Down, Not Out

There is a lot of gloom these days in the old American city of Boston. The loss, in the space of a few years in the early 1990s, of Massachusetts’ prosperous minicomputer industry (Digital Equipment, Data General, Prime, Wang) to Microsoft and Intel and their clones was only the beginning.

Next The Boston Globe was sold to The New York Times.  The once powerful old First National Bank of Boston was absorbed, first by Rhode Island’s Fleet, then by Charlotte’s Bank of America. John Hancock Life Insurance sold out to a big Canadian firm. Polaroid Corp. simply went broke.

Boston’s biggest law firm, Hale and Dorr, merged into Washington’s Wilmer Cutler Pickering.  Cincinnati’s Procter and Gamble bought famous old Gillette. The Atlantic Monthly, a proud symbol of Boston’s 19th century gilded age, announced it was moving to Washington, D.C.

No loss, however, has been more serious than the decline of the city’s political export business. For the first time in half a century, Massachusetts has no Democratic Party candidate on its horizon who might conceivably run for president and win.

As a result, an all-but-invisible corps of consultants, staffers, pollsters, advertising executives, fundraisers, lawyers, journalists, experts, mouthpieces, advance men, coat-holders and hangers-on is in danger of dropping beneath the threshold necessary to its continued fecundity. Its older members are choosing retirement; its younger members are joining businesses and hanging out shingles.

True, Massachusetts’ Congressional delegation, led by Edward M. (Ted) Kennedy Jr. in the Senate and by Ed Markey, Barney Frank and Michael Capuano in the House of Representatives, is in solid shape. Kennedy, in particular, wields enormous power — especially in health care, where Boston’s competitive edge in hospitals and biotech remains sharp.

But it is the White House where the influence necessary to transform an economy is to be found.

It was in 1956 that John F. Kennedy sought the vice presidency at the Democratic National Convention. In 1960, he was elected president and served until he was assassinated in 1963. Both his brothers were elected to the Senate, Teddy from Massachusetts in 1962 and Robert from New York in 1966.  Bobby Kennedy ran for president in 1968 but was killed before the nominating convention. Boston Mayor Kevin White briefly was George McGovern’s vice presidential choice in 1972, which led him to strongly consider a presidential run in 1976 — until the busing controversy dashed his hopes.

Ted Kennedy ran vigorously in 1980, but failed to wrest the nomination away from President Jimmy Carter. Gov. Michael Dukakis was the Democratic standard-bearer in 1988. Sen. Paul Tsongas contested the nomination in 1992 (as might have Boston University president John Silber if he had managed to get past William F. Weld in the governor’s race). Al Gore was the 2000 nominee, not a Massachusetts man, but very much a son of Harvard and a Kennedy ally.

It was this Kennedy team that swung around behind Sen. John Kerry in Iowa in December 2003, at a time when he was trailing Al Sharpton in some polls. Kennedy operatives, led by campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill, rejuvenated Kerry’s candidacy. In the end, Dukakis campaign veterans, John Sasso chief among them, nearly put him over the top.

With Kerry’s defeat, however, the state has run out of plausible candidates.  The senator clearly would like to run again in 2008, but the signs do not favor it. For example, Sen. John McCain, Kerry’s frequent ally in the past, has been sending him signals to abandon his hopes, at least for now. Former US assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Devall Patrick, a long-shot for the governor’s race next year, is being touted as “a Barrack Obama-type.”  Even if he is, he has a long way to go, having never before run for office.

And Gov. Mitt Romney, trying to get a national campaign going, is a Republican. It’s not like the old days, when Italians made good Republicans because the Irish wouldn’t let them into the Democratic Party, and the parties played well with each other. Romney may have the Mormon vote locked up, but he can count on very little meaningful support otherwise from Massachusetts for his candidacy.

Along with its fifty-year permanent presidential campaign, a unique Boston brand of journalism has been going extinct. American newspapering started in Boston in 1690, and in the 19th century enjoyed its salad days, but by the 1940s, Oswald Villard characterized the city as the “poor farm” of newspaper journalism, a dozen clapped-out dailies chasing meager revenues in a fading city.

New England’s start-up telephone and electricity industries already had moved elsewhere. Its textile mills, machine tool and shoe manufacturing industries, a source of abundant wealth in the 19th century, were slowly winding down. New York had long since replaced it as a financial capital and transportation hub.

But with the beginning of World War II, the Massachusetts economy began a second resurgence, comparable in many ways to its original industrial revolution.  Although the term didn’t come into common usage until the 1980s, a significant portion of the “high-tech” revolution began in the 1940s in university laboratories in Cambridge, and along the 2-lane country highway known in those days as Rte. 128.

Radar, with its semiconductor and microwave technology, was partly invented and developed in Cambridge. So was real-time computing.  So were the networking techniques that eventually proved to be the basis of the Internet.  And as the Massachusetts economy expanded, so did its newspaper industry, dozens of prosperous family-owned newspapers — The Berkshire Eagle, The Springfield Republican, The Lowell Sun, The Worcester Telegram and Gazette — led, ultimately, by The Boston Globe, and a lively alternative press as well.

A memorial service was held for last week for David Nyhan, a long-time political columnist for The Globe who died in January at 64 after shoveling snow. Harvard Kennedy School of Government media don Alex Jones, former Globe columnist Mike Barnicle, former Gov. Dukakis and former editorial page editor Martin F. Nolan took turns eulogizing Nyhan as nothing less than (in Emerson’s phrase) “a masterpiece of a life.”

With the election of Kennedy in 1960, Globe editor Thomas Winship began to put in place a cadre of political reporters, columnists and cartoonists — Robert Healey, Nolan, Nyhan, Thomas Oliphant, Curtis Wilkie, Barnicle, Paul Szep — who personified Boston to the political world. They were vigorous, partisan, good-humored, friendly men — none more so than Nyhan, who was as much at home on a rugby field or in his lobster boat as behind a typewriter or in front of a microphone.

The New York Times, having bought The Globe, not only has extirpated nearly all trace of this cheerful Boston culture on its property. It is busily trying to put the rival Boston Herald out of business as well, acquiring a half-interest in a give-away paper, in hopes of gaining an advertising monopoly that will permit it to earn higher returns — a grasp that already extends to nearby Worcester, where it now owns the Telegram-Gazette.

The Taylor family, which owned and operated The Globe for more than 130 years, and which had many opportunities to damage the Herald in recent years, repeatedly refused to take the steps necessary to run it into the ground. They understood that two newspapers were good for the city — and, ultimately, probably for their own business as well.

Such a vibrant tradition cannot be extinguished overnight, of course. Plenty of good newsies are still writing in Boston. But no less than the boom in export politics, whose handmaiden it most often was, the journalistic renaissance is ended now.

All this has happened before. In Reinventing Boston:1640-2003, Harvard University professor Edward Glaeser in some detail described the rise and fall and rise and fall of the city — “a series of crises and restructuring.”  More than once in its history, it seemed destined to become little more than a nostaligic backwater.

Its resilience, he says, owes to its willingness to reinvent itself, first as a maritime trading center, then as a factory town, a center of finance, and a scientific capital. And to this day, there is no more dramatic image of the city than the one spun out over a few dozen pages at the beginning of volume three of Daniel Boorstin’s The Americans, under the heading “The Versatiles.”

There, Boorstin describes how, from the earliest days in Massachusetts, “the wealth of the sea offset the poverty of the land;” how its merchants graduated from fish to sugar, and from sugar to ginseng and tea and a thousand other global commodities (he leaves out the slaves and opium);  how  Frederic Tudor learned how cut ice from local ponds and send it on fast ships to the Caribbean and eventually, as far as to Calcutta, and so made a fortune in the thirty years before mechanical refrigeration put him out of business; how, thanks to breakthroughs in cutting techniques, Boston stone merchants were able to sell their square-cut granite blocks and columns  all over the eastern and southern United States for a time, until others learned to do the same; and, so, how a short-lived burst of commercial success in the first half of the 19th century gave rise to Charles Francis Adams’ wry boast,  “The three great staples of New England are ice, rocks and men.”

These things happen faster than ever in the present age. But this time it’s going to take a while for New England to recycle, especially its political export trade. Still, there are signs that already the process has begun. Take technical economics, for example.

Also last week, Harvard University’s Martin Feldstein, 66, delivered his final lecture in the introductory economics course he has been teaching for 21 years — ever since he returned from serving as economic adviser to President Ronald Reagan. He yields in the fall by 47-year-old N. Gregory Mankiw — himself just returned from a stint in Washington as chief adviser to President George W. Bush.

The Harvard Crimson described the scene as the man that nearly everyone knows as “Marty” ended his stewardship of the college’s largest course. Brian Hall, a former student, now a professor at the Harvard Business School, told the packed hall that Feldstein was “a giant, not just because of his ideas, but because of his excitement about the ideas themselves.” Department chairman Albert Alesina presented him a plaque.

Then the Din and Tonics, an undergraduate singing group, rushed onstage and presented the bespectacled professor with “a large Bombay Sapphire gin and tonic.” They sang “Oh, Here’s to Marty Feldstein” and “Drink and Drink and Drink and Drink” while the students stood and cheered.

At least at the turning points of the 20th century, there have been few more dependable indicators of an expended fad than the economics they are teaching at Harvard. In the 1920s, it was all Frank Taussig and free trade and perfect competition, even as the imperfect competition movement and Keynesian revolution were about to break.  In the 1960s, it was Keynes and John Kenneth Galbraith, just as the new conservatism was beginning to emerge.

I don’t know exactly where it is coming from, but I have a hunch that new doctrines re-articulating old-fashioned New England ideas about the importance of community and commonwealth are on their way, wafting slowly out of political hotbeds and research centers around the country. Already you can sense a slight stirring of the breeze in the Massachusetts air. The political exporters may have lost their vitality for the moment. But if history is any guide, they will get it back.