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Beantown's fine brew of politics and the past

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The late Tip O'Neill, speaker of the House and Massachusetts political legend, used to say, "All politics is local." Here in Boston, politics also is everywhere.

We see it in the blarney of tour guides on the sightseeing trolleys, in the Colonial historic sites and tombstones, in the photos and memorabilia decorating the smoke-stained walls of neighborhood bars.

Boston is a political junkie's nirvana. I came here last month to get a fix on the political scene before an estimated 35,000 delegates, visitors and media arrive for the Democratic National Convention, which begins July 26. Not only will the Democrats be saluting their presumptive nominee for president, Sen. John F. Kerry, they also will be hoisting glasses with the spirits of Tip O'Neill, Paul Revere, John Hancock, John F. Kennedy and, of course, Sam Adams — if he brings the beer.

Because I live in Arlington, Va., inside the Beltway, I sometimes find myself forgetting O'Neill's admonition. Plus, because I am surrounded by native Virginians with their fierce pride in the Old Dominion, it is easy to lose sight of Massachusetts' contributions to the American Revolution.

My recent visit to Boston challenged my Virginia-centric view.

On arriving downtown, I saw lots of fresh asphalt, still sticky and moist. The city was putting on its pretty face for the conventioneers — not only around the FleetCenter, site of the convention, but all through the downtown streets.

Preparations have been disrupted by labor problems, and the streets have been rerouted by the Big Dig, the massive highway project that attempts to hide car traffic underground. Nevertheless, conventioneers will not lack political inspiration in the avenues and neighborhoods of Boston.

Spirited historyI started my political explorations in the 1729 Old South Meeting House, near Boston Common in the heart of downtown. Bostonians were complaining about things and arguing with one another here long before talk radio. The Boston Massacre and the hated British tea tax were debated in this church, in a big white room whose old-fashioned enclosed pews resemble jury boxes. Bostonians discussed slavery here too, agreeing that it should end but differing strongly on whether to end it immediately or gradually. Today, the building serves as a sort of shrine to the 1st Amendment and the value of vigorous debate.

I walked past the bronze statue of the Democratic Party donkey in front of the Old City Hall to the Old State House, another place of Colonial-era debate and protest against British rule. Runaway slave Crispus Attucks and four other Bostonians were killed outside this building in the 1770 Boston Massacre, a confrontation between British soldiers and citizens that turned fatal and inflamed Revolutionary passions. Not far away, the current State House dominates the hill above Boston Common. Its grand 23-karat golden dome makes one forget that this was once John Hancock's cow pasture.

I followed a high school student intern on a tour of the building, which houses the legislative and executive branches of the commonwealth's government. The governor's part of the building isn't on the tour, but we got to see the House and Senate chambers. Each had orderly rows of desks, busts or paintings of historic figures — and a fish.

The "sacred cod," a wooden fish dating to 1784, represents the importance of Massachusetts' fishing industry, and it hangs high on the rear wall of the House chamber. The carving, 5 feet from tip to tail, is a sort of mascot, and the House's work cannot proceed without it. Imagine the consternation in 1933 when some wacky Harvard types briefly "codnapped" it.

The representatives formerly met in what is now the Senate chamber, and when they moved to larger quarters in 1895, they took their cod with them. The Senate then demanded its own cod. The second fish, unofficially known as "the holy mackerel," hangs in the Senate chamber. Though both chambers were quiet and empty during my visit, the senators' desks were stacked with pending legislation.

I then paid my respects to Massachusetts' political legends in the Granary Burying Ground, also near Boston Common. Names on some tombstones sparked immediate recognition: Samuel Adams, John Hancock and Paul Revere. Hancock was not only the guy with the big signature on the Declaration of Independence but also Massachusetts' first governor. (And a truly dedicated political junkie will know that Calvin Coolidge also once held that job.)

Massachusetts is proud of its politicians, its cod, of course, and its dessert. I learned this one morning under the crystal chandeliers and over eggs Benedict in the big dining room of Boston's Omni Parker House, a place that was favored by the Kennedy clan.

Boston cream pie was invented in the hotel restaurant, claimed my waiter, who said it beat out Toll House cookies for the honor of official state dessert. (I noted that chocolate chip is identified as the official state cookie; perhaps that was the consolation prize.)

The hotel, which also gave the world the Parker House roll, was a noted celebrity hangout. In the mid-19th century, Charles Dickens held literary gatherings there with Longfellow, Thoreau and Emerson. And although few probably noticed him in 1915, a young man employed as a baker would definitely have been noticed later: Vietnamese Communist leader Ho Chi Minh.

Parker House set the scene in 1946 when John F. Kennedy announced his candidacy for Congress. Using the T, Boston's subway system, and free shuttles, I traveled out to Columbia Point and the JFK Library to learn more about our 35th president.

The library and museum, housed in an I.M. Pei building by the water's edge, holds memorabilia that recall JFK's "brief shining moment" of Camelot and provide engaging glimpses into his childhood. Particularly amusing is his 1929 handwritten letter to his father formally requesting a 30-cent increase in his allowance so he could buy scouting gear. Daughter Caroline's doll collection is displayed, along with other touches of JFK's personal life. And of course his Nov. 22, 1963, assassination and funeral are poignantly recalled. A TV monitor shows a loop of the bulletins from Dallas, then Walter Cronkite struggling to maintain his composure while announcing the time of death.

Particularly well timed for the convention is the library's current exhibit on the 1960 presidential campaign, with "PT 109" buttons, plastic boater hats and a part of the TelePrompter script of his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. Newspaper front pages track his victories through the primaries, convention and the November election. To give context, the campaign items share space with typical fashions and home furnishings of the period. (I swear they stole that wall clock from my mom's house.)

Photos from his 1961 inauguration show the famous Kennedy hair partly concealed by a high silk hat. I saw his inauguration Bible there too, a Douay translation that's used by Catholics.

Kennedy's religion was a touchy issue in 1960. And it is again in this year's election. Kerry has been criticized for not being Catholic enough.

He often attends Mass at downtown Boston's Paulist Center, characterized in the press as a liberal sanctuary. The building is unassuming from the outside: In this town of impressive spires, you could walk right past and not recognize it as a church.

The 10 a.m. Sunday Mass was beginning as I entered. It reminded me of services at informal campus ministries of my youth, the kind where the priests were always getting arrested for protesting something or other. Kerry wasn't there — he was on Nantucket that day, a parishioner said — but I stayed for the whole Mass.

The interior was mostly functional Art Deco design, with a sculptural work showing Christ not on a cross but floating in midair before wooden branches. There was no organ — a piano and guitar accompanied the small choir — and no missals. Hymn lyrics were projected on the wall behind the altar. Families with small children sat in the balcony, and the priest's homily was accompanied by nearly constant happy-babble from the modern cherubim above us.

The faces of politicsI ate my Sunday dinner nearby at Ye Olde Union Oyster House. Usually I am suspicious of any establishment beginning with "ye olde," but this restaurant is so "olde" that nobody really knows when it started serving; since 1826, for sure. It's near the new City Hall, which my trolley-tour guide zinged as "the ugliest building in Boston" — and it does look like something from the old Soviet bloc. Union Oyster House is a noted political hangout and a mandatory stop for anyone campaigning for something. JFK's favorite booth is marked with a plaque. Nineteenth century politician and orator Daniel Webster repeatedly dined here too — on oysters and brandy.

I consumed a substantial bowl of clam chowder, Boston baked beans — the navy bean is the official state bean — and a generous portion of broiled scrod. The oyster bar downstairs was doing good business, even on a quiet Sunday.

Nearby, two life-size statues of Mayor James Michael Curley, who held the office four times from 1914 to 1933, are positioned so tourists can't resist posing with him for photos. Based on my admittedly highly unscientific survey, I would conclude that in Boston there are more statues and pictures of this incredibly popular, rascally 20th century politician than there are of JFK. Bostonians in 1904 elected Curley alderman even though he was in jail at the time.

Union Oyster House is touristy, but in other neighborhoods where the tourist trolleys don't go, there are bars where politicos bend elbows with constituents. In "Southie," or South Boston, I found Amrhein's, virtually a shrine to Curley, "the mayor of the poor." Its pressed-tin ceiling, old-fashioned brass lighting fixtures and abundance of dark wood almost make you wistful for the days of graft and corruption.

Because I already was in Southie, I decided to burn off some of Amrhein's excellent lobster pie by taking the mile-long walk to Farragut House. Here, the photo collection around the accommodating bar includes Tip O'Neill, John McCormick (another former speaker of the U.S. House) and Cardinal Richard Cushing, archbishop of Boston from 1944 to 1970 and a Kennedy family friend who officiated at both JFK's inauguration and his funeral.

But my vote for best political bar goes to Doyle's in Jamaica Plain, south and west of downtown. This is a classic neighborhood bar — squared. Though the place is big, each of its several rooms has an atmosphere that prompts instant friendships. Indeed, the guy sitting next to me at the bar, a home brewer, gave me an impromptu seminar on the delicate business of blending hops into ales.

Political photos adorn the walls, of course, but Doyle's one-ups the other bars with murals. One of them shows the likenesses of more than 50 local pols. One room is dedicated to John F. Fitzgerald, "Honey Fitz," legendary Boston mayor in the first two decades of the last century and grandfather of JFK.

I paid my tab and walked back to the T for my ride to the airport. The warmth I felt was not from an alcoholic beverage — I'd been drinking diet soda — but from a sense of connection. Spirits, yes, but political spirits.

A revolutionary jaunt

GETTING THERE:

From LAX, United, American, America West and US Airways have nonstops to Boston. Delta, Northwest, Continental, ATA, Air Tran and Midwest Express offer connecting flights (change of plane). Restricted round-trip fares begin at $238.

WHERE TO GO:

Granary Burying Ground, on Tremont Street adjacent to Park Street Church; http://www.cityofboston.gov/parks/HBGI/hbg.asp . Boston's subway, the T, stops at Park Street.

John F. Kennedy Library and Museum, Columbia Point; (866) JFK-1960 (535-1960), http://www.jfklibrary.org . $10. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. T stop: JFK/UMass, then take free shuttle bus.

Massachusetts State House, Beacon Street; (617) 727-3676, http://www.sec.state.ma.us/trs . Free tours 10 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Mondays-Fridays. T stop: Park Street.

Old South Meeting House, 310 Washington St.; (617) 482-6439, http://www.oldsouthmeetinghouse.org . Admission $5; 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. T stop: Downtown Crossing.

Old State House, 206 Washington St.; (617) 720-3290, http://www.bostonhistory.org . $5. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. T stop: State Street.

Omni Parker House, 60 School St.; (800) 843-6664, http://www.omnihotels.com . Doubles $209-$299. T stop: Park Street.

Paulist Center, 5 Park St.; (617) 742-4460, http://www.paulist.org/boston . 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Mondays-Fridays. Open weekends only for Mass. T stop: Park Street.

WHERE TO EAT:

Union Oyster House, 41 Union St.; (617) 227-2750, http://www.unionoysterhouse.com . Traditional New England seafood. Entrees $6.95-22.95.

Amrhein's, 80 W. Broadway; (617) 268-6189. Try the lobster pie. Entrees from $6.95.

Farragut House, 149 P St.; (617) 268-1212. Entrees from $8.95.

Doyle's Cafe, 3484 Washington St., Jamaica Plain; (617) 524-2345, http://www.doylescafe.com . Try the New England boiled dinner. Entrees $6.95-13.95.

TO LEARN MORE:

Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau; (888) 733-2678, http://www.bostonusa.com .

— Jerry V. Haines

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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