When Edward Brooke was elected to the United States Senate by the people of Massachusetts He was the first African American elected to the Senate by actual people, rather than a state legislature. For a long time, he was the only black Senator in the 20th Century. Carole Moseley Braun of Illinois came next, in 1993.
After he was elected to fill Senator Ted Kennedy's seat, Senator Scott Brown quickly became the most popular Republican in Massachusetts since Edward Brooke. He's still pretty popular, but in the last few weeks maybe a little less than before.
The pressures of campaigning can provoke most anyone into behaving in a way that can impress folks with a negative image. A candidate can look like a jerk with almost any misstep.
And Scott Brown has managed to fall into his own sad pool of quicksand.
A run of bad luck began as Brown researchers discovered what they thought was a bit of a scandal about Senator Brown's Democratic opponent, Elizabeth Warren. Elizabeth Warren became well known as a policy expert who started the idea of a consumer protection agency to fight the ripping off of ordinary people by corporations who like to use fine print and fast shuffles to gain an advantage. Fighting huge corporations for the individual consumer made her pretty popular.
She also can turn a phrase. She made a famous presentation to a small group that became Youtube-viral overnight. Her basic message was that if you become very successful in America, you owe part of your success to teachers, role models, a free society, and the sort of backing that society gives: roads, police, and other forms of protection. And you owe it to the next generation to leave a similar foundation for success.
She made the issue easy to understand.
So you had a popular Republican up against a popular Democrat in very Democratic Massachusetts.
The scandal the Brown staffers discovered had to do with Native Americans. Ms. Warren has been a professor at Harvard University Harvard. At one point, she listed on a questionnaire that she has ancestry that includes Native Americans. Her heritage qualified her as a Cherokee. Harvard listed her as such, but later said that heritage was never mentioned during the process of appointment.
Still, some folks in Massachusetts are a little suspicious of successful minorities, maybe not as much as in some other parts of the country, but perhaps enough to tilt an election. Scott Brown kind of went overboard in attacking her family background. She had listed herself as a minority, he said, when clearly she was not. Making an explicit accusation that she was an affirmative action professor was kind of harsh. Setting himself up as a racial arbiter became kind of silly with each repetition. Clearly she was not Cherokee?
It turned out the damage was a lot less to her than anyone thought it might. Folks pretty much accepted that she was in fact, at least partly Cherokee, and that she had never tried to benefit from that fact.
Still the attacks went on, apparently in the hope that charge would gather some force with time and repetition. When Brown staffers publicly tried to disrupt a Warren rally with war whoops and gestures simulating tomahawk chops, the attack began to work against Brown, not against Warren. The head of the Cherokee nation publicly criticized Brown for not reining in his staff.
Brown began to look as if white resentment was his main campaign theme.
Then another scandal came up. Years ago, Elizabeth Warren had successfully pushed for a settlement in an asbestos illness case. Victims of illnesses caused by the careless use of asbestos had been about to sue. The case was settled out of court, and victims got a substantial restitution. Those who accepted did so on one condition, they had to agree not to sue separately.
Scott Brown publicly accused Warren of exploiting the victims, working with giant corporate interests to restrict payments to those who were hurt. Warren put the victims on television. They were furious at the accusation Brown was making. It was plain they regarded Elizabeth Warren as a hero.
What looked like a promising set of scandals turned into a bad hair month for Senator Brown. Almost anyone could be forgiven for a little private grousing. A guy from the neighborhood might have one or two at a local bar and begin piping up about how those people on television are probably just paid actors, hired to pretend they were victims helped by Warren. Unfortunately, Senator Brown did his grousing in public.
A lot of them are paid. We hear that maybe they pay actors. Listen, you can get surrogates and go out and say your thing. We have regular people in our commercials. No one is paid. They are regular folks that reach out to us and say she is full of it.
The those-people-are-just-actors stance pretty much exploded in his face.
One victim spoke quietly, his words were gentle. And the effect was a minor earthquake.
“Let Scott Brown tell me to my face that I am nothing but a paid actor, and I'll set him straight on what it was like to watch my father suffocate to death,” John English said.
A widow talked about her husband having died of mesothelioma from working at a shipyard filled with asbestos. She described her distress at the Brown accusation. Others also protested the Brown comments. They were not actors. They were not pretend people reading from scripts. "He's attacking people who lost loved ones to asbestos poisoning," said one on television, "just because we stepped forward to tell the truth about Elizabeth Warren."
What's a candidate to do? Brown apologized.
Still, the effect can't be a net positive for the Senator.
The image is iconic, playing into a larger Republican problem. The impression is one of disconnect. Those who are affected by what they do in government seem to some politicians to be little more than images on a screen, not to be regarded as real people. The hurt that is caused by legislative actions just doesn't strike some lawmakers as real.
Those people on television, those struggling their way up, are not paid actors. They may as well be.
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