BOSTON -- John MacGovern, candidate for Congress in the 5th District of the state he calls "the People's Republic of Massachusetts," is 38, but looks much younger. With his mirthful eyes and perpetual smile, he looks like Puck; he talks like a throwback to the early Reagan years. He wants no taxes and more money for "Star Wars." He's "pro-life" and pro-workfare, although he is against day care. He wears a plastic American flag in his lapel and is loved by the National Rifle Association.
He is one of the founders of the Dartmouth Review, the nasty off-campus student weekly in New Hampshire that specializes in raising the hackles of minorities and recently stirred fresh outrage by printing a Hitler quotation on the eve of Yom Kippur. He has condemned the prank as "hateful" but he won't quit the Review's board of directors. He has called upon Rep. Chester G. Atkins (D-Mass.), his rival, to pull a radio ad criticizing him for sticking with the Review.
The other day, after he and Atkins had debated for a half-hour in the studios of Channel 56, they went at it for another 15 minutes on the sidewalk. MacGovern shouted, "Lie, lie," while Atkins read the ad aloud.
After Atkins had left, MacGovern told a group of reporters, "He is a coward and a bully." His tone was matter of fact.
That's far from being the worst thing you can say about your enemy this year in Massachusetts. The ultimate epithet is "politician," with "incumbent" having the force of a curse. And Atkins, who has a record as an articulate and skillful legislator, a champion of refugees and war victims, is running for his life against a Republican who was an almost total unknown just two months ago.
MacGovern, who grew up in a commune run by the heretical priest Leonard Feeny, has served seven years in the Massachusetts legislature, which might make him a "politician" in some eyes. But the Bay State's bad mood is directed against people who thought Gov. Michael S. Dukakis should be president, people who raise taxes, people who go to Washington and can't pass a budget.
To MacGovern it is simply out of the question that a liberal Democratic incumbent who was "Mike Dukakis's left-hand man" and is still chairman of the state party should expect to survive this season of revenge.
The Massachusetts mad, says MacGovern, isn't just about taxes that were raised six times or a sharp economic downturn; it has elements in it of seduction and betrayal: Dukakis and his crew plotted to elect him to the presidency when they knew the "Massachusetts miracle" was a fraud and that the economy was going down -- "They didn't care what happened to the state."
Some of this resentment, but to a lesser degree, has splashed onto the candidacy of Sen. John F. Kerry (D). His opponent, a wealthy developer who lived for years in Hawaii and took federal subsidies when he was a farmer in Vermont, has spent a fortune on an ad that shows Dukakis's face being peeled away to reveal Kerry's underneath. Any other year, Republican James Rappaport's candidacy would be a joke; in this climate, it's a threat.
Even Atkins's beneficence to the Cambodians in his district has turned against him. The anticommunist Cambodians, who are among the large numbers who have flocked there, demonstrated against him for opposing lethal aid to the so-called noncommunist resistance. He was not helped by the head of the Democratic ticket, John Silber, of the sandpaper tongue, who wondered aloud "why Lowell should be the Cambodian capital of America."
The National Republican Congressional Committee, attracted by the explosion of voter wrath in the September primary, sent operatives here to give technical assistance. They took a poll that showed the two candidates 1 percentage point apart. Campaign consultant Todd Domke says Atkins is doing MacGovern's work for him, showing himself as a pompous, power-hungry officeholder. Atkins handlers tried to persuade him to give up the state chairmanship, thus depriving MacGovern of the opportunity to call him "chairman of the disaster in Massachusetts."
For Atkins, who is not used to right-wing guerrilla warfare, it is all extremely unnerving. There is little he can do to counter charges that he is an insider. He spent his life getting there.
All he can hope is that Massachusetts is not another Hungary, which swept every communist from government when it got its first crack at the polls. Some of the casualties were among the country's most distinguished intellectuals and reformers, who had brought their nation to the brink of democracy. It did not matter. They were part of the past. They had to go.