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The Boston Globe

Opinion

Tom Keane

Politicians think a sob story will achieve electoral success

Associated Press / Getty Images

Newly married Mitt and Ann Romney “ate a lot of pasta and tuna fish.” Michelle Obama recalled Barack as “the guy whose proudest possession was a coffee table he’d found in a dumpster.” She herself grew up in a household where her father, stricken with multiple sclerosis, would “struggle . . . to simply get out of bed.”

There used to be the stereotype of the starving artist — one had to go through pain and hardship (with preferably a few weeks spent in a psychiatric hospital) to create great art. Now it’s the starving politician. Suffering, it seems (minus the psychiatric issues — see, e.g., Thomas Eagleton), is required for a career in politics.

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It’s not just our presidential nominees. Scott Brown has heartbreaking tales of growing up in an abusive and dysfunctional family. Not to be outdone, Elizabeth Warren says she grew up on the “ragged edge of the middle class” where her “mom worked the phones at Sears” while she “was waiting tables at 13.”

Indeed, the last two weeks in Tampa and Charlotte gave us an almost never-ending caterwauling of hardship and tribulation. Mia Love, the mayor of Saratoga Springs, Utah, told conventioneers her parents “immigrated to the United States with $10 in their pocket.” Charlotte, N.C., Mayor Anthony Foxx was “born to a single mom and raised by her and my grandparents.” Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval’s “first job was cleaning sheep pens.” Senator Chuck Schumer remembered his father “pacing the floor, restless about returning to work Monday morning.” South Carolina Representative Tim Scott was a “poor kid growing up in a single-parent household.”

“For a while,” recalled Senator Patty Murray, “we were on food stamps.” Tim Pawlenty, once governor of Minnesota, shared that his mother “died when I was 16, and my dad lost his job not long after that.” House Speaker John Boehner’s family owned a bar. “I worked there growing up, mopping floors, waiting tables.”

The last time I saw this much suffering in one place was when I visited Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame.

Part of the reason pols do this, of course, is to make clear that, though they hold lofty and powerful positions, they really can identify with the rest of us. In addition, there is the “isn’t this a great country” narrative that Republicans and Democrats alike feel compelled to mouth. If even nobodies such as them have been able to claw their ways up so that they could eventually appear before throngs of slightly inebriated conventioneers, then so too can you!

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All of which makes me worry. How about the rest of us — a majority, I think — who grew up in normal homes with no remarkable privations? Without some authentic experience of misery, is a career in politics now foreclosed?

I imagine a conversation with one of my daughters. “Might you run for office someday?”

“Maybe.”

“OK. You’re cut off.” She starts to protest and I interrupt. “It’s for your own good.”

“But I won’t be able to pay my rent or buy food. I’ll be out on the street and starving.”

Yes!!

On the other hand, WWJD?

Jack Kennedy, that is. Kennedy ran before it became an apparent requirement to have a sob story to achieve electoral success. He was wealthy because his father was wealthy and no one would have bought into any fake tales of economic hardship. In today’s world, could he even have gotten elected? Or perhaps instead, he simply would have stood up in front of the crowds, acknowledged he was rich, and told them to get over it.

Tom Keane is a weekly columnist for the Globe. He can be reached at tomkeane@tomkeane.com.

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