Deval Patrick on the Jena Six and gay marriage

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Americans often believe government is the enemy, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick told a half-full Salomon 101 last night, but the 51-year-old politician repeatedly insisted that Americans’ true enemy, as evidenced by current foreign policy, is fear.

“Fear is a device to manipulate, and even to govern,” Patrick said, referencing the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, racial profiling after Sept. 11, 2001 and the Patriot Act of 2001. “When people say ‘government is bad,’ we need to start saying ‘wait a minute, government is us – it’s you and me,’ ” he said.

Patrick’s lecture was part of the Governor Frank Licht ’38 lecture series, which has brought Sen. John Kerry P’02, D-Mass., and Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., to campus in recent years. Patrick received some early laughs from the crowd with references to the past and present presidential candidates, saying “it might be wise for me to confirm unequivocally at the outset that I have no intentions of running for president.”

With Rhode Island Governor Donald Carcieri ’65 and Providence Mayor David Cicilline ’83 among the audience, Patrick compared his upbringing in the “ghetto” of Chicago to that of his daughter Katherine, who by high school had traveled three continents, shaken hands with the President and “knew how to pronounce and use a concierge.”

“One generation it took for my family to completely transform our circumstances,” Patrick said. “What will define the character of this generation?”

Patrick rattled off the biggest issues he sees facing America today, including alternative energy, impoverished public services, an increasing income gap between the rich and poor and healthcare reform.

“Many if not all of these issues are or will soon be at the point where action is unavoidable, and how we respond will define the worth and character of this generation,” Patrick said. “The question is, ‘Can we summon that character today?’ “

Emphasizing the role of fear as a root cause of problems in the U.S., Patrick pointed to instances in American history where fear was used as a “powerful political weapon.”

“In 1956, when I was born, the nation was gripped by fear,” Patrick said in reference to the Cold War. “Thousands of missiles were pointed at us, ready to launch at a moment’s notice.”

“Senator (Joseph) McCarthy used fear to challenge so-called ‘un-American activities,’ ” he said. “Some even went so far as erecting billboards of Dr. King attending a non-violent training meeting, labeling those billboards with the caption ‘Martin Luther King at Communist training school.’ “

Drawing on the wisdom of other well-known political figures, Patrick quoted former Vice President Al Gore and Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, who famously said, “men feared witches – and burnt women.”

Patrick also spoke about religious fear of sexual education and the problems it may have for current middle and high school students.

“The federal rules say if you take federal money you can only teach abstinence and all you can say about condoms is what you have to say about their failure rates,” Patrick said. “I said, ‘If that’s the case, we’ll teach sex ed. without federal money,’ and for that I have been denounced by church groups and called ‘a free love enthusiast.’ “

“Through one decision, we’ve gone from promoting abstinence to promoting promiscuity,” he added. “Fear is a tactic to influence policy.”

Patrick concluded with a cautionary yet inspiring message for the current generation.

“The challenge, in my view, is not about the right versus the left, it’s not about just race or gender or ethnicity or religion,” he said. “It’s a challenge of citizenship, and the need fearlessly to reclaim American ideals.”

“Mankind holds in his mortal hands, as President Kennedy said, the power to abolish all forms of human poverty, and all forms of human life,” Patrick said. “That is still the choice between us and before us. Choose wisely.”

Though the question-and-answer period following the lecture was limited to only a few questions, students and members of the Rhode Island community turned heads with colorful and pointed remarks and questions for Patrick.

“As governor of the only state in the United States that currently supports same-sex marriage – and pretty much the governor of the only state whose legislature isn’t afraid of the idea of same-sex marriage – will you do anything to convince the governors of the other states to follow Massachusetts’ lead?” asked Tyler Rosenbaum ’11. He said he hoped to rouse the attention of Rhode Island Republican governor Carcieri, but the governor had left Salomon moments before.

Patrick said he had not taken action to convince other governors to adopt same-sex marriage legislation, pointing to his “full-time job” in Massachusetts.

“We have a very ambitious agenda in Massachusetts,” he said. “And even once same-sex marriage is lawfully sanctioned in any jurisdiction, there are a whole host of other questions that have to be sorted out, in terms of inheritance issues and benefits issues. Some of them are very simple – some of them are not.”

Gabe Kussin ’09, president of the Brown Democrats, asked Patrick – a former U.S. Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights – for his thoughts on the Jena Six controversy currently playing out in Louisiana.

“I know about Jena Six from what I read in the newspaper, and I’m never sure I’m getting the whole story,” Patrick said. “But I’m very troubled by what I read.”

“There’s no doubt in my mind that race is still with us in character and in the criminal justice system,” Patrick added.

A man who identified himself as an employee of the Providence Journal lightened the mood with a sarcastic remark for Patrick.

“I’ve been watching you two-and-a-half years, and I’ve decided this job is too easy for you, so I want you to know I’m going to be nominating you to be headmaster of Milton Academy,” the man said, referring to the prestigious preparatory school Patrick attended outside Boston.

Despite a series of recent political missteps, including a questionable business call and using state funds to upgrade a state car from a Crown Victoria to a Cadillac (parked outside Salomon last night), no member of the audience referred to Patrick’s shaky start in their questions.

Emily Ebert ’08, who attended Milton Academy for 13 years, said she was impressed with Patrick’s speech and that people may have stayed away from Patrick’s political blunders out of respect.

“It might have been a bit insulting to bring up those issues considering the event,” Ebert said. “But Deval was great – he’s always fun to watch.”

Rosenbaum said he was impressed with the governor’s knowledge of same-sex marriage issues and said he understands Patrick’s passive stance, even though he would like to see more support from him.

“I would have liked for him to have said he would work with the national association of governors or at least Donald Carcieri,” Rosenbaum said. “But I understand his position because the issue is settled in his state.”

Kussin spoke highly of Patrick’s speech and of his answer about the Jena Six.

“I didn’t expect him to have any groundbreaking statements, but it’s very refreshing that he recognizes that race still plays a crucial role in American politics,” Kussin said. “I thought it was terrific. He definitely has the pulse of the national political scene.”

Cicilline, who sat in the center seat of the front row during the speech, also told The Herald he was impressed with Patrick.

“Deval Patrick was brilliant, inspirational, and spoke about the issues that people care about,” Cicilline said. “But most importantly his message was a message of great hope, and that’s what people need from political leaders, to really inspire us to find our best values.”

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