It's Always a Burning Question When a Politician Has to Go Up or Out

Friday, February 25, 2011

"Burn the boats on the beach, baby!"

That's how Dr. Ralph de la Torre described the thought process that led him to relinquish his medical license after he was hired as chief executive officer of Caritas Christi Health Care in 2008. *

Consider that de la Torre had toiled in a way that few mortals ever will to achieve his dream of medical stardom and had become the chief of cardiac surgery at Boston's Beth Israel Hospital well before his 40th birthday, and you begin to get an idea of the man's confidence.

Just coming into his prime, he abandoned a five-star medical career at a top medical center -- a sure thing, with a shining future -- to lead a debt-ridden, somewhat downtrodden, disparate group of hospitals struggling for its survival in the merciless medical marketplace of eastern Massachusetts. Then he denied himself a fall-back, an exit strategy, should he fail.

Way to burn those boats, Doc!

What is it about that term -- burning the boats on the shore -- that captures our imaginations so, that draws us irresistibly into the drama of those who choose to abandon or wreck the very thing that has carried them so far in life?

Maybe it's simply a good metaphor that describes a complex and momentous decision in a few words. Or maybe it's an image that stirs some ancestral memories and fears.

We can't help but shudder at the predicament of soldiers ordered to burn their boats lest they hold even a tiny thought of retreat somewhere deep in their minds.

We can't help but wonder: How did they do it?

Throughout the ages, we have admired those who had the courage to burn the boats, even if we may have disliked the boat-burner or despised his cause.

The political equivalent of burning the boats is the person who, in the fullness of his power and influence, gives up a secure position to seek a higher, more powerful office.

For example, Chelsea's Tom Birmingham in 1998 was the President of the Massachusetts Senate, one of the three most powerful politicians in the Commonwealth. But that didn't hold him back him from pursuing his dream of becoming governor.

He decided against seeking re-election that year, a fight he was sure to win, and instead jumped into the race for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. Though he ran hard and ran well, Birmingham did not win, and when he lost, it was too late for him to turn around and run for the Senate again.

Of course, Birmingham knew it could turn out like that when he set his course on the governor's office; did it anyway; and did not cry or bemoan his fate when he lost and his political life was at an end.

You have to admire Birmingham for having the guts to go "up or out," as they say in politics, and for having class when going that route.

As I look at the many Democratic Congressmen we have in Massachusetts -- the Capuanos, the Lynches, the Markeys, the McGoverns, et al. -- and as speculation continues on who among them might take on Republican phenom Scott Brown in the U.S. Senate election this fall, I wonder:

Which one, if any, is ready to burn the boats on the shore?

* This is from a profile of Dr. de la Torre written by Neil Swidey, "How His Wall Street Gamble Will Rock Main Street Health Care," which appeared in the Boston Globe Magazine Sunday, Feb. 6, 2011.

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