The Mass.-New Hampshire presidential connection

Warren, Weld, and Patrick are the latest to head north

VOTERS IN NEW HAMPSHIRE will soon cast their ballots in the presidential primary, ballots that for decades have borne the names of candidates from the neighboring state of Massachusetts.  This year, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former Govs. Deval Patrick and William Weld are entries from the Massachusetts stable, the latest in a long line of Massachusetts officials who, when they look in the mirror, see a president.

History supports their dreams – to a point.  Two candidates named Adams reached the White House, as did Calvin Coolidge, a Vermont native whose climb up the greasy pole included stops in Northampton City Hall, the Massachusetts House and Senate, and the governor’s chair.  We might also claim George H.W. Bush of Milton and Andover, and Robert F. Kennedy of Milton and Hyannisport, though both left the Bay State as young men.

More recent attempts have been inspired by the stunning success of then-Sen. John F. Kennedy of Brookline and Hyannisport in 1960.  Kennedy’s success also opened the door to political prominence and influence for a group of tough, savvy aides from Massachusetts who guided the 1960 and future campaigns.

In his book, The Making of the President, 1960, for example, Theodore White introduced the political world to handlers with Massachusetts roots such as Worcester’s Kenneth O’Donnell and Springfield’s Lawrence O’Brien, described by White as “a team, like quarterback and blocking center.”   And every history of Robert Kennedy’s campaign in 1968 confirms that it would never have achieved lift-off in the Indiana primary without the efforts of Massachusetts operatives led by Charlestown’s Gerard Doherty.

The triumph of 1960 was long ago, however, and for the following 60 years Massachusetts has been known more as a cradle of candidates than a cradle of presidents.  Edward Kennedy, Michael Dukakis, Paul Tsongas, and John Kerry all sought the political summit using New Hampshire as a base camp.  So, too, Republicans Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. and  Mitt Romney trudged the trails of New Hampshire in their ultimately unsuccessful efforts to reach the highest political peak.  Former governor Endicott Peabody, in an unusual move, made bids for the vice presidency in 1972 and 1992, but since the vice presidency is not won but bestowed, his was a quixotic adventure.

In 2020, the tradition continues. Warren and Patrick climb on. Congressman Seth Moulton began a climb, but has returned to the flatlands of the North Shore. Former governor William Weld has mounted his own challenge — to President Trump in the Republican primary — though Weld’s patented, iconoclastic path is not likely to be found in any Appalachian Mountain Club guide.

The storied histories of such climbs – from White’s Making of the President series and Jules Witcover’s classic Marathon to Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72 – still guide today’s mountaineers, who know that the trails they follow bear the footprints of others who tried and failed.

Climbing, as metaphor, describes life’s struggles as well as the political fray.  The Irish poet William Butler Yeats captured the physical and mental forces that drive life’s ascents over ancient trails.  In “The Winding Stair,” Yeats writes:  “My Soul.  I summon to the winding ancient stair; Set all your mind upon the steep ascent,/ . . . Fix every wandering thought upon/That quarter where all thought is done . . . .”

In “Blood and the Moon,” Yeats captures the climber trekking upward on a well-worn path:  “I declare this tower is my symbol; I declare/ This winding, gyring, spiring treadmill of a stair is my ancestral stair;/ That Goldsmith and the Dean, Berkeley and Burke have travelled there.”

More recently, novelist Ward Just invoked the same metaphor of ascent in the prologue to his masterpiece of political ambition, Echo House, writing:  “They all thought that they were climbing to the top of the tree together.”

Beyond history and the ambition of the climbers, and their good-faith desire to serve, may lie another sentiment:  the instinct to export one’s political culture, to offer the country (if not the world) the Massachusetts model of politics and government.  That impulse is reflected in president-elect John Kennedy’s famous “City Upon a Hill” speech at the rostrum of the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1961.

But perhaps no one captured – and lampooned – this instinct better than Massachusetts Sen. Daniel Webster in 1837.  Webster sought the presidency several times, his hopes finally dashed in 1852 in the wake of his support for the Compromise of 1850.  Earlier in his career, Webster had poked fun at the ambitions of himself and the other grasping sons of his adopted state.  In a speech delivered to a large gathering of Whigs at Niblo’s Saloon, in New York City, on March 15, 1837, shortly after the election of Democrat Martin van Buren, Webster said:

“It was said of [a] distinguished son of Massachusetts, that in matters of politics and government he cherished the most kind and benevolent feelings toward the whole earth. He earnestly desired to see all nations well governed; and to bring about this happy result, he wished that the United States might govern the rest of the world; that Massachusetts might govern the United States; that Boston might govern Massachusetts; and as for himself, his own humble ambition would be satisfied by governing the little town of Boston.”

Meet the Author

Thomas A. Barnico

Teacher, Boston College Law School
In 2020, we will watch to see if Webster’s successors from Massachusetts make the same modest offer to New Hampshire voters, the nation, and ultimately the world.

Thomas A. Barnico teaches at Boston College Law School.  He is a former Massachusetts assistant attorney general (1981-2010).