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The Long Shot

1.

As a basketball player at Tufts University during the late 1970s, Scott Brown—the Massachusetts Republican state legislator elected to the US Senate a year ago, as the longest of long shots, in a special election following the death of Edward M. Kennedy—was primarily known as a deadeye long-range shooter. A college coach who knew him well in those days, and played against him in pickup games, told me that Brown worked on his game “relentlessly,” and “would take anyone on at any time.” Nicknamed “Downtown Scotty Brown,” both for his shooting touch far from the basket (“from downtown”) and for a certain flash and dazzle in his game, on the court and off, Brown considered himself, according to the coach, a “big-time ladies’ man.” That image was confirmed soon after graduation when, in a national competition in 1982, he was named “America’s Sexiest Man” by Helen Gurley Brown’s Cosmopolitan magazine, joining such earlier and far more prominent winners as Burt Reynolds and Arnold Schwarzenegger, and posed nude in its centerfold.

Scott Brown; drawing by John Springs

Brown’s brief career in the Senate has earned him other nicknames. For his votes to repeal “Don’t ask, don’t tell” and in favor of a Democratic jobs bill, among other perceived betrayals, Tea Party loyalists who supported his Senate run have dubbed him “Benedict Brown.” When asked a few weeks ago by Sean Hannity, on his conservative Fox TV show, if he considered himself a member of the Tea Party, Brown replied, innocently enough, “No, I’m a Republican from Massachusetts.” When Hannity pressed him on his vote on “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” Brown, a lieutenant colonel in the Army National Guard and a staunch advocate for veterans’ rights, responded, “There are gays in the military, and when they come home injured or dead, I don’t ask if they are gay or straight.”

Deprived of the opportunity (as Kennedy’s replacement, he broke the filibuster-proof “supermajority” of sixty Senate Democrats) to cast the decisive vote against Obama’s health care program—which passed on a maneuver, called “reconciliation,” based on a previous Senate vote—Brown has managed to avoid the ire of Senate liberals. If, as some recent polls suggest, the mood of the country may react against the bitter stalemate in Congress and move toward moderation and bipartisan cooperation, Scott Brown might well become a key player, and even a potential leader, in coming legislative battles. For that to happen, however, he will need to win the trust and recognition of a wider public than he reached in his implausible election victory.

Brown’s surprisingly engaging autobiography, with the slightly hyperbolic title Against All Odds, has a rags-to-riches narrative that sometimes recalls Horatio Alger, one of whose hundred books about the rewards of honesty and hard work was called The Odds Against Him, and sometimes Obama’s own narrative, in Dreams from My Father, of growing up without a father and without a secure sense of home. The appalling violence that Brown suffered as a child, at the hands of stepfathers and sexual predators, described in Against All Odds with hallucinatory detail, recalls a darker tradition, however, the Darwinian “Naturalism” of Theodore Dreiser or Stephen Crane. The “fittest” in such novels, willing to take on anyone at any time, survived and thrived in the harshest circumstances.

It now seems likely that Brown will be reelected to the Senate in the regular election in November 2012.1 If he can somehow help reshape the Republican Party in his own moderate image, neither country-club Republican nor Tea Party zealot, there’s no telling how high, or how far, he might aim. (Was there some symbolic import when, in his victory speech, Brown challenged Obama, another passionate player, to a basketball game on the White House court?) In the meantime, it’s worth scrutinizing the pages of Against All Odds to see where he’s coming from and what he stands for. Whatever the odds and whatever his future plans, you’d have to be a fool these days to bet against Scott Brown.

2.

When Ted Kennedy, the longtime senior senator from Massachusetts, died of brain cancer on August 25, 2009, it was widely assumed that his office, previously held by his brother Jack and often referred to as “the Kennedy seat,” would be filled by another Democrat. Democrats had held both Senate seats in the state for some thirty years. Some slick maneuvering by the Massachusetts state legislature, overwhelmingly controlled by Democrats, had made a defeat even less likely. The statutory power of the governor to name a replacement to fill a vacant seat in the Senate had been revoked by the legislature in 2004, amid fears that if Democratic Senator John Kerry, the junior senator of the state, were to win the presidential election, Governor Mitt Romney, a Republican, would appoint a Republican to replace him.

Five years later, a week before his death, Kennedy asked the legislature to restore the provision, now that a Democrat, Deval Patrick, was governor, and now that Obama’s national health care legislation, which Kennedy called “the cause of my life,” was imperiled. Such shenanigans seemed sufficiently unseemly that the Democrats made a conciliatory gesture, stipulating that anyone appointed to fill Kennedy’s seat would not run for it in a special election. Paul Kirk, a former Kennedy aide, went to Washington and, as expected, voted for Obama’s health care legislation. Meanwhile, Governor Patrick announced that a special election to fill the vacant Senate seat would be held on January 19, 2010.

Amid the mourning for the senator’s passing, it was also widely assumed that anyone foolhardy enough to run as a Republican for the Kennedy seat would be cannon fodder for Democratic voters, who vastly outnumber Republicans in Massachusetts. Promising Republican candidates were rare in a state legislature in which Democratic state senators held thirty-five of forty seats. Hopes were briefly placed in the return of Andrew Card, a Massachusetts native and former member of the state House of Representatives who was President George W. Bush’s chief of staff at the time of the attacks of September 11, 2001. Card temporized, mulling his dubious chances and the potential damage to his career of a humiliating loss. Meanwhile, one of the five Republican state senators, the little-known Scott Brown, who represented towns near the Rhode Island border (including the well-to-do Boston suburb of Wrentham, where he lived), was set to announce his own candidacy for the Senate seat.

Unable to get much traction in the state legislature, where he pushed unsuccessfully for the exemption of hospital workers, on religious grounds, from administering contraceptive drugs to rape victims (a position later characterized, by Democratic campaign workers, as turning away rape victims from hospitals), Brown was better known, when he was known at all, for achievements seemingly unrelated to politics. In certain quarters he was still remembered for his basketball career. He is married to a Boston television personality and newscaster named Gail Huff; the older of their two daughters, Ayla, had been a semifinalist on American Idol. And, of course, he was “the Cosmo guy.” It was hard, even for his supporters, to see which of these things, aside from his ease in front of a camera, might make him a stronger candidate than someone like Andrew Card.

In Against All Odds, Brown describes a testy exchange he had with Card on the eve of his own planned announcement. Brown had tried to contact Card about Card’s intentions; Card had repeatedly avoided him. Now, however, when Brown told him about his own interest in the Senate, Card told him he planned to run. Brown replied, “Andy, I’ll beat you.” Card huffily countered, “I don’t need to be threatened by you.” Brown, feeling “fairly pissed,” clarified his position:

I’m not threatening you. I’m just telling you honestly that I would beat you because I have a team ready, I’ve been working in state politics for twelve years, I’ve got four hundred supporters throughout the state ready to go tomorrow…. People don’t remember you. They don’t remember who you are. They remember that you’re the guy who whispered in the president’s ear on 9/11.

Card then told Brown at length about his passion to run for office and Brown decided to withdraw:

I had an epiphany. I said to myself: This guy really wants to be a United States senator. I’ve always liked him, and I would love for him to be my United States senator. He’d really give them a battle. And who am I? I’m just Scott Brown from Wrentham.

But Card, sensing a defeat, eventually bowed out, and Brown promptly entered the race, “to win,” as he repeatedly puts it. A running theme of his lively account of the campaign is that no one, including the Republican National Committee, took him seriously. At one of the debates between Brown and the Democratic candidate, state Attorney General Martha Coakley, David Gergen, the journalist and presidential adviser who served as moderator, seemed uncertain which party Brown represented. (A third candidate, Joseph P. Kennedy, unrelated to the late senator, ran as a libertarian.)

Brown took advantage of two openings during his debates with Coakley. One occurred during an exchange on terrorism when Brown insisted, as he has repeatedly, that we should interrogate “enemy combatants” using “all of our applicable laws” and not accord them the rights of citizens, such as reading them their Miranda rights and providing defense lawyers. He mentioned a recent attack by al-Qaeda operatives on a CIA installation in Afghanistan.

Coakley, in a blunder reminiscent of Gerald Ford’s claim that the Polish people were not under Soviet oppression, remarked that al-Qaeda did not operate in Afghanistan. “They’re gone,” she said. “They’re not there anymore.” Brown writes: “I looked into her eyes and I said to myself right there: it’s over, this race is over.” That Coakley was in other ways “out of touch” was suggested by an earlier remark, when she dismissed the popular Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, who had briefly considered entering the Senate race himself before deciding to support Brown instead, as “another Yankee fan.”

Gergen had already asked, condescendingly, whether Brown was really prepared “to sit in Teddy Kennedy’s seat” and “be the person who’s going to block it [health care reform] for another fifteen years.” Brown quickly interjected: “With all due respect, it’s not the Kennedys’ seat, and it’s not the Democrats’ seat; it’s the people’s seat.” Brown claims to be surprised that the quip “went viral,” but he refrains from speculating why. It seems obvious in retrospect that Tea Party activists discerned in the phrase an allusion to their own slogan “We The People.” (Brown also allowed himself, in a radio interview, to entertain ugly suspicions that Obama had been born out of wedlock.) He welcomed the considerable support of Tea Party enthusiasts, both in financial contributions and out-of-state campaign workers. For the Tea Party, as Times reporter Kate Zernike points out in Boiling Mad: Inside Tea Party America (2010), the Brown victory was “the biggest event of its young life,” and “convinced people who had dismissed [it] as a passing political fad that the grassroots rebellion would have real force in the midterm elections the following fall.”

  1. 1

    See Ben Storrow, “Poll Shows Most Voters Favor Brown,” Daily Hampshire Gazette, March 15, 2011. 

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