The Obvious Way to Interpret Applause for Ex-Speakers Was Way Off

Saturday, February 19, 2011

It has been called a "sad scene," "a disappointment," and even a display of "defiant egotism."

On January 5, members of the new Massachusetts legislature, 2011-12 model, were sworn into office during ceremonies at the State House.

There on the elevated podium in the House chamber stood four former Speakers of the House: Salvatore F. DiMasi, Thomas M. Finneran, Charles Flaherty and Robert Quinn.

When introduced as a group, they received a warm and hearty ovation.

Because Finneran and Flaherty had both been convicted of felonies, and because DiMasi is under indictment, (but has not yet been found guilty of any crime), critics were quick to draw their blades and pounce on legislative leaders for having invited these three to the event.

Faster than a gavel can fall, House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo was on the defensive.

When asked later by Jim Braude on the New England Cable News show "Broadside" if he would consider asking his predecessors to skip the 2013 legislative inaugural, DeLeo said, "It's something I would consider."

Consider it, Mr. Speaker, but please don't do it.

The tradition of having former speakers attend State House inaugurals is a good one, and in need only of one slight alteration.

While it may have made for a poor "visual," does anyone seriously believe legislators were endorsing the mistakes of the former speakers when they applauded them?

Plain and simple, the reason they stood and cheered was friendship.

Many of those in the House that day had served with those speakers and had formed genuine, lasting friendships with them.

In all walks of life, relationships matter, and in no endeavor besides combat do they matter more than in legislating.

So when the friends of the former speakers stood and cheered, others naturally followed, as it would have been awkward to remain seated. Who among us has not joined a standing O simply because others were doing it?

The Speakership itself was also a factor in the ovation.

House Speaker is one of the three highest elective offices in Massachusetts, Governor and Senate President being the others.

Those who hold one of these offices, and those who have held one, are entitled to respect by virtue of the office they were privileged to gain and because of what that office means in our system of self-government.

To those who say a speaker has discredited the office by certain actions and deserves nothing but scorn and perpetual ostracism, I would respond, You're missing the complexity and contradictoriness of the human condition.

And, in this particular instance, you are missing the Tom Finneran who almost single-handedly built and protected from profligacy the state's multi-billion Rainy Day Fund, which has proved a key public-sector coping mechanism during the devastating downtown of the past few years.

You are missing the Sal DiMasi who was indispensable to the enactment of the state's universal health care legislation in 2006, an historic law that helped set the stage for national health care reform in 2010.

You are missing the statesman Charlie Flaherty, who knitted the Massachusetts House back together after the multi-year, bitter infighting that followed the coup wherein Flaherty's predecessor, George Keverian, toppled his predecessor, Tom McGee. And you are missing the Flaherty who was known for the respect he paid to every member of the House, and for the priority of never putting a rep in a difficult position.

All that being said, it would probably be a good idea if they moved the former speakers off the podium at future inaugurals and seated them instead among the rank and file, from which they had emerged in their finest hours.

For, as one new member of the House, the very promising Tackey Chan of Quincy, said on inaugural day 2011, "We need to look to the future."

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