Bush Baffles Massachusetts Liberals

Times Staff Writer

Graphic designer Margery Stegman took notice the first time President Bush called his opponent a “Massachusetts liberal” in last week’s final presidential debate.

She bristled the second time the president tossed the term at Sen. John F. Kerry. Clearly the description was not intended as a compliment.

When Bush used the expression a third time, Stegman said, “I thought to myself: How did this become such a pejorative?”


So Stegman called her brother, an independent media producer in nearby Needham. Rob Stegman also had winced at the president’s verbal triple-punch.

It turns out many people in the state where Bush’s ancestors helped make history, where his father was born and where Bush was educated were not happy to be turned into a political insult -- three times in one 90-minute debate.

“Massachusetts liberal is code for ‘out of touch with the rest of the country.’ That is how I interpret it,” Rob Stegman said.

“We’ve got the Republic of Cambridge here,” he said facetiously. “We are all socialists and of course we are all elitists. You say Massachusetts liberal, and that means we all believe in high taxes and you know we believe in gay marriage, right?”

He laughed: The state is split on those issues and others.

More specifically, said political science professor Paul Watanabe of the University of Massachusetts in Boston, the Massachusetts liberal label was “a way to link Kerry to Michael Dukakis,” the state’s former governor and an avowed Massachusetts liberal.

Dukakis was overwhelmingly defeated in his 1988 bid to become president by none other than the current president’s father, George H.W. Bush.

The state has not seen a Democratic governor since Dukakis, who was replaced in 1990 by Republican William Weld. Weld was succeeded by fellow Republicans Paul Cellucci, Jane Swift and Mitt Romney, the current governor.

Despite the Republican hold on the executive seat, the state’s entire congressional delegation is Democratic -- including Sens. Kerry and Edward M. Kennedy -- as is about two-thirds of the state Legislature.

In the Bush-Kerry campaign, “what both candidates are trying to do is to occupy and to hold the center, and to push the opponent as far away as possible,” Watanabe said.

“This language is part of that strategy. The observation I would have is that Sen. Kerry does not seem to be as agile at positioning George Bush as beyond the mainstream.”

Moreover, he went on, “the president’s Massachusetts roots have sort of been erased from the resume, pretty effectively. People conveniently overlook the fact that he is a Harvard [Business School] product and he went to prep school in Massachusetts, and that his father was born in Milton.”

Not only that, said Anna West Winter, executive director of a historic preservation organization called Save Our Heritage in Concord, but the Bush family traces its lineage back to a little-known but important figure in the American Revolution. Dr. Samuel Prescott, a Massachusetts physician, was on his way to Lexington to visit his girlfriend when Paul Revere was captured by the British, Winter said.

Giving new meaning to the term “house calls,” Prescott was an accomplished horseman who knew “all the back areas and where to jump over stone walls” because of his frequent outings to spend time with his lady friend, she said. Prescott gave his name to a number of Bush relatives, including the president’s late grandfather.

“Samuel Prescott was actually the one who took the alarm into Concord,” Winter said. “So here we have all these ties to real patriots -- and if you want to talk about liberals, these were people who were going up against the establishment. They were fighting for democracy and self-determination, which I always equate with the concept of liberals. Really, they were the quintessential liberals.”

Winter said it disturbed her to hear the state and its politics demeaned by the president in the third debate.

“I think it is disingenuous of him to dump on Massachusetts -- the free-thinking people, the people who took risks, the people who had the compassion to reach out and form the union,” she said.

“I think they are desperate,” Winter said. “I think this is an antiquated image. I think it is ridiculous.”

At his bookstore in Braintree, not far from where President John Adams grew up, Rich Fitzpatrick had a similar reaction.

Fitzpatrick said he and several friends were e-mailing one another to trade reactions during the debate. He said they were all guilty as charged: Massachusetts liberals.

“It almost seems like a double epithet: Massachusetts liberal -- as though that is some worse insult than just your run-of-the-mill liberal,” Fitzpatrick said.

“It’s pretty insulting, and at the same time, meaningless.”

Fitzpatrick said that when the phrase was deconstructed, and only the word “Massachusetts” was examined, “people are happy to send their children to Massachusetts to be educated, and they are happy to send their dollars here to be invested.”

As for the “liberal” part, “if it means that poor children get healthcare, well, I’m for that.”

Rob Stegman said the current political vernacular in Massachusetts emphasized the word “progressive,” simply because the word “liberal” has become so loaded.

Still, he said, “I think that people in Massachusetts, we hear the president use an expression like that, and we just let it roll off. It’s just a label and who cares? I think it is silly to us.”

Although it may be dubious to turn a whole state into some kind of political pariah, Stegman said he was not offended to be an object of the president’s disaffection.

“I’m proud that I’m a liberal,” he said.