Getting too personal
I am begging every politician in Massachusetts, every elected official from Beacon Hill to Capitol Hill, please, no more memoirs. I’m not sure I can take any more bad news.
This week, it was Scott Brown’s upcoming book saying he was sexually assaulted by a counselor when he was a 10-year-old kid at summer camp. Last week, it was Deval Patrick’s upcoming book saying he considered resigning just a couple of months into his governorship while his wife struggled with depression.
Any sane person with a beating heart has to sincerely admire the way these two accomplished men confronted serious personal issues. Still, our once-professional relationship just got deeply personal, and I’m not so sure I’m comfortable with that. It’s the equivalent of heading to a company Happy Hour for a Budweiser and ending up in a group cry with the guys from IT. She did that to you?
There was a day not all that long ago when politicians’ books contained things like “issue stands’’ and “policy proposals,’’ quaint as they now seem, though those tomes weren’t exactly classics. See John Kerry’s 2004 “A Call to Service’’ for proof of that. Likewise, Mitt Romney’s recently published and ridiculously titled “No Apology’’ isn’t the barnburner his advisers probably hoped it would be, but trust funds and root beer floats aren’t the stuff of childhood drama. Publishers Weekly said of his previous book, “Turnaround,’’ “Some readers will want to see more sparks.’’
Don’t worry about that. Now we get raging infernos on the printed page. Brown is so graphic in his description of sex abuse by an unidentified perpetrator at an unnamed summer camp on the Cape that he can’t be quoted here. He is unsparing when he describes the beatings by two stepfathers. He is to be admired for the way he not only overcame, but went on to play a leading role in the state Legislature pushing for the extension of the statute of limitations on sex crimes.
Patrick is more thoughtful and introspective, with a far more writerly flair, as he describes rising from a Chicago ghetto to the governorship of Massachusetts, only to see it all coming undone by the depression that engulfed his wife. This helps explain some of his enormous capacity for empathy.
Good enough. So why don’t I feel better about having all this insight into their lives? Is it because they were paid good money for the revelations? Is it the Oprah-ization of mainstream politics, where it’s not enough to have a history of accomplishment or strong convictions; you also need a brand or back story that sets you apart from everyone else. Chris Christie, the fiery governor of New Jersey, has bluntness that approaches rudeness. Sarah Palin has, well, no shame. House Speaker John Boehner cries at the drop of his own name. They’re all flourishing.
Or maybe it’s just the era of Facebook and reality television, in which nothing is left unsaid. As one wag said yesterday, we won’t need archives anymore.
It used to be different. We in the news business would dig for background about candidates in the belief that character was a far more durable measure of the person than the campaign proposals they would inevitably discard. The buttoned-up candidates accused us of armchair psychology and complained that we don’t care about their ideas or stands.
Those were the days. Now the privacy zone has been dismantled — by them, not us. There’s no mystery any more, no attempt to stay above the fray, no detail too personal to share — provided it’s in their own book, 40 percent off on Amazon.com.
There was a reason that political memoirists used to save their deepest secrets for after they departed the public stage. I admire Patrick and Brown greatly for what they’ve accomplished, but these packaged and profitable revelations carry the risk of being too much too soon.
Brian McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.