John W Sears on the Grand Old Party

There is little about John W. Sears that suggests a thoroughly modern man. From the Gilbert & Sullivan references dropped into conversation, to the books aligned on the top of the piano in his Beacon Hill home (assorted memoirs of such noted Massachusetts Republicans as Henry Cabot Lodge, Leverett Saltonstall, Elliot Richardson, and John Volpe), to the circa 1970s Magnavox television set in the parlor, there is much about Sears and his surroundings that suggests an uncommonly strong connection to the past. Which is exactly why CommonWealth and many others often turn to Sears for historical perspective on questions about Massachusetts government and politics. Sears served in the state House of Representatives from 1964 to 1968. He ran for mayor of Boston in 1967, was appointed sheriff of Suffolk County in 1968, and was commissioner of the Metropolitan District Commission from 1970 to 1975. He then served on the Boston City Council, and ran for governor against Michael S. Dukakis in 1982. Lately he’s been writing a political column for Beacon Hill, a bi-weekly newspaper covering state government. (Sears sometimes says that he should be identified as “the local and less talented John Sears.” John P. Sears is known nationally for chairing Richard Nixon’s, and later Ronald Reagan’s, political campaigns.) Sears is by turns eloquent, curmudgeonly, witty, obscure, and full of opinions, which of course means that in modern television-age politics he would be a political handler’s nightmare. But if you want to talk about the past, present, and future of the Republican Party in Massachusetts, as I did on a recent afternoon, you could hardly hope to find a more engaging conversationalist. — DAVE DENISON

CommonWealth: If I were to throw this beginning of a sentence to you, how would you finish it: To be a Republican in Massachusetts … ?

Sears: Requires patience and fortitude.

CommonWealth: In preparing for this, I happened to look back at the Almanac of American Politics for 1976, and in describing Massachusetts politics [the authors wrote], “The Republican Party here in Massachusetts, like so many of the elderly Yankees who were its most solid supporters, seems simply to have disappeared.” And the same could have been said through the ’80s and now into the ’90s; so I wonder if you think anything at all has improved, or if it has gotten worse?

Sears: I think it’s gotten worse, but it hadn’t disappeared in ’76. Frank Hatch almost won a very important race for governor in ’78. And I didn’t do all that badly in ’82. We got three quarters of a million votes, give or take. But we haven’t won a big election since then until Weld. And my own sense of that is that Bill didn’t really win the 1990 election, John Silber lost it. So I think we’ve had a very bad problem of exciting the voters and recruiting and growing the GOP as a substantial second party.

CommonWealth: Weld certainly won the ’94 race against Roosevelt easily….

Sears: Once you’re in and have the incumbency and the coverage and the name recognition, it is a great deal simpler.

CommonWealth: Can you give us your view on why his tremendous popularity has not seemed to help build the party?

“The one-party state has been a disaster, in my view, for Massachusetts.”

Sears: Well, the governor was not a dedicated party builder. And even when he tried to do some things, I got the impression that his palace guard was so focused on him and on his future that they tended to dry up the resources for a lot of other folks running at the same time. I’ve always been down in the trenches working with people running for state rep. and county office and stuff like that. And I got quite a few complaints of that sort in the years when Governor Weld was running.

CommonWealth: What, generally, would a Republican governor do differently to build the party up from the bottom?

Sears: Two great builders I’ve worked for over the years were Governor [Christian] Herter and Governor [John] Volpe.

CommonWealth: In the ’50s and ’60s.

Sears: The ’50s and ’60s. Constant efforts to recruit people. Governor Volpe recruited me. He hauled me into the back seat of a Cadillac outside Boston Symphony Hall and asked me to run for sheriff of Suffolk County. And then you have to help by going to things. Volpe showed up at a supermarket in Chelsea and campaigned with me. The next thing is not to corner all the money. I think that was inadvertent in recent years, but it happened. There wasn’t a resource left for the little guy or girl running for state representative in Wilbraham. As it wound up, I got the impression that people knew a lot more of the names in President Clinton’s Cabinet than they did of Governor Weld’s. There wasn’t enough sharing and building. [Secretary of Administration and Finance] Charlie Baker should be a known name in Massachusetts. And he really isn’t. That’s been the problem.

CommonWealth: You were party chairman for a while. From your experience, is there much that a person in that position can do to make a difference?

Sears: It’s a lot harder for a party chairman than it is for a governor, but “yes” would be my answer. That, however, requires the support of the electeds, if there are any. And it requires the kind of a public personality — I’m fond of Jean Inman, our present chair, and I think she’s decent, but I don’t think she’s surfacing as a public personality. I’d be happier if I saw her responding sharply to the Attorney General or to the State Auditor or to [House] Speaker Finneran or [Senate] President Birmingham.

CommonWealth: So that there’s more of a sense of an oppositional dynamic?

Sears: Exactly. That’s what the two-party system is basically all about; it’s to give the public a chance, by seeing a civilized confrontation, to pick which idea they think works better, or which person.

CommonWealth: That’s one of the things that I think is a little bit complicated. Because you also hear that the public likes to see among their political leaders a spirit of cooperation, even bipartisanship, which is what we have now on Beacon Hill in some form….

Sears: That’s after the election. If you don’t have some options before the election, you don’t really have a healthy democratic system. The one-party state has been a disaster, in my view, for Massachusetts. And never more than just at the moment, where we have 10 Democratic congressmen in a Congress controlled by the Republicans, and some substantial needs. But that’s the pork side of politics; the choice-for-the-public side is the one I was focusing on. How in the world do you express indignation against someone doing a bad job if there is no one running against him?

CommonWealth: As someone famously said, the role of an opposition party is to oppose.

Sears: Yes, it is.

CommonWealth: And I have heard the criticism that there is, even on Beacon Hill, not enough opposition among the Republicans to the Democratic leadership there.

Sears: You begin, when you get down this long, to accommodate. That’s part of the rap on Paul Cellucci — I think unfairly. But we now make an assumption that the Speaker will be a Democrat and the House of Representatives will be Democratic. That assumption itself is poisoning a healthy system. It was really good for the Congress suddenly to flip over from a strong Democratic domination to a Republican [majority].

CommonWealth: You talk about the problems with being a one-party state. That goes back so long in the history of this state that most of us don’t remember it being any different. And yet it was quite different at one point.

“There were very good young Democrats who came along and tipped it over.”

Sears: Well the Republican Party was so dominant in the 19th century that it poisoned the politics in the other direction. And there were very good young Democrats who ultimately came along and tipped it over, plus certain other factors.

CommonWealth: “Tipped” is a good word. Sears: Well Tip, yes. And the Kennedys. Tip O’Neill was the first Democratic Speaker of the Massachusetts House, but I think that the revolution included some other factors.

CommonWealth: Well, tell me a little bit about that. The point of Republican dominance goes from about when to when?

Sears: From the Civil War, with some aberrations and interruptions, but not many, right up to about 1948.

CommonWealth: You say the Republican Party, at that point, became entrenched. I think you used the word “poisoned.”

Sears: It’s the system that I see as poisoned. The Republican Party got ingrown, but I think they were still doing a healthy job. Back then the state tickets tended to be eclectic on the Republican side and kelly green on the Democratic side…. In 1948, I was just bouncing out of school and going to college. And there was a sort of first shock occurred, and I’m struggling to remember, but I believe there was a birth control referendum that got tangled up in the politics of that time. And one result was that the Catholic voters of Massachusetts took some umbrage, and we had for the first time a Democratic Senate President and a Democratic Speaker of the House, Chester Mellon and Tip O’Neill. And [Democrats] tipped over also quite a good governor. Bob Bradford was beaten by Paul Dever that year, and I think that there were some reverberations. And quite a lot of the quite conservative city Catholic Democratic vote came out in response to the sudden injection into the political arena of the question of birth control.

CommonWealth: How did that play out as far as the Republican point of view and the Democratic position on the birth control referendum?

Sears: Well, the Catholic Democratic voter, especially 1948 style, was what we would today call a right-to-lifer.

CommonWealth: Against birth control.

Sears: Correct. And that subsided, and the Republicans came back and they regained control of the State House briefly and the State Senate through the ’54 elections. And Governor Herter defeated Dever and was re-elected.

CommonWealth: The Republicans at that point, in other words, took the more liberal position.

Sears: Yes. Which wouldn’t surprise you — as a coalition of declining Yankees and Jewish and Italian, and so forth, folk on the one side, but mainly Protestant. And the Protestant side of the argument is usually pro-choice. I wouldn’t want to over-focus on that referendum. There were other things that happened. All over the world there was a state of change after World War II, Winston [Churchill] was thrown out and replaced by Clement Attlee. And people just wanted things to be different.

CommonWealth: Right. And the other aspect, according to Tip O’Neill’s account in his book [Man of the House], has him and a few other Democrats going out riding their automobiles into the towns and actively recruiting new candidates to run for the Democratic Party, where there might not have been candidates otherwise.

Sears: I would give a certain amount of credit to Tip; maybe not as much credit as Tip does.

CommonWealth: You know the hard thing at this point to understand, even if we know as much as what you’ve told us, is how did the change become so dramatic and so lasting? So that by the ’50s and ’60s the Republican Party really seemed to be–

Sears: Well, I think we then got hit with a number of really heavy blows. That [birth control] referendum was one shot, if I read it correctly. But then you had the change from city living to suburban living. You had the arrival on the scene of the Kennedys, and their force. And you had the Transcript disappearing and the Christian Science Monitor declining, and The Boston Globe — which has always hoped to be an independent paper but has been a Democratic newspaper for most of these years — and the unions growing stronger. And I think that those forces are the main reason for the change and the decline of the GOP and the dominance of the Democratic Party, and still are.

CommonWealth: When you ran for governor in 1982 you spoke, and this was a month or so before the elections, of “The agony of a public person trying to solve problems, trying to get a message across to people and facing the kind of sieve of distortion and the failure to cope that is modern journalism.” That can be read as showing some frustration with politics.

Sears: Yes, I’ve had a good deal of frustration with politics even now, while I’m essentially not in it.

CommonWealth: It’s that kind of frustration that candidates feel when they go through the wringer that would seem to speak to the trouble the Republican Party has here in recruiting new people and talented people to come into public service. Although the flip side is that the Democrats don’t seem to be short of candidates stepping forward.

Sears: Republican centrists do, because the Globe is pretty tough always, and inclined to go the other way. And the Herald really drives down the right-hand side of the road and doesn’t care too much about the, to me, old-fashioned Republican centrist.

CommonWealth: In your pantheon of past Republicans, I didn’t hear you mention Francis Sargent.

Sears: Oh, I should. He might be right near the top of the list. As you probably know, the governor has Alzheimer’s. The other day Frank Phillips wrote in the Globe that Ray Shamie was the most respected Republican Party elder. My reaction to that is I hope Governor Sargent didn’t see it. For that matter, it wouldn’t read too well in the Richardson house. It’s a simply astonishing attitude that makes it more difficult to function in the old-fashioned Republican moderate way. But Frank Sargent was super. I know all about the accusation that he was too green and was perhaps over in the left-hand side and that he appointed only Democrats. Well, he appointed me twice. And I loved working with him and I thought he was fair and had a heart as big as a house. And I wish that he had not lost to the Duke in 1974.

CommonWealth: After you lost in ’82, [Sargent] was quoted in the papers saying that perhaps a defeat in that year — he almost made it sound as if it were a time to scrap the Republican Party in this state and wait for a new Independent-Republican Party to develop.

Sears: Well in somewhat selfish terms, ’82 was a very confusing political year because of the battle in the Democratic Party between Edward J. King, who was more conservative than I am, and Michael S. Dukakis, who was more liberal than I am. And Frank Hatch had been through the same problem in ’78. He didn’t know what he was running against, and wound up running against Ed King, who tipped Michael over in the primary and then became Governor. So you had a conservative Democratic Governor. We had a rather bruising primary, after which we would find out whether we were running against Governor King or ex-Governor Dukakis. We were focused on Ed King, and all of a sudden I had to rearrange the campaign in six weeks to aim at ex-Governor Mike.

CommonWealth: If it would have come out the other way, you would have then had a conservative Democrat running probably in some ways to the right of a liberal Republican. Sears: That was true in the Hatch-King campaign for sure. Hence, Barney Frank endorsing Hatch. That’s perfectly healthy as far as I’m concerned. This country is so big and so complex that if there are two political statements, there will be some overlap. And every now and again we will get that. And that’s part of the fun. It’s only for editors and pundits that you want it to be absolutely yin and yang on every occasion.

CommonWealth: Well it makes the oppositional dynamic a little easier for the public to grasp, in terms of what the parties stand for.

“It’s easier to do sound bites if you have a simplistic notion of practically everything.”

Sears: And, of course, what happens in each party and certainly happened to me in cards and spades is that the one-line folk and what I call the right-hand breakdown lane of the Republican Party constantly say to the Republican centrist, “You guys don’t stand for anything.” Of course, that’s a crock. It’s just that we stand for a more complicated view of things than they do. And there’s always a “on the one hand this, and on the other hand that,” and we’re not as good at sound bites. It’s very much easier to do sound bites if you have a simplistic notion of practically everything. The same thing happened to the Democratic Party on the far left. Pass a bill. Create an appropriation. That will solve the problem. Of course, it usually doesn’t. In our party, if you are willing to apply government and treat it, as they say at the Harvard Law School, as “one of the wise restraints that make men free,” you get in constant trouble.

CommonWealth: It reminds me of a statement in [William] Safire’s political dictionary that a Republican is an advocate of the democratic form of government and a Democrat is an advocate of the republican form of government.

Sears: There is a point to be made here, which is that the word “democrat,” in the vulgarization of the English language, is a better word than “republican.” Folks have stopped being aware of what it is to be a republican. And not to be a democrat is a dire sin. Not to be a republican doesn’t matter very much. So, the word isn’t as good.

CommonWealth: In a campaign, where you have to put it in a sound bite, if someone were to ask you [about] the word republican in this day and age, what’s a good way of getting at it?

Sears: Republicanism is in full flood in the Irish question. In that context it simply means to get away from a colonialism or a monarchy and to extend the franchise as far as you can out among the people. A republican believes that you should repose authority in an elected person and then hold him accountable to it. And the trick to it is to be sure that they don’t stay too long and take root and begin to take advantage. But “republic” is what Mr. Lincoln would have referred to the United States as. For that matter, probably Mr. Washington as well. And isn’t that what Ben Franklin said in answer to the lady at the end of the Constitutional Convention? “You have a republic if you can keep it.”

CommonWealth: But how can you then tie that historical understanding of being a republican to where the modern Republican Party wants to take the public — which, during the Reagan era, was simplified as “getting government off our backs,” which led to a sense of government being the problem, not the solution.

Sears: I would, until about 15 years ago, have heatedly argued about what a real Republican is. In the 1980 election, the Republican Party did make a course change. The President of the United States in his inaugural did say that government was the problem and a large overweight figure in the Massachusetts delegation, namely J.W. Sears, got up and said, “Mr. President, this is not right. Government is not the problem. Bad government is the problem.” But that was the difference between us, and I think I had been able to say that for the Republican Party up to that point. I think the Reagan view has prevailed for the time being. These pendulums swing back and forth, but I would guess that the majority of the Republican Party and its leadership today has a healthy suspicion of government in almost any form. I think I remember seeing Barbara Anderson wrestling with that kind of question in an interview in your magazine. And their way of expressing their concern about government and their kind of unease about it is in all this talk about tax cutting, which doesn’t come from the Lodges and Saltonstalls and Herters. They get to the tax question at the end of the process. “What are our needs? How much money do we need to raise in a balanced budget state?” Then we’ll talk to you about taxes, but we don’t start a campaign by talking about tax cuts. That really is a synonym for government cuts. The present gubernatorial campaign has begun with the argument, even among the Democrats, as to how shall we cut taxes. How do they know they can cut taxes until they know what the economy of Massachusetts is going to be like next year, the taxes laid against the gross product of the Commonwealth? And that depends on factors wholly out of control of Messrs. Harshbarger, Cellucci, Malone, Flynn and Ms. McGovern.

CommonWealth: Realistically, in your view, what would have to happen to achieve some parity between the two parties in this state, and what kind of timeline would it have to take place on?

Sears: Well sadly, in the context of politics in the end of the 20th century, scandal. Or public outrage. If really corrupt people — we’ve had some, too, but the current leadership is not as corrupt as previous– but if we got really bad leadership in the House and Senate and people were doing nothing but arrogating power and privilege unto themselves, the public would then, I think, rediscover the Republican Party and perhaps use it as an instrument for changing the leadership, which is what it ought to be.

Meet the Author

Dave Denison

Founding Editor, CommonWealth magazine
CommonWealth: So if the Democratic leadership really became obviously and demonstratively corrupt, it could happen quickly that we could be back to a two-party system. But barring that, and then bringing it back to the realm of fieldwork that we talked about in the beginning–

“Rebuilding the Republican Party is a long, slow play.”

Sears: Barring that, it’s a long, slow play of educating and having good ideas and finding good candidates to run with them. In Massachusetts we have a situation different from elsewhere in the U.S. The Democrats have more money. The common assumption, nationally, is that Repubs raise bigger sums and have splashier ads on television, but not so here. Mike [Dukakis] and Ed [King] between them had about 11 times as much money as we did in 1982. Weld brought that back more or less in line, but there aren’t many other Republicans who would be able to. Normally, our candidate would have only half or a third as much to spend. So that doesn’t look good for us here. It will have to be done by remarkable candidates. I did think that Weld had a chance to do it, and I’m afraid I think he missed the opportunity.