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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.”

benfey_2-051211.jpg
Ron Sachs/CNP/Corbis
Republican Senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts, right, with Democratic Senator Tom Carper of Delaware at President Obama’s State of the Union Address, Washington, D.C., January 25, 2011

During his campaign for the Senate, Brown put across the image of an ordinary guy, comfortable behind the wheel of his familiar green pickup truck with its 200,000 miles, and wearing an old tan farmer’s jacket—the same one he wears in the photograph on the cover of Against All Odds. The political spot most seen in western Massachusetts, where I live, showed Brown in his no-frills kitchen, plainspoken and calm, accusing Coakley of “going too far” in her negative campaigning. Such downhome, family-values imagery caused an exasperated Barney Frank, the Massachusetts congressman, to complain that “having an old truck and two daughters are not usually policy arguments.”

It remains unclear whether the stunning result of the special election, which Brown won by five percentage points and 110,000 votes (including a quarter of the Democratic vote), was primarily due to his strengths as a candidate. Some point instead to the weaknesses of Martha Coakley, seemingly overconfident, poorly informed, and averse, it was said, to shaking hands.2 Another possibility is that Brown benefitted from anxieties over the collapsed economy, with many voters opposed to the cost of Obama’s financial bailout and health care program. On the eve of the special election, finally, there were renewed fears about terrorism after the Christmas Day “underwear bomber” was arrested in Detroit. The question of why exactly he won has taken on added urgency for Democrats, who suddenly find themselves facing an uphill climb in trying to unseat the unflappable Scott Brown in the upcoming regular election.

3.

The title of Against All Odds is meant to register, in part, Brown’s unlikely victory over Coakley. But the real surprise of the book, and surely among the reasons that it has soared to the top of best-seller lists nationwide, is the searing account of Brown’s childhood amid the nondescript Massachusetts towns between Boston and the New Hampshire border. Wakefield, Newburyport, Malden—the names appear in the early history of New England, when the local economy depended on fishing, small-scale farming, and the once-flourishing China trade through the ports of nearby Salem and Boston. The region figured prominently, as Brown notes, in the battle for abolition; William Lloyd Garrison was from Newburyport and the Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier, active in the Underground Railroad, lived in nearby Amesbury. Battered by the depressions of 1893 and 1929 and by the loss of shipping to the larger ports of New York and New Orleans, the towns began a slow decline, somewhat reversed in recent years by the transformation of red-brick waterfronts in towns like Newburyport to chic tourist destinations with upscale restaurants and antique stores.

Scott Brown’s parents apparently met at one of the chowder joints near Pease Air Force Base, in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where his father, fast-talking and flirtatious, was in the service. His mother, an attractive restaurant hostess and former high school cheerleader, abandoned her plans to attend art school and married Brown’s father instead. “They were like a lit match,” Brown remarks, “sudden, sulfurous, and nothing but flakes of ash and char after they had ceased burning.” Brown’s father saw other women; the marriage foundered; six months later he was gone. Brown’s mother squeezed into cheap rentals, living on welfare and lousy jobs, and periodically finding refuge back in her parents’ house in Wakefield. Brown’s father would occasionally appear, unannounced; more often he would skip promised visits, as Brown waited for him for hours, “my nose pressed against the glass of the door, my breath making little rings.” His mother eventually married three more times.

Brown’s chapters on his stepfathers have a Gothic tinge, artfully structured around the lethal power of their hands and the vulnerability of his own. In a chapter called “Dan Sullivan’s Hands,” Brown recalls his first stepfather’s “rough, callused hands with fingernails that were always gray or grimy under the rims,” and always holding a beer. Sullivan drove trucks for a living and was adept with car engines. “Perhaps he should have been a cylinder,” Brown remarks, “a transmission, an inanimate thing.” Instead, he beat Brown’s mother mercilessly, along with Brown himself, who was five years old. “He pounded my head, my back, and plowed into me with those massive knuckles and flat, sandpapery palms.”

Even more sinister was “Larry,” whom Brown calls a “marital terrorist.” Shorn of his fingers by an industrial accident, Larry’s deformed hands were as lethally malevolent as Robert Mitchum’s knuckles, tattooed with “love” and “hate,” in The Night of the Hunter. “He never had to make a fist; the remains of his fingers might have had almost no sensation, but they were brutal in their efficiency, in their ability to maim and bruise deep beneath the surface of the skin.” When Brown tried to defend his mother from Larry’s alcohol-fueled attacks, Larry threatened to destroy his hands, at night, when Brown was asleep, and cut off the possibility of a basketball scholarship, Brown’s “only plan of salvation,” along with the endless manual jobs he took on to make money.

A sensitive kid farmed out to uncaring relatives, who were paid for their grudging help and let him know it, Brown was also the target of sexual predators. He gives painfully detailed accounts of two attacks, one by a thirteen-year-old boy, armed with a knife, in the woods when Brown wasn’t quite eight, and another by a counselor at a Christian summer camp who cornered him in a bathroom two years later.3 In both cases, Brown managed to fend off his attackers. (Asked by Hannity on Fox News if the sexual abuse was “tough to remember,” Brown, perhaps deliberately misconstruing the question, replied, “You don’t forget at all. You don’t forget.”) He has been an advocate, during his legislative career, for the protection of children and abused women.

Brown found relief from domestic chaos in the orderly rules of the basketball court, where he became a “scoring machine,” and then, midway through his junior year on a basketball scholarship at Tufts, in the Army National Guard:

…Standing in that armory, I felt I belonged. I signed my papers, knowing that if I were called to active duty, I would go. And if I stuck it out with the Guard, I had the added bonus of knowing that it paid a salary to those who participated. From my days scooping vomit, from my every summer painting houses or mowing lawns or doing whatever odd jobs I could scrounge, I knew that a couple of thousand dollars might be the difference between going on to some kind of graduate school, probably law school, or not going.

He was drawn into the “crisp, cool logic” of the law, first as a juvenile offender and later as a lawyer specializing in divorce and real estate. Arrested as a teenager for shoplifting some rock albums (he also stole food when he was hungry), Brown was grateful to Judge Samuel Zoll of Salem, who saw something in the long-haired high school basketball star and sentenced him not to a juvenile home, but rather to write an essay on how he had let his family and teammates down.

A skeptic might ask whether such “second chances,” highlighted in Brown’s subtitle, are more likely to be accorded to someone who is white, good-looking, and athletic. (It helped, Brown notes, that Zoll happened to be “a basketball junkie.”) There’s a bracing moment when a teacher chides Brown for making fun of an unpopular girl. “You’ve got everything in the world going for you,” she tells him. “You’re tall, you’re good-looking, you’re athletic. You could be smart if you put your mind to it. But you’re a jerk.” She was, Brown says, holding him “accountable.”

After his good looks won him the Cosmo competition, Brown briefly lived in New York, making a lot of money modeling for Jordache jeans and other clients. He found a different kind of chaos in the Studio 54 world of the early 1980s. His slightly blurry pages on this episode of his life recall John Voigt’s bewildered hunk in Midnight Cowboy. When he woke up in a prominent socialite’s bedroom with no memory of how he got there—he suggests, improbably, that perhaps “someone had slipped something into my drink”—he decided it was time to return to the more orderly world of the army and Boston College Law School.

4.

It is one of the virtues of Against All Odds that the “hardships” Brown recounts do not seem deliberately selected in support of particular policy initiatives. In a chapter titled “Where They Take You In,” in which he thanks his grandparents for providing a temporary haven from the mayhem unleashed by his stepfathers, he quotes some lines from Robert Frost about the meaning of “home”: “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” The passage comes from Frost’s poem “The Death of the Hired Man,” from a collection, North of Boston, that happens to be set primarily in the region where Brown grew up, and where Frost, dirt-poor himself, taught school and raised chickens.

The poem is about, among other things, our obligations to the poor. A feisty old man named Silas, seasonally hired to help with the haying and unreliable in the best of times, has returned in winter to his employers, a struggling farmer named Warren and his wife, Mary, who explains that Silas “has come home to die.” Warren questions the word “home,” to which Mary replies: “Yes, what else but home? It all depends on what you mean by home.” It is at this point that Warren offers the definition quoted by Brown about the place where they “have to take you in.” Mary, however, offers a different definition:

I should have called it
Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.

It is often remarked that Frost appears in this poem to be contrasting two views of government support for the needy, sometimes characterized as mandated “justice” versus freely granted “mercy.” Frost later explained, to an interviewer for The Paris Review, that he had written the poem long before the New Deal, which he opposed, and that Warren’s definition of home (“They have to take you in”) is the “manly” or “Republican” version, while Mary’s (“Something you somehow haven’t to deserve”) is the Democratic or “feminine way of it.” To most readers, however, it seems clear that Mary’s more charitable definition is meant to trump her more hardhearted husband’s.

Like Frost, Brown sometimes seems of two minds about government support. He makes it clear that his mother was often on welfare and that he himself participated in a government-sponsored employment program for low-income youths. As a self-styled deficit hawk, Brown has proposed ways to cut “wasteful” spending through the elimination of redundant programs but still insists on some of the legitimate uses of government in protecting the vulnerable. “Government can help sometimes.” He has recently called, for example, for federal support of rental housing for homeless families.

During the recent budget battle, he has warned against the baleful effects of a government shutdown, since “many of the proposed spending reductions would disproportionately affect the neediest among us, including housing and heating assistance.” And while he voted, along with the moderate senators from Maine, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, for the extreme budget-cutting bill crafted by House Republicans, he insisted that the proposed cut in family planning “goes too far.”

When pressed about his own basic values, Brown tends to rehearse the muscular Reagan themes of patriotism, national security, and freedom. He soft-pedals his religious convictions: “I’ve always felt closest to God while riding my bike.” He has staked out a “moderate” position on stem cell research, which he favors, with some restrictions, and abortion; he recognizes Roe v. Wade as the law but is against certain late-term (so-called “partial-birth”) abortions and in favor of parental consent provisions. He refused to take the bait when Hannity asked him whether Governor Scott Walker was right to rein in public unions in Wisconsin. Brown, who writes that he’s “been a union guy himself for twenty-five years” (he’s a member of a union for actors), insisted that “there’s a place for unions.” It will be said that Brown is staking out positions that appeal to the independent vote he will need in his reelection campaign. Observing the way he responds to constituents and much else, a veteran state legislator told me, “He blows with the wind.”

But a more nuanced range of commitments emerges in the pages of Against All Odds, along with a surprising lyricism and occasional symbolic richness. One learns, for example, that as a child, Brown made mosaics from broken bits of tile rooted out of a dumpster, and gave them to friends and family as holiday gifts. Such mosaics are an affecting image of his own broken and repaired life. His grandmother taught him to sew and to knit. In a closing section, he compares his life, surprisingly, to a spider’s web, “each piece integral to the construction of the whole. A spider begins with a long, fine, sticky thread that it releases from the tips of its spinners….” Reminiscent of Whitman’s “noiseless patient spider,” it’s an odd and affecting metaphor from a self-styled truck-driving “manly man” (in Schwarzenegger’s phrase).

Near the end of the book, there’s a comic encounter in a posh Washington restaurant, where Brown and his wife, soon after his election victory, have been invited to dinner. A waiter mentions that “the Shrivers” are in a private dining room and would like to meet Brown. Brown declines, picturing “a group of younger people” related to Eunice Shriver, Ted Kennedy’s sister. Later, however, he notices two imposing men with pins on their lapels. “I’m a big pin guy,” Brown remarks. They tell him that they are Governor Schwarzenegger’s bodyguards. Arnold Schwarzenegger! Brown says to himself. The Terminator! Another Cosmo guy! After Brown is introduced, one of the young people at the table asks him: “So where’s your office? Are you out in a trailer or something?” Brown answers that he has Ted Kennedy’s office. Incredulous, Maria Shriver exclaims, “You have Uncle Teddy’s office?” Her husband replies, in his best Terminator voice: “Maria, Maria. It’s not Uncle Teddy’s office. It’s the people’s office.”

Letters

Correction June 9, 2011

  1. 1

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

  2. 2

    Questioned by a reporter for The Boston Globe regarding her strategy of primarily seeking the support of union officials and other people in influential positions, Coakley replied, “As opposed to standing outside Fenway Park? In the cold? Shaking hands?” 

  3. 3

    Since Brown’s allegations were made public earlier this year, six more former campers have claimed that they were sexually molested by at least two employees of the camp. The Boston Globe announced on April 9 that Camp Good News, on Cape Cod in Sandwich, Massachusetts, will be closed for the summer amid an ongoing criminal investigation. One of the two accused employees killed himself on April 6 after learning of the investigation. 

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