Post-Debate Take-Away: I Would Not Want to Be Found If I Were That Fisherman

Friday, October 31, 2014

I don’t see any mystery as to why the media hounds have not yet found the manly-man fisherman who made Charlie Baker cry.  He doesn’t want to be found.

Think about it.  If you were the guy who once told a candidate for high public office that you had “ruined” the lives of your two sons by pressuring them to follow you in making a living from sea, would you want your name and picture in newspapers and on TV screens across Massachusetts?
Who in their right mind would give an interview to a reporter in which he said something like, “I can’t believe how stupid and bull-headed I was.  My boys wanted to go to college.  They could have been doctors or lawyers, or, even better, hedge fund managers.  But, no, I insisted: They had to carry on the family tradition, they had to be fishermen, and they had to take over my boat someday.  Now fishing is a dying industry and my sons are broke and in debt and they no longer work with me.  They barely even speak to me at family gatherings.  I feel like they hate my guts.  Who can blame them?  I hate my guts.”

If you missed the televised debate between Charlie Baker and Martha Coakley this past Tuesday night, and you haven’t read or seen any of the news accounts of it, an explanation is in order.
Near the end of the debate, one of the three moderators asked both candidates, “When’s the last time you cried?”  Baker described a chance encounter he’d had with a fisherman, “a mountain of a man,” on a dock in New Bedford.  Baker said that, as he talked with the man about fishing, the man pointed to his two sons who were standing aboard the boat he’d just stepped down from, and said that they’d both been star football players in high school and had both been offered college scholarships because of their athletic skills.  Baker halted and began choking up.  He struggled, unsuccessfully, to hold back tears as he completed the story.  The gist was that the fisherman forced his sons to bypass college and become fishermen, too.  But the sons had done poorly as fishermen and now the father felt terribly responsible, telling Baker, “I ruined their lives.”

I was watching the debate in the kitchen with my wife and daughter as we ate dinner.  I remember being surprised by Baker’s display of raw, honest emotion, and thinking it would probably work to his advantage with the electorate because everyone would see that this incident had left a deep and permanent impact on Baker’s soul.  What better counterweight could there be, I thought, to the accusation frequently hurled Baker’s way that he's a heartless manager who cares more about numbers than people?
I figured the incident would just stand there for the rest of the campaign as what it obviously was: a small and telling moment in a long campaign filled with more significant moments.  I figured the reporters would play it up, more or less straight, for one day, then move on to bigger stuff.

Having worked for long spells as a newspaper reporter and as a paid petitioner in the halls of government, I should have known better.  I should have known Baker’s tearful narrative would set off a frenzied search for that eternally regretful mountain of a fishing man.  I must be losing it.
We do some work for an organization that provides services to commercial fishermen.  I was not half-way through the day after the debate when I heard from someone in this organization that reporters from the Globe and Herald, and operatives from the Coakley campaign, too, were “all over New Bedford trying to find that fisherman.”  

No one has found him yet.
Various reasons for that failed quest have been proposed.  Some were quick to say that fisherman cannot be found because he does not exist.  Others said he is not in New Bedford to be found because he was not a New Bedford fisherman in the first place but rather a fisherman from another port or state making a brief stop there.  That does happen with some regularity, I was told by someone who knows about such things.

When it came out that Baker’s encounter with that fisherman had occurred back in 2009 or 2010, some commenters jumped on him for offering up an old tale.  They suggested that Baker had, with cold calculation, dredged up the story from his distant past because it was dramatic and bound to elicit a strong response within himself and in his audience.  I don’t buy that. There’s no way Baker could have known some hard-bitten journalist was going to ask, “When’s the last time you cried?”  It was a screwball question.  The episode unfolded so fast and so strangely that you knew it had to be spontaneous.  It had the feel of unconsciousness, not deliberation.  Speaking of the encounter on Wednesday and Thursday of this week, Baker conceded he might have erred in recalling some of the details but he held firm to the essence of the story.
This afternoon, the State House News Service reported that Martha Coakley is now saying Baker’s story could be an “amalgam of stories,” and that Baker should submit to further questioning on it.  I hope he does not.  The whole thing has now entered the tiresome stage.

Everyone saw enough and heard enough when Baker told the story to decide if it was on the level or not.  Everyone basically understands that a story can be inaccurate in the details and still true and meaningful as a whole.  We all tell stories like that.
Remember the words of the fisherman who told one of the newspapers on Wednesday: “I could show you ten guys like the one Baker described.”

Besides, there are at least a couple of more important things for Baker and Coakley to be talking about in the next four days, like how to improve the Massachusetts economy, and how best to manage the leviathan of state government.











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