston’s Beacon Hill, America’s original “shining city on a hill”; the beaches and cranberry bogs of Cape Cod; the rolling hills and fields of the west of the state. But who doesn’t think his home state is beautiful? And who really knows his whole state—even if it’s the size of Rhode Island....

I never like it when people call the South “redneck country,” or when news commentators flippantly refer to our great industrial heartland as “the rust belt.” I think if we really are to pull together as a nation, we need to restore at least a basic respect for how we all live and where we come from. An apology would be a good start, but I’m not holding my breath. As an old New Englander I know the worth of the place I come from and that its values and its character will endure long after the noise of another campaign has receded.

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More Comments:

Jerry Carroll - 4/11/2005

Face it, Massachusetts is a stench in the nostrils of the rest of the country. Romney is the rag soaked in vinegar used in plague times.

Vernon Clayson - 4/9/2005

This is all well and good but history will not be as kind to the state when comparing the giants who served there, Samuel Adams, John Hancock, etal., to the small men who serve there now, Ted Kennedy, John Kerry and Barney Frank, to name a few. If the early leaders had the character of these three, Massachusetts would have blustered and hedged and fudged rather than taking a lead in the formation of our new nation.