This is a column about the Boston mayoral race, but bear with me for a minute because I’m starting in 1860, with Abraham Lincoln. In the early days of his presidential bid, in a quest for delegates at the Illinois nominating convention, Lincoln’s political advisers produced a set of wooden fence rails. Purportedly, Lincoln had split them with an ax as a boy.
This was the moment when the central narrative of Lincoln’s past — log cabin-born, tough, and strong — began to take hold, according to Michael Vorenberg, a historian at Brown University. This was the tale that set Lincoln apart from the elite urban lawyers who were his chief competition.
None of it was true, Vorenberg points out. At the time he was running for president, Lincoln was hardly a hardscrabble guy. He was a successful, clean-shaven, suit-wearing urban lawyer, quite skilled at the insider game of politics. And he was savvy enough to recognize the power of his life story.
“He probably played it better than anyone had played it up to that point, successfully,” Vorenberg told me. When policy differences are scant, “the narrative is what makes a difference.”
Which brings us to Boston, 2013. This race between Marty Walsh and John Connolly hasn’t been a policy battle so much as a personality fight. In many cases, the candidates’ support has hinged on past alliances, personal loyalties, temperament issues, and longstanding relationships. But on another, basic level — especially for the progressive voters, removed from the ward-by-ward street battles, who might end up swinging this race — the battleground has been the personal narrative.
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