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Opinion

Scott Brown: the Ben-Hur of Massachusetts politics

Scott Brown’s improbable victory is a credit to his character, but also to the strong forces that carried his chariot to victory.

By Scott W. Johnson / January 19, 2010



Minneapolis

As Barack Obama completes his first year in office, observers may wonder how his hope and change thing is working out. Tonight, Massachusetts voters provided the answer. Americans are hoping for change, alright, but the change they desire is change from the leading policies of the Obama administration.
 
Massachusetts is a heavily Democratic state, arguably the bluest in the country. It has not elected a Republican Senator since 1972. The seat in issue had been held by Democrats since 1953 – 47 of them by the late Ted Kennedy. And Scott Brown came out of nowhere to run an insurgent campaign whose success defied enormous odds.
 
In a campaign in which Mr. Brown’s well-used GMC truck took on a starring role, the best metaphor for his triumph might be a chariot race. Here I turn to Charlton Heston’s memoir “In the Arena."

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One of the book's highlights is Heston's recollection of his work preparing for the chariot race in the film “Ben-Hur.” Heston had gone to Rome several weeks before shooting in order to work on a practice race track. "I had to learn to drive the chariot," Heston recalled. "I'd long since realized the crucial importance of learning the physical skill you need for a part before the play goes into rehearsal or the film starts."

Stuntman and second unit director Yakima Canutt was responsible for the orchestration of the chariot scene. He obtained more than 100 horses to make up the eight teams, with backups. Heston recalls training at least two hours a day for six weeks with the four teams of white horses Canutt had picked for him.
 
"Over the weeks Yak made me into a modestly competent charioteer," Heston acknowledged, and yet he still fretted that his skills were not adequate to the scene. "Y'know, Yak, I feel pretty comfortable running this team now, but we're all alone here. We start shooting this sucker in ten days. I'm not so sure I can cut it with seven other teams out there." Heston finishes the story: “Yak looked at me and pushed his cap back on his head. ‘Chuck, you just make sure y'stay in the chariot. I guarantee yuh gonna win the damn race.’"
 

Heston told this story when he came out to Minnesota to speak on behalf of Republican senate candidate Rod Grams in the fall of 1994. Heston advised Rod that he would win the race if he stayed in the chariot. (Grams stayed in the chariot and won.)

 
Watching from a distance as Brown campaigned against Martha Coakley over the closing days of the campaign, I thought of Heston’s chariot story. The breadth and intensity of support evidenced for Brown at his rallies showed him to be the beneficiary of national forces carrying him to an improbable victory. If he could keep himself from falling out of the chariot, he was going to win the race.
 
Brown must be given his due as an outstanding candidate. He is likable. He is handsome. He has a beautiful family. He gives the appearance of everyman, an appearance he took advantage of with his theme of man against the (political) machine.
 
Considering the external forces that carried him to victory, however, Brown was not an impassive beneficiary. In the pressure of the struggle, Brown is the man who (to quote Lincoln’s tribute to Jefferson with respect to the Declaration of Independence) “had the coolness, forecast and capacity” to stake his campaign on opposition to the nationalization of the American healthcare system, to one-party rule, and to giving constitutional rights to terrorists. Brown yoked his chariot to those horses and they carried him to the most improbable of victories.

Scott W. Johnson is a Minneapolis attorney and contributor to the blog Power Line, where this piece also appeared.