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Lexicon: What’s behind a ‘grand bargain’?

President John F. Kenney (right) met with Soviet leader Nikta Khrushchev in June 1961.
President John F. Kenney (right) met with Soviet leader Nikta Khrushchev in June 1961.

The sprawling and ambitious legislation that passed recently on Beacon Hill carries an equally lofty moniker: grand bargain.

The bill, which Governor Charlie Baker is expected to sign on Thursday, seeks to raise the minimum wage, ensure paid medical and family leave, and avert a showdown on three ballot initiatives.

It’s unclear who first used “grand bargain” to describe the agreement that forged the Massachusetts bill. The term that has been used to refer to big proposals that involve big compromises in the hope of achieving big ambitions, according to the Applied History Project at Harvard.

The usage begins popping up in diplomatic and foreign-policy circles after World War I. Historically speaking, the Globe used the phrase the most in the 1920s (60 times).


It gained currency during the Cold War, according to a Wall Street Journal story about the phrase. The British newspaper the Observer noted in 1961 that while President Kennedy never “imagined the Cold War could be ended by one grand bargain,” he was open to meeting with Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev.

Through the years, calls have been issued for “grand bargains” to temper myriad global hot spots: Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Israeli-Palestinian tensions, and North Korea.

It was the term used by Grigory Yavlinsky and Harvard’s Graham Allison to propose in 1991 a Marshall Plan-like deal to assist the Soviet/Russian transition to free-market democracy.

Allan Gotlieb, the Canadian ambassador to the United States from 1981 to 1989, helped to further popularize the phrase when he called for greater unity among Mexico, Canada, and the United States in a 2002 article titled “Why not a grand bargain with the US?”

In the United States, the phrase has taken a turn toward domestic political parlance since at least the divided Congress of the mid-1980s.


In 2011, Democrats and Republicans sought a “grand bargain” during debates over historic cuts in the federal government and the social safety net in exchange for a federal tax increase. The compromise failed.

More recently, the Trump administration is begetting a surge of new usages. An op-ed column last week in The Washington Post declared: “Trump’s ‘grand bargain’ with Russia is an illusion.’’

In the case of Massachusetts, residents are waiting to see how grand this bargain will turn out to be.

Additional source: Graham Allison. Rosemarie McDonald of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Roy Greene can be reached at roy.greene@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @roygreene.