It’s official. We have had the first “flinty New Englander” sighting of the post-primary campaign season, courtesy of Jim Hoagland in the Washington Post‘s Sunday Outlook Section on August 1. Under the title, “Convention Wisdom,” Hoagland wrote, “The Democrats were ruthlessly uplifting as they sent up a flinty Massachusetts liberal war hero and a smooth Southern populist to run against brash George W. Bush and dour Dick Cheney on Nov. 2.”
Hoagland really oughtn’t to be missed most of the time. He has superb connections in the intelligence community and nearly always has something to say. But that lead? No. You can say, for example, that Eastern Kansas is flat as a pancake, and it would be a cliché, but true. But combine “flinty” with “liberal” and something has gone seriously wrong, let alone “war hero,” which is plain ridiculous.
The modern media love the “flinty New Englander” label. We last spotted it multiplying like Lyme ticks after Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords resigned from the Republican Party in the spring of 2001, and, as an Independent, began caucusing with the Democrats. Remember all that? Jeffords’ defection threw Senate control back to the Democrats for the next two years. It was in all the papers. Time selected Jeffords as a runner-up Person of the Year. Time columnist Tony Karon wrote “How Jim Jeffords Changed the World,” this on May 29, 2001. Which date may give us some clue why Jim Jeffords hasn’t been heard from much since, nor has been seen to have changed the world.
The only thing flinty about Jeffords before, during, and after his 15 minutes of fame was his relentless self-promotion. In this, of course, he greatly resembles John Kerry.
But there is something to this famed flintiness of New Englanders. It could be described more accurately, and has been, in Style vs. Substance: Boston, Kevin White, and the Politics of Illusion, by George V. Higgins (Simon & Schuster, 1984; out of print). Of Boston’s neighborhood voters, Higgins wrote:
“They do not trust anyone they do not know, and those they do know they think they have unmasked for the scoundrels they are…You cannot deal with people like that.”
Vain, touchy, tribal, self-righteous, combative — those traits go back to colonial days. Higgins wrote about modern political Boston, an Irish culture, and much has been written of the transformation from Yankee to Irish domination. In truth, the Irish fit right in.
In the Battle of Bunker Hill, the colonials deliberately picked a fight. They built their fort not on Bunker Hill, the higher and more distant from the harbor of Charlestown’s two hills, but on Breed’s Hill, within cannon shot of British warships and fortifications across the water. (The historical misnomer persists.) In Decisive Day: The Battle for Bunker Hill (Owl Books, 1999; original edition out of print), author Richard M. Ketchum devotes a chapter to the now-mostly-unknowable overnight argument about which hill to occupy that took place between colonial commanders. The hotheads, apparently led by Israel Putnam of Connecticut, prevailed.
Flinty? I stopped George Putnam III on Post Office Square years ago, after I had read the book, and asked him if Israel Putnam was a relation of his.
“He was kind of a black sheep,” Mr. Putnam said. “He drank.”
Barely a block from our house, in the early 1990s, on the very fringe of the Bunker Hill monument, a 19-year-old boy, bald from chemotherapy, was beaten nearly to death by other boys his own age — his own confreres, natives of the neighborhood, as he was. They did not recognize him in his illness, apparently thinking him an AIDS sufferer.
A Townie jailbird shrugged and explained to me how it happened. “Well, if he was a stranger or somethin’…”
Flinty? The Salem witch trials, abolitionism, the Know-Nothings, prohibitionism, “gay” marriage — they’re all of a piece. Periodically, New Englanders go off on crazed moral bats, and sometimes change history, and sometimes do terrible damage before they are turned back. They are born agitators, and born nanny-staters, emotional tailgaters every one. (And they drive that way, too.) Sometimes New Englanders get it right, and we owe them a lot, for the American Revolution and for the elimination of slavery. But without the moderating influence of Southerners in the Revolution and the genius of Lincoln in the Civil War, I do think New Englanders would have found a way to transform both causes into Cromwellian tyrannies.
Because, above all, they think they’re right. And they think that being right gives them the right — nay, the obligation — to do what they think must be done.
In the modern press, liberal journalists love “flinty” when they can use the tough-sounding word to describe one of their own. It makes them feel all goosey inside, like masturbating in the shower.
When you read it, as you undoubtedly will over and over again in the months to come, watch out.