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Opinion | Richard North Patterson

So what if Seth Moulton is ambitious?

Congressman Seth Moulton says that what’s lacking in Congress is not intelligence — it’s courage.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/File

US Representative Seth Moulton of Massachusetts has risen so swiftly — and, to some, fractiously — that skeptics accuse him of . . . well, ambition. For them, the question is whether this two-term congressman will challenge President Trump, or pause to unhorse Senator Ed Markey.

But since when is ambition a political novelty? Perhaps the real question is what kind of leader Moulton aspires to be. His life story provides arresting clues.

Nothing in his background augured public service. But a place and mentor marked him: Harvard Memorial Church and its minister, Peter Gomes. “The greatest man I have ever known,” Moulton said in a speech at Memorial Church in 2017. Gomes stressed the importance of engaging and serving others. In the speech, Moulton reflected: “There are not many buildings . . . where you can say, ‘My life would be entirely different if not for this place.’ ”

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True enough. Seeking a way to serve, Moulton enlisted in the Marines in the spring of 2001. Then came 9/11.

As a platoon leader in Iraq, Moulton received two awards for valor. Leading his men through brutal combat, his citations relate, he “fearlessly exposed himself to enemy fire” and acted “without regard to his personal safety,” saving one soldier’s life. Then General David Petraeus spotted him — he was smart, forthright, and pulled no punches, Petraeus recalled — and made him a personal aide.

In Iraq, he worked with soldiers of different religions, ethnicity, and political beliefs to achieve a common goal. He learned lessons in leadership from Petraeus — the willingness to be challenged, to do things differently. War should be our last resort, he concluded; too few in Congress understood its pitfalls — and human costs.

After returning to Harvard for a joint master’s degree, he entered business in Texas — hardly a steppingstone in Massachusetts. But he missed the sense of purpose he found as a Marine, and mentors from Harvard like David Gergen encouraged him to seek office. Despite long odds, he decided to challenge incumbent Democrat John Tierney.

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Though Tierney faced ethical problems, the party establishment warned that Moulton was dooming his political future. This did not sit well: As Moulton saw it, they were telling him not to participate in a democracy he had risked his life to serve.

So Moulton ran and won — not by questioning Tierney’s ethics, but his effectiveness. Then the Globe unearthed something remarkable in any politician: Moulton had never told anyone, even his parents, about his combat decorations. Why not use them in the campaign? Out of respect, he told the Globe, for “many others who did heroic things and received no awards at all.” H e added that medals weren’t important: “The greatest honor of my life was to lead these men.”

What does all this tell us? To a degree rare among politicians, Moulton is inner-directed — holding himself to his own moral code and standards of conduct. One hears the whisper of Peter Gomes: Equally important to doing things, in Moulton’s mind, are his reasons for doing them.

None of this is proof against opportunism or self-delusion; or rebuts those who privately call him grating and self-serving. But it does compel attention to Moulton’s stated motives. Why take on the Democratic establishment? Because the party has cratered nationwide, he responds, and they’ve proved insufficient to the challenge.

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What is lacking in Congress, he says, is not intelligence — it’s courage. He didn’t take a poll before supporting the near-suicidal challenge to Nancy Pelosi; it was simply the right thing to do.

He’s only human, he told me; sometimes it hurts when people question his motives. But he says it’s time for a new generation of leadership that asks why Democrats lost voters who traditionally relied on them — and drives a fresh agenda for Americans facing profound economic and social challenges. To this end, he’s helped recruit an attractive corps of veterans to run for Congress. No doubt this serves his political interests — and does his party a signal service. Why not accept both?

Speaking at Memorial Church, Moulton finished with a prayer: “Give us courage to speak the truth with boldness, and grace to speak the truth with love.”

That’s a high standard. So hold him to it, as he’s asking. Just don’t worry that he’s too ambitious.


Richard North Patterson’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @RicPatterson.