Bay State Politics
Bay State Politics
To the Editor:
Massachusetts, with some degree of justice, has become fair game as a target for the intellectual and the political analyst—which, when the two are combined, becomes pseudo-analysis. . . .
John Phillips’s somewhat surrealistic piece [“Up In Massachusetts,” November 1962] says some things which need to be said—and others which are savagely unfair. As usual, we find the viewpoint of the civilized gentleman bemused by the Anglo-Saxon heritage who finds himself wandering about among the political savages of the Bay State. As a result, there are some errors of fact and of interpretation.
The most egregious factual error: “Last winter, Governor Volpe fired the custodian of the State House archives, a former legislator who watched over the scrolls and parchments of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, because he had been making book. . . .” A minor point—Governor Volpe had nothing to do with the dismissal. A major one—the man fired for taking bets was the head of the Legislative Document Room, which gives out copies of bills pending before the Legislature and related material; the man, who is indeed a former legislator, had nothing to do with the archives, and—most important of all—this is an unintentional but nonetheless serious reflection upon the State Archivist, who is a well-known historian and authority in such areas as the microfilming of documents. I think your magazine and Mr. Phillips owe him an apology for confusing him with the head of the Legislative Document Room.
George D. Blackwood
Dept. of Political Economy
To the Editor:
Thank you and congratulations for the publication of John Phillips’s entertaining and very sensitive article “Up In Massachusetts.”
. . . The author refers to the “San Francisco Convention of 1960.” I am a native of San Francisco and was living in the Bay Area during all of 1960. I can recall no major convention of a political party in San Francisco that year. Is Mr. Phillips referring to Democratic National Convention of 1960, which took place in Los Angeles? . . .
Michael C. Tobriner
Harvard Law School
To the Editor:
. . . I think that Mr. Phillips has captured the spirit of our feelings of disgust and impotent rage at a spectable which makes a mockery of the democratic process. . . . [But] the candidates do not pervert the electoral system; we the voters have, with our “gut reactions” to the candidates. Our electoral system is based on the assumption of the rational voter and the thrashing out of the truth through honest debate of the issues. . . .
I think that the different instances cited by Phillips (e.g., the characteristics of Kennedy’s candidacy, rape in the Archives, bipartisan bookies under the State House dome) do not have any single cause, but rather a complex of causes, whose eradication would call for a vast revamping of our political structure, in ways which might well be inconsistent with parts of our democratic ethos. . . .
When the voters feel that bread-and-butter issues are not of primary interest in an election, the personal qualities and other “non-issue” concerns are valid considerations. This rule could be broadened into a rationalization or cover for “gut reactions,” but, if its spirit is followed, I think it is valid. . . .
Laurence J. Gillis
Mr. Phillips writes:
I am grateful to Mr. Gillis and Mr. Tobriner. (Of course the 1960 Democratic Convention was in Los Angeles; I wish I’d been a better proofreader.) To Professor Blackwood, a distinguished scholar of Massachusetts politics, I am especially thankful for providing the opportunity, which I should otherwise have taken for myself, to apologize to the Archivist of the Commonwealth. I did not mention his name but I did confuse his office with that of the Legislative Document Room, also situated under the State House dome, whose custodian was fired as an “amateur handicapper.” That, my most egregious factual error, I did not catch until after the piece had gone in haste to meet the printer’s deadline. I have since two more: Senator Edward Kennedy declined to join not merely the reform Democrats I mentioned, but the regular Democratic committee of his ward; Mrs. Kennedy, while a Catholic and very beautiful, is not, as was widely assumed, of Irish descent, but English. The publicity she received as “the Green Jackie” was even sillier than I said.
But as for my interpretations, I can’t concede Dr. Blackwood any more than his right to dispute them. Far from an analysis, pseudo or otherwise, I attempted to give no more than a cartoon impression of last summer’s campaign in Massachusetts. I had hoped that it would be apparent to a Ph.D. in Government and one of the burgeoning, fascinated corps of special scientists who try to make sense of the ineffable politics of the Bay State. But when he calls the piece “somewhat surrealistic,” Dr. Blackwood is, but for the qualifying adverb, exactly right: my impression of that politics was surrealistic. I am not Dr. Blackwood’s student, I must make my own interpretations. I have an obligation to facts, to correct factual errors, and surely to malign no man, but beyond that I am on my own. Dali’s limp watches oozing over the desert were perceived as watches nonetheless.
“As usual, we find the viewpoint of. . . .” It sounds as if the professor were writing on the blackboard with a squeaky chalk . . . of whom? Oliver Wendell Homes? . . . Those days are done and beyond all threnody, as I’d hope would be implicit. Even if Dr. Blackwood is the first who ever said it of me, to be called a “civilized gentleman bemused by the Anglo-Saxon heritage” is in the context of contemporary culture quite a bit less than complimentary. As usual we find the viewpoint of the civilized liberal stultified by the implications of such a phrase as “Anglo-Saxon heritage.” (It dangerously converts into a catch-all for the White Protestant guilts of Calvinism and slavery, shameless exploitation of immigrants, bigotry, reaction, hypocrisy, snobbery—enough to make a genteel Anglo-Saxon liberal squirm, who wouldn’t dare say “heritage” without a nervous smile.) As a result there is a serious error of comprehension.
That Dr. Blackwood makes this error is dismaying; maybe he has just confused one lonely writer with a voting bloc. He is an authority on the agonized history or religious and “ethnic” antagonisms in the social structure of what is popularly misconceived to be the seat of genteel Puritanism. Far better than I he knows the peculiar politics which divides and courts voters not according to political ideology as much as the fortuitous circumstance of “heritage.” Negroes are 2 per cent of the electorate, followed by a much greater proportion of Jews of Russian and Lithiuanian descent, followed by the Portuguese, Lithuanian, Polish, French-Canadian, Italian, and predominantly, Irish, Catholics; besides there are Greek and Russian Orthodox Catholics, and communities of Lebanese, Syrian, Chinese, and other groups acutely aware of their national origins. The Yankees, as they are locally known, are subdivided by some politicians into three levels of affluence and social “status”: Swamp Yankee, Straight Yankee (suburban middle-class), and Brahmin. The latter includes descendants of the Essex junto, the codfish aristocracy, the Lodges, Herters, Saltonstalls, and more families identified with the Republican establishment. . . . But “Brahmin,” like “pinko” or “beatnik,” is a newspaper word which collapses under definition. I believe that “The Boston Brahmin” began as the innocuous conceit of Dr. Holmes, himself “The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table,” for a breed of well-born intellectuals (Henry Adams) whose day was already over. The Unitarians, the Transcendentalists were fading under the mills that took the slave-grown cotton, the factories, railroads, all the forces of a new economy which would use, in plenty of time for the great Irish potato famine of 1845, the cheapest labor it could get; then the tragedy of modern Massachusetts began. Since then the mercantile Yankees, though their numbers diminish under the swelling Catholic majority, have as Republicans only lately lost control of state government, while their hold on the economy is hard as ever. And the old “entrepreneurial spirit” is strong in the generation under forty-five who are deep in the Drive-In and Frozen Custard trade; with precious little time to be bemused by a heritage as remote from the here and now as the quaint little dark Pilgrim fathers you see around Thanksgiving on greeting cards and cocktail napkins, chasing through the corn and pumpkins after a turkey gobbler with those funny old blunderbusses they had. For the writer, however, the actual scene in Massachusetts, as nearly everywhere in the republic, is astonishing enough without his needing recourse to some discredited ancestral bias. As if he had come on his first visit from the back of the moon, he has only to take a raw approach and record his reactions in faithful innocence. If his eye is honest, he has as good a right to wander among “political savages” as they.