Rhetoric has the ability to incense and to befuddle, to cause people to flee to Canada, to build a fence around Mexico, or to decimate a foreign land out of fear. In rural Georgia, a congressional candidate finishes off his attack ads by mocking his opponent’s support of Spanish-speaking citizens: “Muchas gracias, Jim Marshall,” intones the narrator, after a rambling diatribe in defense of “Georgia values.” Embattled Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum has even transferred our tortured political landscape to Middle Earth, recently comparing Islamic terrorists’ focus on Iraq to the eye of Sauron. I mean, duh. Rhetoric can be a wicked thing indeed.
But a cleverly turned phrase also has the ability to inspire. It’s not the easy way out by any stretch. Why formulate an articulate and meaningful message when you can call your opponent a fag or a traitor or a Christian and raise more cash and publicity? Politicians who enrage are perpetually in the news because it solidifies their base, and really, what else matters? Call it the 51 percent doctrine.
Once in a generation, though, when the stars align and the conditions are just right, we get an FDR, or a Kennedy (or two), or a Reagan, someone who, regardless of his policies, has the ability to make everyone love this country. Their words ring in our ears decades later as testaments to either a lost promise or an undying cause.
This fragile balance between words and actions is where President Bush falls flat. By demonizing his opponents on the airwaves, Bush burns every bridge left untouched by his already polarizing policies. Likewise, once his highly flawed personal life became intertwined with his every political action, Bill Clinton’s charm and smooth-flowing speeches became tarnished as they came to seem “slick.”
It is also what turned Barack Obama from an opportunistic state senator into a national phenomenon. The voters downstate who helped send him to Washington most likely disagreed with a fair number of his policies, but his ability to disengage animosity with a warm smile and grace allowed those voters to look past the specifics and find a common ground in the belief in a more perfect union.
For the South Side, it looks like lightning struck twice. In Deval Patrick, the Democratic nominee in the Massachusetts gubernatorial race, the neighborhood has produced a second golden boy only two years after Obama ascended into the pantheon of modern-day political icons with his promise of hope.
If it’s a life story you’re looking for, Patrick has a gem. He’ll share it with you without hesitation. How he grew up in a crumbling South Side tenement on South Wabash Avenue. How he got a scholarship to Milton Academy and then to Harvard before moving on to head the Civil Rights branch of the Justice Department under President Clinton.
But reading a Horatio Alger novel never inspired anyone to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. What distinguishes Patrick, like Obama, is not the ideal he embodies, but the dreams he inspires. As the airwaves in Boston are being ravaged by vicious attack ads from his opponent, Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey, Patrick has stayed true to what got him there: the promise of change.
A state that has voted for the Democratic candidate in every presidential election since 1956, Massachusetts has had a Republican in the governor’s mansion for the past 15 years largely because Democratic candidates have taken their credentials for granted. Past nominees such as Shannon O’Brien and Scott Harshbarger sucked the life out of their supporters with uninspired, intellectually limited campaigns. Patrick is the breath of fresh air that Bay Staters thought they were getting when they mistakenly sent Mitt Romney to Beacon hill four years ago.
For a generation raised under the dark shadow of 9/11, scarred by two interminable wars, and seemingly caught in a no-man’s land of cynicism, Patrick’s emergence, along with the continued rise of Obama, is part of a positive trend in American politics.