Massachusetts matrix: the politics that molded Dukakis
WHEN Michael Dukakis is nominated for president at the Democratic National Convention this week, he may well invoke the memory of the last such nominee from his state, John F. Kennedy. The differences between the former president and the Massachusetts governor are many. Whereas Jack Kennedy was groomed by an ambitious millionaire father on the world stage, for example, Mike Dukakis pulled himself doggedly through the ranks of Massachusetts politics. Whereas Kennedy had a sense of irony and savoir-faire, Dukakis is a plugger who has rarely been accused of eloquence.Skip to next paragraph
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Yet in the politics of the state, Kennedy and Dukakis cannot be separated. It was Kennedy, more than anyone else, who provided a bridge between the tribal Irish politics of his grandparents and the suburban, managerial Democratic polity that Dukakis has come to represent.
``The Kennedy culture made Dukakis possible,'' says Jerome Grossman, president of the Council for a Livable World and a longtime liberal activist in Massachusetts.
The link is important to understanding the instincts that Dukakis would bring to Washington.
Commentators have tried to fix the Massachusetts governor on the liberal-conservative spectrum commonly applied to national issues. Republicans have been painting him a Walter Mondale replica.
But such comparisons largely miss the point. Dukakis is a thoroughly Massachusetts figure. Until now, his entire political career has consisted of striving for - and serving as - the governor of the state. His politics cannot be understood without reference to the historical progression that led from such rogue-Irish politicians as James Michael Curley - whose career as mayor of Boston, governor, and congressman spanned the first half of this century - to Dukakis himself.
Dukakis's contribution to this progression has been less an ideological agenda than a desire to reform the processes of government that the old-style Democrats had abused.
``With the exception of Utah,'' notes Kevin Harrington, former president of the state Senate and one-time history teacher, ``Massachusetts has been the most ethnically and religiously oriented state in the nation.'' The central theme in the state's politics has been the tension between Brahmins and small-town Yankees on the one hand, and more recent immigrants - mainly Irish, but Italian and Jewish as well - on the other.
As has often been noted, Protestant Massachusetts in the mid-19th century showed much less solicitude for the impoverished Irish fleeing the potato famine than for the black slaves safely distanced from its borders. The Irish were barred from jobs and housing. There was even a move to increase the residency requirement for voting from five to 21 years.
Irish turn to politics
Excluded from good jobs, the Irish sought upward mobility in politics instead. Since the Yankees were Republicans, the Irish became Democrats. As the Almanac of American Politics notes, the parties then were aligned very differently from today. Republicans were the party of ``big government'' - protective tariffs, railroad subsidies, and ultimately, keeping the union together. Democrats were the anti-Washington party, which squared nicely with the Irish experience of the British government back home.
The early Irish pols were not ``liberals'' in today's sense. They ministered to their constituents through ward political machines rather than through government programs. The original Boston ward boss was a man named Martin Lomasney, whose formula was simple. As Peter Collier and David Horowitz recount in their book ``The Kennedys,'' in turn-of-the-century Boston Mr. Lomasney would find housing and jobs for Irish arrivals. They would register as Democrats and vote as he suggested.
The result over the years was a local politics rich in color if not probity. It included such characters as ``Mother'' Garvin, so called because of his frequent references to his dear departed, ``Up-Up'' Kelly, whose job was to bring crowds to their feet just before Mr. Curley's arrival, and John J. ``Honey Fitz'' Fitzgerald, JFK's maternal grandfather.
Italians and Jews faced a welcome from the Protestant establishment (and, ironically, sometimes from the Irish themselves) similar to that the Irish encountered. Mr. Grossman recalls that when he started out in the envelope business, he had to call himself ``Mr. Jerome'' to get to see potential customers.