The Daily Worker has nothing to fear — yet. But for the past few months, the editorial page of the Boston Herald seems to have been shirking its duty as the Globe’s conservative rival.
Consider the Herald’s May 23 gloss on Jarrett Barrios, the Cambridge state senator who’s about to leave public office to become president of the Blue Cross/Blue Shield Foundation. Barrios is a staunch liberal and a favorite whipping boy for conservatives. He’s also the second-best-known gay politician in Massachusetts, after Congressman Barney Frank. And, unlike the Herald, he doesn’t think state legislators should vote on a proposed constitutional amendment banning gay marriage at next week’s Constitutional Convention.
The headline of the Herald’s editorial — “Barrios gone, Fluff safe” — mocked Barrios’s failed quest to ban Marshmallow Fluff in state schools. But the Barrios bashing stopped there. Instead of denouncing the senator’s stance on the anti-gay-marriage amendment, the editorial offered this: “Barrios married his partner, Doug Hattaway, following the Supreme Judicial Court’s landmark 2003 decision, and the cause remains one that is both personal and political.” Then things got downright gushy: the Herald hasn’t always agreed with Barrios, but it respects “his energy, his enthusiasm and his work ethic”; Barrios’s gaffes “made us laugh”; he was an “able representative” of his district; the paper would “miss him as a player in the political arena.” Easy there, people.
Granted, that’s just one editorial, but similar examples abound. In April, criticizing the Bush Administration’s “tortured rules of engagement” on stem-cell research, the Herald approvingly paraphrased liberal icon Ted Kennedy (“When ideology trumps scientific fact, we’re in trouble”). One month earlier, arguing that the congressional debate over a non-binding Iraq resolution was pointless, the Herald began by favorably citing Dennis Kucinich, the Ohio congressman and mega-lefty.
This past December, meanwhile, the paper whacked President Bush for dishonesty about Iraq in language that would have been at home in Harper’s (“Certainly it is natural for Bush in his role as commander in chief to want American troops to know they are supported back home. . . . But that is a very different thing than continuing to play rhetorical games with the American people”). And in November 2006, the Herald offered a damningly tepid endorsement of Kerry Healey, the Republican nominee for governor. The first sentence: “Kerry Healey is a far better candidate and a far better person than the campaign she waged.”
What gives? And just how far to the left can the Herald afford to move?
Rachelle Cohen, the Herald’s editorial-page editor, freely admits that there’s been a shift on the Iraq War. “Like the rest of the nation, we looked at [former secretary of state] Colin Powell’s presentation before the UN Security Council, and we did buy into the theory that there was an imminent threat — and, by the way, that Iraq would indeed be a better place with Saddam not in power,” she says. “But numbers are numbers. Four years into it, and with a lot more information, I certainly began to rethink this.”
“[Herald publisher] Pat Purcell and I are both children of the ’60s,” adds Cohen. “We were raised during the Vietnam War era, so we bring all that to the table. And, at a certain point — when it came down to the ‘surge,’ and we’d been inching away rhetorically from the pro-war position — we had a very brief conversation in which we were both on the same page. ‘This was a really, really bad idea; this was too little, too late.’ ”
But Cohen insists that Iraq is the exception, not the rule. For example, she acknowledges that some Herald readers might dislike the editorial page’s relatively moderate position on immigration. Her rebuttal: “This is sort of the Wall Street Journal take versus the Pat Buchanan, Fortress America take. . . . You can make a very strong conservative case for immigration, and even for some path to citizenship for illegals.”
Fair enough, but the Herald has softened on gay marriage, too. In January 2004, after the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s Goodridge ruling legalized same-sex matrimony, the Herald urged the state legislature to pass a civil-union bill that would “satisfy the legitimate needs” of gay couples while restricting marriage to heterosexuals. “Zealots on both sides can rally all they want,” the Herald opined. “It doesn’t change the fact that public opinion occupies that vast middle ground of wanting to offer same-sex couples a host of rights and privileges WITHOUT redefining the concept of marriage that has existed for centuries.”
Note those capital letters, as well as the closing reference to “centuries” of traditional marriage — a favorite anti-gay-marriage rhetorical trope. Now consider how Cohen explained the Herald’s current position to the Phoenix: “We were okay with putting an amendment on the ballot that would both ban gay marriages and set up a system of civil unions. We are far less comfortable with putting on the ballot something that just says, ‘We’re banning gay marriage.’ And we are perfectly comfortable with the notion that, if the advocates for such a ban can’t muster 50 votes in the Constitutional Convention, then it is not worth putting on the ballot. So long as there is a vote in the ConCon — up, down, sideways — we’re fine with that.” The difference is primarily one of tone and emphasis, but that doesn’t make it any less striking.