It's Not All Issues

"Last Tuesday's primary was more style than substance

Anyone could have predicted the outcome of last week's race for the Democratic nomination for Governor of Massachusetts. Sure, hindsight makes Mark Roosevelt '78 an easy pick, but a lot more than politics went into his win.

In fact, you have to wonder if politics had anythingto do with his win. In the three-way race against Michael J. Barrett '70 and George Bachrach, Roosevelt had all the non-political advantages birth can buy. Let's start with name recognition.

The word "Roosevelt" speaks volumes about a strong, internationalistic America that also cares for its unfortunate at home. In Massachusetts, name recognition takes on dire importance.

Here, in the state that brought you the greater share of the Kennedy dynasty, plenty of politicians' names also appear frequently on street 'signs, parks, squares and of course college dormitories. Undeniably, a name can bring in the votes.

Just ask the two other Kennedys who appeared on the Middlesex County ballot with Senator Edward M. '54-'56 and Representative Joseph Jr. It shouldn't come as any surprise that these two candidates for local office--though not related at all to the late Joseph Sr. and Rose--were also on the Democratic ticket.

Most Harvard and Radcliffe seniors know that the paths of the Kennedys and Roosevelts intersected right here, and sometimes in the Hasty Pudding social club. As the only Democratic and Republican candidate without a Harvard degree, Bachrach was definitely the odd man out.

Sure, there's some populist appeal to being the non-elite outsider, but the H-word does have a way of going far in governmental circles.

When it came to looks,. extremely important in popularity contests like elections, Roosevelt had the unshakeable advantage. There are those who believe that Richard M. Nixon would have beaten John F. Kennedy '40 in 1960 were it not for one televised debate. Those who watched Nixon's five o' clock shadow and glowingly pale suit with horror can sympathize with the causes of Bachrach and Barrett.

Though telegenic enough, Barrett's high, thin voice made his tough talk in television spots sound like so much unconvincing whining. Bachrach's portly figure, frizzy hair and moustache didn't help him with first impressions.

Some psychologists think that moustaches and beards create a feeling of mistrust in other people. What is known for sure is that no person with considerable facial hair has held major political office in this state for decades.

Against Bachrach and Barrett, Roosevelt pit his stern family jaw and mild resemblance to NBC's Bob Costas--hardly a fair fight. Roosevelt pushed his heritage in his commercials, too, stressing a "family tradition of commitment and caring."

Strange that he didn't dwell on "the issues," isn't it? You could call it pandering, or just more evidence that (as Bachrach complained) the political parties are careening towards a collision in the center.

Before the race was run, the election was a no-brainer. Roosevelt won with a large plurality, leaving Bachrach and Barrett each with a little over a quarter of the vote. In a sense, image has become the foremost issue in the political arena. But this is not exactly a new idea. We Probably should have recognized that when a certain B-movie actor won a very important job some years back.

Daniel Altman's column appears on alternate Mondays

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