Forget Texas. Massachusetts is the largest state in the nation. Sometimes, events can bring this into focus, most notably when the Red Sox, Celtics and Patriots won consecutive, simultaneous, "world" championships. In 2007 and 2008 - sportswise - nowhere else mattered. Likewise in 1972. Who can forget the omnipresent bumper sticker in the aftermath of George McGovern's victory in Massachusetts - the only state where he prevailed: "Nixon 49, America 1"? But for those of us born and raised in the Bay State - even if, like me, they left home at eighteen - this is a perpetual state of being. More years later than I want to admit, when people ask where home is, I answer, "Boston."
We own our heroes, and feel attached to our villains. When Matt Damon and Ben Affleck won their Oscar, I called my friend from childhood. We felt we knew these guys from junior high, the kind who razzed the conductor on the train into the Boston Garden for a hockey game. When Denis Leary made it big, we watched him with awe on MTV. Yes, he was an international star, but he was still one of us. Likewise Captain Richard Phillips of the Maersk Alabama, an exemplary American but also a guy who grew up in Winchester as I did, cheering on the football team on Thanksgiving Day. And when I saw Dunkin Donuts in Singapore, it did not ring familiar as an American export, but rather one entirely of and from Massachusetts. As for bad guys, Whitey Bolger and the Boston Strangler were terrfiying, yes, but they were also larger than life, and entirely, totally ours.
And so it is with this perspective that I view two big news stories of the last week. First, there is the public face-off between Conan O'Brien and Jay Leno, two men we Massachusetts types have always watched with pride. We root for our entertainers as strongly as we do our teams. I haven't seen a hockey game for decades, but remain passionate about the Bruins. In a similar vein, I have followed Jay Leno's career. On occasion I tune him in, and feel comforted by his Greater Boston Area vowels. He may have been the host of the Tonight Show, but he was also a guy from Andover, who rightly earned and deserved his success and our support. I also watched Conan O'Brien work his tail off and rise to great heights. He is a Brookline boy, doctor's son, and Harvard man - not a Brahmin, but a striver in the best sense of the word, the kind whose great-grandparents built the city of Boston. He was once a suburban teenager who, like me, probably still knows all the words to the Dave Dinger Ford jingle.
The conflict between Jay and Conan is therefore unseemly, a feud not only within the NBC family, but the Massachusetts one as well. It is uncomfortable to take sides, we love them both, and claim them as ours. But Jay's lack of humility seems to indicate that he has been in Hollywood too long. This is very un-Massachusetts. We are understated and polite. Our roadways are full of rotaries - those tricky circular intersections understood only by MA. natives - which serve as a constant check on our character while driving. We are supposed to know when it's the other guy's turn. And because Jay did not make way for Conan, and seek out another venue for his comic talents, the latter is swinging back. Massachusetts people also know when they're wronged. And more importantly, they know how to fight. Conan has managed to preserve his trademark humility through the escalating battle. For someone from Massachusetts, where Yankee practicality meets immigrant determination, it is never about the money.
And then, there is the election.
To use some Boston sports analogies, the Democrats just pitched to Bucky Dent. Or the Republicans hit an easy grounder that somehow got through Bill Buckner's legs. It never occurred to Massachusetts Democrats, especially those like me who no longer vote in the state, that the election would be a struggle. But while President Obama is bringing forth many new and controversial ideas, and doing a great deal to pull us out of the sewer, the Republicans got pushed further against the wall. Democrats in the state got too comfortable. It was as if Brockton, Massachusetts's Rocky Marciano went into battle twenty five pounds overweight. They were not prepared, and they got knocked out.
Massachusetts pride is as ingrained as Plymouth Rock. It all started there - the Tea Party and Paul Revere's ride. The state has earned its status as a place with extraordinary significance. And sometimes - when we win the NBA playoffs, or when we defeat Richard Nixon - we enjoy the distinction. And sometimes - at least for Democrats, or followers of late night TV - we struggle with it. And now, Senator Scott Brown is one of our own. Maybe he will be one of Leno's first guests when the latter takes over Conan O'Brien's seat.