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.
Hence the fascination with Walsh’s dramatic life story: the guy who beat childhood cancer and overcame alcoholism to find stability and success. And hence the ability of Walsh’s allies to paint Connolly, who went to private school and Harvard, as the “son of privilege.” Connolly finally pushed back last week — and his wife tearfully shared her own history with cancer — to counteract a narrative that paints them as unsuffering and thus, by definition, out of touch.
There’s a class war going on here, which is ironic, since Walsh has had the much larger salary of late. But even more so, this is a life-story war. And it says less about the candidates than it does about the public, and the way we want to view our politicians.
In 1860, Lincoln understood what people wanted to see: an outsider, independent, self-reliant, strong. In the 21st century, Vorenberg points out, we’ve added new values to the list. In our confessional culture, we like to see vulnerabilities laid bare. We view suffering, and coming out the better for it, as a proxy for empathy and wisdom. We imagine that “overcoming” trumps “making the most of what you have.”
I don’t mean to sound cynical about Marty Walsh. His story is compelling, inspiring, and true. There is nothing insincere about the way he describes his boyhood illness or his bottomed-out days of addiction. And, crucially, he has used his turnaround to inspire other addicts, and his influence to help them. That's one reason why he has such deep support in many Boston neighborhoods.
On the other hand, there shouldn’t be anything disqualifying about John Connolly’s past: the fact that his family used its resources to send him to private school, or the fact that he got into Harvard and law school. There’s no reason to doubt that his few years teaching in urban schools was an eye-opening, consciousness-shaping experience, or that he sincerely cares about helping poor kids get a better foundation in life. Only in politics — and, OK, maybe memoir-writing — do your parents do you a disservice by making sure your childhood is comfortable and uneventful, or for trying to give you a good start.
Yet there have been times when I’ve imagined Connolly wishing he’d had some massive obstacle to overcome. In a way, he does: that double-edged Harvard label, a shorthand for “smart,” but also “elitist”; that law degree, a symbol of white-collar success. Connolly is hardly the first lawyer to realize that being a lawyer doesn’t serve you well in politics. Lincoln knew it, too.