The Boston Bombings Could Help a State Get Beyond Its Liberal Stereotype

Jill Lawrence
National Journal

Massachusetts invented America,” Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick said at the prayer service honoring victims of the Boston Marathon bombings. And though other states might like to claim that mantle for themselves, he spoke the truth.

Especially in politics, that’s not how people think of Massachusetts. You hear a lot about how liberal and elitist it is, how high its taxes are and how it is not really America. You hear scads about how out of touch its politicians are.

The state’s presidential nominees have, it’s true, dropped like flies over the last 25 years: Michael Dukakis (that “card-carrying member of the ACLU” who looked distinctly Snoopy-esque in a tank and helmet). John Kerry (a windsurfer with French relatives and a rich, foreign-born wife—need we say more?). Mitt Romney (also rich, and spent 2005 to 2012 trying to distance himself from his state—he likened it to a “vegetarian conventionwhile he was still governor). Ted Kennedy was tarred—or he might have said honored—by the Massachusetts liberal label. Elizabeth Warren had to fight off the “Harvard liberal” variation last year in her Senate race.

Yet there’s a lot of blue-collar to Massachusetts, and a lot of Catholicism, and a lot of purple in its politics. And beyond all that, there is history. This is a state that does not forget its role. There are towns that still announce themselves as “hinterland settlements.” And maybe you noticed the name of the town where police searched the home of an injured Saudi student who was at one point considered a person of interest: Revere.

I happened to be in the tiny Berkshires town of Monterey when the bombs went off. If you watched the HBO miniseries about John Adams, you saw perhaps the proudest moment in the history of Monterey: when Gen. Henry Knox rolled his train of cannons through town in the winter of 1775-76, en route from Fort Ticonderoga to Boston to rout the British.

Patriots’ Day is the holiday that commemorates the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the first of the Revolutionary War, along with Paul Revere’s famous ride. A dozen years ago, researching a series for USA Today, I was in the hunt for towns to represent the contrasting electorates for Al Gore and George W. Bush in the 2000 election.

Quite by accident, I ended up in Lexington on Patriots’ Day and observed a parade and a battle reenactment on the very green where the original had occurred. For someone raised in a Long Island suburb built in the 1950s, it was a revelation to be in the midst of living history, celebrated so enthusiastically.

As it happened, Lexington didn’t make the demographic cut. It was—shocker—too liberal, high-income, and academic to represent Gore’s voters. There weren’t enough minorities, and there was a surfeit of doctors, lawyers, and university professors.

This was the Massachusetts that President Obama spoke of at the prayer service. He described Boston as a city that each fall welcomes students from all over and sends them into the world each spring—“a Boston diaspora that excels in every field of human endeavor.” A city that welcomes “the greatest talents in the arts and science ... to exchange ideas and insights that draw this world together.”

It was Patrick who stressed his state’s historical identity. Many other states, perhaps topped by Texas, would like to think of themselves as the truest embodiment of American values. But Massachusetts got there way ahead of everyone else, as Patrick noted. Only Massachusetts has a team called the Patriots and, along with Maine, a holiday called Patriots’ Day. The timing of the attack on Patriots’ Day, Patrick said, made it an attack on America’s civic ideals of “equality, opportunity, freedom, and fair play.”

There was another public figure, not at the service, who also had a lot to say about Massachusetts history. “For Pete’s sake, Boston was founded by the Pilgrims, by people so tough they had to buckle their goddamn hats on. It is the cradle of the American Revolution,” comedian Stephen Colbert said on Comedy Central’s Colbert Report. The Boston Marathon itself has been held since 1897, he said, adding: “Do you know how tough you have to be to run in a whalebone corset?”

Massachusetts also gave us—not a complete list!—Thanksgiving, the Transcendentalists, Louisa May Alcott, Walden Pond, the Boston Tea Party, the Boston Red Sox, lots of Founding Fathers, and the singular Abigail Adams. Like the 9/11 attacks that made New York seem so much more like America to people who didn’t live there, the Boston bombings may help people remember there is more to Massachusetts than its stereotype—that it is as American as anywhere else, and that maybe its history makes it even more so.