Boston, Columns, Politics
Feb 24, 1998
MIKE BARNICLE IN THE BOSTON GLOBE: Getting a fix on the real thing


February 24, 1998

Like most major American cities, Boston is like a layer cake. Some elements are as obvious to the eye as frosting while others remain obscured by simple geography.

Yesterday, for example, a gray Monday, if you walked from the Public Garden to Kenmore Square and back along Newbury Street you could easily think the city was filled by either the young or the wealthy with not many others in between. The eye devours people going to classes along with residents riding a wave of national affluence as well as platoons of out-of-town shoppers — part of a plastic army — arriving in force, ready to toss down their cards as a statement of strength All of it is a distance removed from Egleston, Oak Square, Dudley, Savin Hill, Hyde Park and Roslindale, stops on a transit map to most. Yet even here, fresh paint, economic ventures, and a new broom on old stone sidewalks have delivered the gift of optimism plus an increased sense of security to neighborhoods that not long ago were dark with gloom and fear.

There is the tourist town. And there is the traveled town.

There is the town that swells by day with workers who fill office buildings, insurance firms, and brokerage houses and then depart at dusk. And there is the town where people actually live, pay taxes, put their kids in school, and look to trash collection, public safety, a clean park, a functioning traffic signal, or a visible STOP sign as daily barometers of whether government is indifferent or involved.

Away from the bright lights and the allure of bistros stuffed with symbols of expense account confidence, though, it is hard to escape the conclusion that a majority seems satisfied. As always, the public is smarter and more aware than it is made out to be by a media infatuated with negativism, chronic bad news, and suffering from the infection of cynicism.

Ordinary people don’t require polls to get through their day. They don’t need to put a “spin” on every move. They know that life is not a sound bite. That image is not reality and perception isn’t nearly as important as a paycheck.

One lingering image of Boston — one hashed and rehashed each time the city is mentioned — is that it is extremely liberal, almost abnormally left. But, like the frosting on the cake, philosophy differs once your feet take you away from the center.

There isn’t another state in the union where the biggest city happens to be the center of commerce, media, industry, and education in addition to its political capital. New York has Albany. Pennsylvania has Harrisburg. California has Sacramento. In Illinois, it’s Springfield.

And, as is often the case, people are not necessarily as they are portrayed by polling data or even election results. They are, at their root, sensible rather than confrontational; not much different than others from Cheyenne, Wyoming, to Austin, Texas, to Battle Creek, Michigan.

Sometimes, the view through a prism of pre-ordained judgment and instant observation isn’t simply flawed; it’s flat out inaccurate: Boston, the Kennedys, Harvard, McGovern in ’72, hopelessly, romantically and nostalgically liberal.

You might want to keep this in mind while watching a tremendous two-part documentary that began last evening on PBS devoted to the life of Ronald Reagan. Scorned in places like Back Bay and Beacon Hill, Reagan will find more favor in history than the fellow who occupies the White House this morning.

Maybe because, like a lot of average Americans, Reagan — admire him or not — had beliefs. He had an internal compass, a bit of character, and a life apart from politics.

Oddly enough, he seems not to have been consumed with ambition. Not ever. Always, he was comfortable with himself, happy with whatever part he played. And — a huge asset — he had the ability to make others comfortable, to soothe rather than supplicate himself or seek sympathy.

Sure, he presided over the Iran-Contra scandal, the arms-for-hostages debacle. But then, he went to the country and apologized for not being fully engaged and admitted a mistake. How different!

He did something not many politicians, other than Roosevelt, managed to do: Change how people think about government — that it actually might be too large, might truly play too powerful a role in the everyday life of ordinary Americans.

Like a city, Reagan’s life and presidency had layers that were not always obvious or appreciated. Turns out, the man was more than just frosting on a cake.