Among the virtues of politicians -- they do have some -- gratitude can be the most becoming. On the morning after his election to Congress from the 3rd District of Massachusetts, Jim McGovern, his wife, Lisa, his father, Walter, his mother, Mindy, and a pride of lionhearted campaign workers took to the traffic intersections and byways of Worcester, Fall River, Attleboro and other towns holding up "Thank You" signs.
The tumult of motorists honking and their cries of congratulations matched the strength of public support on Election Day. The vote bordered on a trouncing: 134,780 for McGovern, 115,477 for Peter Blute, a two-term Republican incumbent who had convinced experts he was coasting to a shoo-in victory.
Blute was endorsed and McGovern rejected by the Boston Globe, the Worcester Telegram, the Fall River Herald News, the Attleboro Sun Chronicle, the New Bedford Standard Times and -- piling on from neighboring Rhode Island -- the Providence Journal. On election eve, the Globe went with a boxing metaphor: "Blute is viewed as a tough incumbent to knock out."
With the press as his cornermen, the glass-chinned champ went down for the count by a percentage of 53 to 46.
I've been savoring the new congressman's success with a touch of joyful pride. Jim McGovern is a former student, a member of a class I taught in the fall semester of 1984 at American University. It was only 14 of us in a seminar, with Jim, having worked his way through college, then getting a master's degree in public administration.
Others in the class were better at verbal jousting, and nimble in the skills of intellectual preening. Jim stood out for his quiet moral solidity. He absorbed ideas with the kind of open-mindedness that attracted admiration from his classmates, and certainly from me. He was a student -- then in his mid-twenties -- to whom you wanted to suggest new directions to explore. He seemed ready.
One of these moments came when I proposed that instead of writing a final paper with the usual boring footnotes and term-papery lingo, students could engage in service-learning by helping out at Mount Carmel House, a women's shelter run by Catholic sisters near Chinatown. Jim became a faithful volunteer for several years, learning as much from the nuns and the homeless women they served as he did in a classroom.
In 1983, Jim had begun working in Congress for Rep. Joe Moakley, a Boston Democrat now in his 12th term and healthy as ever after a liver transplant. They teamed well, with the young legislative aide nudging his Irish pol boss to get involved in foreign affairs, starting with the then-exploding civil war in El Salvador.
In time, Jim would take 19 investigatory trips to El Salvador, bringing back information on U.S. involvement that Moakley couldn't get from the Reagan State Department. With American nuns, Jesuit priests and journalists being slain by Salvadoran soldiers, these were life-risking journeys. That didn't matter much to Jim. Eventually, Moakley received public acclaim for helping end the war and bringing both sides to negotiations.
This year's race for Congress was Jim's second try. In 1994, he didn't survive the Democratic primary. This time, Blute appeared to be so unbeatable that no Democrat dared challenge. Except McGovern. He began running last March, going everywhere every day to push for issues he saw as relevant to the district's working-class families: education, jobs and the environment.
Jim's two sisters -- elementary school teachers in Worcester -- rallied local educators to support their brother. Students -- Worcester has 10 colleges -- volunteered. Union members went door to door. McGovern stayed firm in his beliefs, including opposition to the death penalty. With his opponent having signed in bold ink the "Contract With America" by voting with House Speaker Newt Gingrich 85 percent of the time, the McGovern camp, with the touch of Ogden Nash, had some sport: "Blute not only rhymes with Newt, he votes with Newt." Citizens liked it.
As was the pattern elsewhere, McGovern found himself painted as a liberal extremist. Blute sought to exploit a passing McGovern comment favoring better relations with Cuba and the fact that McGovern had visited Havana with Joe Moakley. On Halloween, Blute forces dressed up a guy in a Fidel Castro costume holding a sign, "Vote for McGovern." This mud made the papers.
In addition to the last laugh of winning, Jim smiles too about the Castro gambit: "Sure, Joe Moakley and I did go to Cuba. We were doing advance work -- for the pope's pending visit."