The Baystate Objectivist

The Baystate Objectivist

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Paul Caron

His proud fall.

This is the reprinting of an article I wrote in 2002 when longtime Springfield State Representative Paul Caron announced his retirement.

I once had a friendly argument with former Valley Advocate writer Al Giordano over whether or not there are lines of propriety you shouldn't cross when criticizing politicians. The impetus for our discussion was an article by Giordano that appeared in the Advocate about former City Councilor Morris "Mo" Jones. At the time Jones was the targeted enemy of the forces of Righteousness and Light (um, that means me and my friends) because of Jones' maddening tendency to flip-flop on the issues when told to do so by the powers that be.

Of course blind obedience to the local Democrat machine was hardly a vice that was confined to Mo Jones. But what was so infuriating was that Jones was actually a pretty likable guy with a fair dose of commonsense, at least for a Springfield City Councilor. That good sense would cause Jones, when initially confronted with an issue, to make honest statements that often genuinely reflected the public interest.

But then a newspaper editorial would appear supporting a different position, one that was bad for the city but good for the usual group of inside players. Invariably Jones would announce that "after further consideration" he was changing his vote, resulting in numerous one vote victories for the Forces of Darkness. A clever political cartoon of the time portrayed Springfield Newspaper publisher David Starr as pulling the strings of a puppet resembling Jones, while Starr was singing the chorus to the classic blues song, "Got my Mo Jo workin'...." Giordano, talk-show host Dan Yorke and I decided to do everything we could to insure that Jones would be defeated for re-election. (He was)

One day Giordano wrote for the Advocate an especially strong anti-Jones broadside. In that article Giordano had described Jones as "waddling into the council chambers" and giving a speech in which he "croaked like a frog." It was true that Jones was more than a bit portly in those days, which affected the way he walked, and he also had a gravelly voice that in a less politically correct age might have drawn comparisons to the Kingfish character from Amos and Andy.

Although Al's insults were funny, I thought he shouldn't have used them. My objections had nothing to do with political correctness, I just felt that to attack him on such a personal level undermined the purely policy based reasons for why the electorate should reject Jones. I told him I thought it looked mean-spirited.

Al Giordano

Giordano completely disagreed. "Politics is a form of war," he said, and in his view whatever worked to bring down your enemies was both correct and necessary. If personal ridicule was an effective tool, then the serious political activist had a duty to use it. He also argued that since our enemies in the Springfield establishment were often known to stoop to any level of sleazery to win, then why shouldn't we do the same?

Maybe the modern history of Springfield would have been different if more of us reformers had adopted Al's tactics. I don't know, maybe we would have lost fewer battles. But whether it is effective or not, I still adhere to standards that forbid ridicule or personal attacks in my own writing. It's not that I don't have the material to work with. To paraphrase Mark Twain, Valley politics in general, and Springfield in particular, offers not just food for laughter, but an entire banquet!

At the same time, I don't want to be funny if it involves ridiculing people's personal characteristics or their private lives. Therefore I ignore the anonymous letters and emails I keep getting about how this politician is a drunkard, and that one's an adulterer. Sometimes the accusations are unbelievably petty, like so and so smoked pot in college or someone else dyes their hair. Besides the fact that I seldom know (or much care) whether these accusations are true, I still have no desire to print them. What has any of that got to do with public policy?

I think journalism was a nobler profession back in the days when there was considered to be a bright line separating public and private conduct. Although anything in the public realm was regarded by the journalists of yesteryear as fair game, the private lives of public people was considered strictly off-limits. That was why the Washington press corps, while fully aware of John F. Kennedy's adulterous behavior, voluntarily chose not to report it on the grounds that it had nothing to do with JFK's ability to do his job as president. That kind of integrity in journalism is long gone.

Today the media holds people's private lives to standards no one can meet. After all, even the Founding Fathers provided fodder for personal scandal. Thomas Jefferson apparently took his slaves to bed with him in the years after his wife's death. Should he have been disqualified from writing the Declaration of Independence because of it? Benjamin Franklin allegedly drank like a fish and fathered at least one illegitimate child. Should he have been banned from the Constitutional Convention? George Washington grew hemp on his plantation, and his diaries reveal that he knew from personal experience that it could be used for more than just making rope. Should he have been denied the honor of becoming our first president?

Today's disregard for all distinctions between the public and the private has made political life life almost impossible for anyone other than overgrown altar boys and girl scouts. Do we really have a better class of politicians as a result? History has shown that oftentimes the best leaders have personal failings, and the same can be said in reverse - even the worst scoundrels have a virtue or two if you look hard enough. There may be short-term political gains, as Giordano claimed, to be had in the use of what today is euphemistically called "the politics of personal destruction" but in the long run it undermines the entire democratic system.

However, rejecting the use of personal attacks doesn't mean that political commentary can't slam its target pretty hard. Just ask Paul Caron.

It was Caron's misfortune to have me as one of his constituents. Because he represented my district, I followed his career more closely than I might have otherwise, and took him to task over things that I let other local legislators get away with without comment. Caron's voting record in the legislature was not always to my liking, and I often said so, not just in the pages of The Baystate Objectivist but on television and radio when I had the chance.

My attacks on Caron were always ideological, not personal, but they were nonetheless sometimes designed to sting. To his credit, Caron was always a gentleman about it. You can tell the men from the boys in politics by how they respond to criticism. The boys whine and pout and get mad, and if they see their chance, they get even.

The men recognize that give and take, rough and tumble, even a bit of slash and burn over strongly held political ideas are just a necessary and indeed desirable part of the democratic process. That is how a democracy is supposed to work, with people discussing, debating and even arguing over policy, in the hope that once the fighting stops and the dust clears, a consensus can be reached about what course of action is best. Politics without conflict is not really good politics, and it certainly doesn't lead to good government. To his credit Caron didn't expect, as the more contemptible pols do, never to be criticized.

Caron also had his staunch defenders, as I discovered from recurring personal experience. At public meetings, in calls to talk shows, in letters and emails, there were always those who would tell me that I was wrong about Paul Caron. Most of the time such defenders would tell me a story about how Caron had helped them in some way.

Indeed, Caron had a reputation for outstanding constituent service. He was known throughout the Valley for his willingness to help anyone, regardless of their stature or lack of it, their politics or even whether they lived in his district. One such non-constituent was Fred Whitney, probably the most rock-ribbed Republican in Springfield, who once told me that after he had been given a partisan cold shoulder from every Democrat in the Springfield delegation on a matter on which he needed help, he received aid only when he went to the office of Paul Caron.

As was only proper, loyalty to my political principles did not allow me to refrain from attacking Caron's politics on the basis of such testimonials, but I found myself developing a growing respect for Caron over the years. In an age when the term "public servant" is considered, and not without reason, a term of derision, Caron was a rare example of the real thing.

That respect turned to genuine admiration last year (2001) when Caron stunned the political establishment by challenging Michael Albano for the mayoralty of Springfield. It was a bold and ultimately dangerous political move, all the more remarkable because Caron could probably have had the mayoralty handed to him on a silver platter in a few years by the political establishment had he sought the office according to the rules.

Those rules would have required him to wait quietly until Albano moved on voluntarily, while making Caron's own ambition to be mayor known to all the right power-players, calmly reassuring each of them that he had no intention of rocking anyone's boat. Then when the time came, he would be chosen like Neal and Hurley and Markel and Albano were chosen, with most opposition suppressed or driven to the fringe in advance. All that was required to insure that coronation was to convince the right insiders that he would be a mayor who would take orders.

Instead Caron did the exact opposite, entering the race not because it was the best time politically to do so - clearly it was not - but because it was the right thing to do for Springfield. The city desperately needed the kind of debate that only a candidacy of his stature could ignite. Springfield needed that debate because its school system has among the worst test scores in the state. It needed it because politicians who spent every dime in the the city's treasury, and then bonded the city into as much debt as they could get away with had imperiled the city's financial security. It needed the debate because its population was declining as its residents moved away. It needed it because its unfriendly business environment had made it a hard place to find a good job. It needed it because Springfield has an administration that is indifferent, even supportive, of the forces behind a rising tide of scandal.

For his courage Caron paid a terrible price. His legacy of two decades in office was dismissed in the paper as "unremarkable." Former friends and allies deserted him to either sit on the sidelines or openly backed Mayor Albano. When he lost the mayoral race, there were whispers of retaliation in a political culture where such threats cannot be taken lightly. Ultimately his legislative district was torn asunder in redistricting in a way that would have forced him to run against another incumbent had he sought re-election. Caron probably would have won that contest, but it would have been a divisive and even ugly campaign.

So last week Paul Caron announced that he was stepping down, and he did it with class. There was no hint of anger, no serving of sour grapes, no Nixonian talk of not having Paul Caron to kick around anymore, although he would have been justified in doing all of those things had he chosen to. Instead he departed the political arena with his head held high, suggesting that he may return at some other, better time.

In that he perhaps showed great wisdom. The unfolding fiscal crisis threatening to crush Springfield indicates that the city may be finally hitting bottom. It's been a long fall, and the catastrophe descending upon Springfield will not be pretty to watch. The only bright side is that once you've hit bottom, there's nowhere to go but up.

Friday night at the Michelson Gallery in Northampton Barry Moser and Howard Mansfield were giving a talk. They are the creators of Hogwood the pig, a major figure in modern kid lit.

It drew a good crowd, most of whom sat on the gallery floor, and which seemed to consist largely of couples on dates. Hogwood the pig is a romantic night out? Who knew?

Every year a major photography convention is held at UMass, with the 2008 version being held this past weekend. Here some shutterbugs swarm around a pretty model by the Campus Center fountain.

A similar fate befell a model down by the campus pond.

People have been emailing me asking if any photos were taken of me and my siblings with my lost brother during his visit. Of course we did.

My only regret is that neither of my parents survived to see their family united at last.

Tom, Donna, Rich, Deb, John and Bev.


Michaelann Bewsee said...

First: glad you had a great time with your family!

Second: I called Paul Caron after Albano's debacle to apologize for not supporting him for mayor. What a fool I was to support Albano!

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