Bay Area unions take liberal spotlight

February 23, 2004|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- I don't care if the same-sex nuptials get nipped in the bud. I'm still going to send flowers from the Bay State to the Bay Area. I'll send a dozen roses to the eightysomething couple who led the gay parade up to the civil marriage window in City Hall. No one can say those women married in haste.

I'll send an orchid to Mayor Gavin Newsom, whose daring made President Bush stumble over his objections -- speak now or forever hold your peace -- to gay marriage. When asked about the civil (marriage) disobedience, Mr. Bush said he was "troubled by activist judges" and thought the "people need to be involved with this decision." In San Francisco the people -- more than 3,000 -- did get "involved with this decision." They got married.

But my biggest batch of blooms will go to the city itself for one simple reason: It has taken the heat off my home. The spotlight on same-sex weddings has shifted from the Bay State's Constitution to the Bay Area's civil disobedience.

With Sen. John Kerry the likely Democratic nominee, San Francisco has saved the citizens of this commonwealth -- gay and straight -- from another round of Massachusetts bashing.

Anybody notice how Republicans use "Massachusetts liberal" as one word? When the Democrats chose Boston as their convention site, Dick Armey, the former House majority leader, quipped, "If I were a Democrat I would feel a heck of a lot more comfortable in Boston than, say, America."

Of course if it weren't for Boston, Mr. Armey might not be in America. He might "feel a heck of a lot more comfortable" in the British Empire. But any party that can bash former Georgia Sen. Max Cleland's patriotism can trash Paul Revere's.

I am not sure how to carbon date the origin of "Massachusetts liberal" as the label for the liberal tip of the liberal wing of the liberal body politic. No one ever accused our guy Cotton Mather of having an open mind. For generations the most successful political idea around here was "Banned in Boston."

Boston College political scientist Alan Wolfe thinks the prototype of the M.L. stereotype was first identified around Concord in the 19th century. Back before San Francisco was even a gold rush village, Massachusetts was a hotbed of abolitionists. "The downside is that they made their criticisms in a pious and haughty manner with great contempt to anyone who disagreed," says Mr. Wolfe. The upside is that they were right.

The modern label dates to the 1972 presidential race between George McGovern and Richard M. Nixon. We were the only state that voted for Mr. McGovern. We were, gasp, right again, if you will forgive me for being pious and haughty. There were a rash of post-Watergate bumper stickers that said simply, "Don't Blame Me, I'm from Massachusetts."

Over the decades, conservatives have waged an epithet competition between "Massachusetts liberal" and "San Francisco liberal." The M.L. is damned as stiff-necked and elitist; the S.F.L. is damned as wacky and outrageous.

In 1984, the torch passed to San Francisco, site of the Mondale-Ferraro convention. In 1988, it passed back to Massachusetts when Michael S. Dukakis, a Greek-American who graduated from Swarthmore and took the streetcar to work, was attacked as an elitist running on a platform created in a "Harvard Yard boutique" against that Kennebunkport populist George the First.

Meanwhile, Ted Kennedy has the longest-running role in right-wing fantasies as Lord Sauron of the dark forces.

Of course, Massachusetts and liberal are not joined at the head. The state that voted twice for Ronald Reagan is governed by a Mormon Republican. A huge piece of the political tradition is economically liberal and socially conservative. Until a generation ago it was radical for an Italian Catholic to marry an Irish Catholic.

In the gay marriage decision, three of the four justices who ruled in favor were appointed by Republicans and the only activism of the "activist" chief justice, Margaret Marshall, was when she fought apartheid as a student in her native South Africa. Anybody who thinks we're soft on crime hasn't been listening to folks who want to apply the death penalty to the Yankees for buying Alex Rodriguez.

As for Mr. Kerry? He may be dour enough and sometimes windy enough to qualify for a place in the Brahmin rogues' gallery. But the Republicans want to declare him geographically disqualified from the presidency.

So bless the husbands and husbands, wives and wives, and the mayor of San Francisco for taking back the title. Now even Barney Frank, the gay Massachusetts congressman, can sound like a moderate criticizing the West Coast wedding-fest as a "diversion."

Massachusetts is once again the homeland of victory-garden-variety liberals. Shower those "San Francisco liberals" with love and roses. Stand up and cheer: We're No. 2.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun.

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