A Saint in Politics

October 18, 1994|By ELLEN GOODMAN

Somerville, Massachusetts. -- The brick row house in the working-class neighborhood is almost deceptively quiet this Sunday afternoon. The only sign of a political campaign is the Bob Massie bumper sticker on the car across from the playground.

As I come in, the two Massie boys are heading off with their mother to get new sneakers for growing feet that continually test the family budget. In the modest kitchen the cookbook is propped open to a recipe for pumpkin soup.

Bob Massie, Episcopal minister and Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor of Massachusetts has something rare these days: a free afternoon. He comes to the kitchen and to this conversation with a single word on his mind: cynic.

This five-letter word has become the title of the 1994 political season, the neon sign flashing over the campaign, over the relationship between the governors and the governed. Mr. Massie doesn't need polls to show him the landscape of disaffected voters, of candidates running against the government they want to take over, of negative ads and more negative advisers.

This morning, he went to the dictionary. ''A cynic,'' he recites, ''is someone who believes that all people are solely motivated by self-interest.'' The cynical continuously question the motives of others. The synonyms that his dictionary lists are ''mocking, sneering.''

If there is one thing Bob Massie is not, it's a cynic. He is, rather, a newcomer who won the Democratic primary, and is now Mark Roosevelt's running mate in a long-shot race against Gov. William Weld and Lt. Gov. Paul Celluci. He's also the man who possesses one of the most unusual biographies in politics.

This boyish-looking son of Robert and Suzanne Massie, who together wrote ''Nicholas and Alexandra,'' was born 38 years ago with hemophilia. He went to Princeton, Yale Divinity School and Harvard Business School. He worked for Scoop Jackson and Ralph Nader. He's a pastor, a teacher, a writer.

Like most hemophiliacs of his age, Mr. Massie was infected with HIV through blood transfusions. Like the lucky minority, he remains healthy and symptom-free more than 10 years later.

For years now, Mr. Massie has been an ethicist in business

settings and a business teacher at the Harvard Divinity School. For just 10 months, he's been the politician who understands both.

If some see contradictions in his history, Mr. Massie sees connections: ''The themes have always been the same, . . . the basic questions of principle: How should we live? . . . And how do we get there?''

Mr. Massie is a rare political creature who believes candidates are asked too little about their deepest beliefs. At one end of politics, we may see the religious right rating congressional bills on a scale of godliness. But at another extreme, we are more likely to ask candidates about monogamy than about how spiritual beliefs are reflected in their politics.

''Everybody has a theology,'' he says. ''Everybody has some kind of theory about why we're here, whether it's random or not, what's really important.''

This ''theology'' has an enormous but largely unheralded effect on government. Our view of human nature skews the welfare debate. Our view of the environment determines the way we plan for it. Our belief in progress or decline is translated into policy questions like: ''Do we really believe that our children can lead a better life?''

As a minister and politician, Mr. Massie is eager to make these connections. He explains in detail why he opposes state gambling and the death penalty, why he is against welfare bashing and in favor of health-care reform. But even he knows how rarely these words are heard in the boxing ring of politics where money and soundbites deliver the knockout blows.

Tim Wirth, under secretary of state, described Mr. Massie to me as ''the closest thing we have in politics to a saint.'' But a friend asks more archly: ''What's a guy like him doing in a job like this?'' What's an HIV-positive minister with a couple of young sons doing in politics?

When I ask, Mr. Massie says, ''When I became HIV-positive, it added to my sense of each day as precious. . . . It's important to do the things that matter and not to waste your time on trivia.''

This year, we are suffering from the seasonal affective disorder of politics. It's hard to know if one candidate for lieutenant governor is an antidote or just an anomaly. But on this Sunday, I've met a citizen with no time to waste on trivia. Not even on such trivial stuff as cynicism.

8, Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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