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Yvonne Abraham

The US: the good, the bad, the anthem

It may not seem like it, with torrential rains in the Fourth of July forecast, but the most glorious holiday of the year is upon us.

A good time, it seemed to me, to quiz the candidates for governor on how they see America, both the great promises realized and the dreams still to be fulfilled.

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So I asked them: Which event of their lifetime made them proudest of their country and which made them cringe? Their answers offer intriguing glimpses into their beliefs, their priorities, and, for some, the contours of their youthful lives.

Don Berwick was headed into his senior year in high school in Moodus, Conn., during the summer of 1963, the summer of the great March on Washington.

“All of a sudden . . . hundreds of thousands of people, gathered for human rights and social justice; it was very compelling for a young person,” said the Democrat.

For Republican Charlie Baker and Independent candidate Jeff McCormick, the moon landing was that moment.

“Just the fact that we could work through hard times to put a man on the moon really speaks to the character of who we are as a nation,” said McCormick, who recalled his parents letting him stay up late to watch the landing on TV. Baker remembers the huge impact the landing had in his Needham home when he was kid.

“It is just mind-boggling to think somebody is walking around on the moon,” he said.

State Treasurer Steve Grossman was just 2 when President Harry S. Truman desegregated the armed forces in 1948, but he heard about it throughout his childhood, from his father, his grandfather, and his uncle, all of whom had served.

“Everything else in the civil rights movement came after that,” he said.

Attorney General Martha Coakley’s moment of pride was more recent and more personal: the 2013 Supreme Court decision striking down part of the Defense of Marriage Act, opening the door for gay and lesbian couples to receive federal benefits. She had worked to challenge the law in the lower courts.

“It was so rewarding,” she said. “This country is about enlarging people’s rights.”

Independent Evan Falchuk, a lifelong fan, named the Red Sox World Series win in 2004 as a great American moment. For Republican Mark Fisher, the US hockey team defeating Russia at the 1980 Olympics was a testament to the nation’s ability to rally behind the underdog.

So, there’s the good stuff. What of the bad?

For three of the candidates, the US Supreme Court provided those moments of cringe: Falchuk and Berwick cited the 2010 Citizens United decision, which opened the floodgates to obscenely huge political contributions. Coakley cited last week’s decision striking down buffer zones outside Massachusetts abortion clinics as an unthinkable setback for reproductive rights.

Others reached back to the 1960s: McCormick cited the deaths of the civil rights era, the people lost fighting for the basic rights this country stands for. Baker chose the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

“When you’re 13, you think most of the time good things happen,” Baker recalled. “There was a real introduction to the fact that a lot of the time, they don’t.”

Grossman was deeply affected by the My Lai massacre, the mass murder of unarmed civilians in a Vietnamese village by American soldiers in 1968. He called it “a violation of every principle that this country is supposed to stand for.”

But now, lest the parade of candidates end on this rainy note, one last, lighter question for those who would lead the Commonwealth: Say we had to change the national anthem, unsingable for those of us not named Beyonce. What song would you choose?

Coakley refused to consider an alternative to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” a cautious stance which seemed pretty tone-deaf to me. Baker did so only reluctantly, choosing Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” partly because it is possible for regular folk to sing it. Continuing the civil rights theme, Berwick went with “We Shall Overcome.” Grossman loves “If I Had a Hammer.” Fisher chose Johnny Cash’s “Ragged Old Flag.” Bless Falchuk for picking a James Brown song, even if it is “Living in America.”

And McCormick picked Bruce Springsteen (“American Land”), which pretty much means he should be our next governor.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com.
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