What's the Worst Thing You Could Say?

A judge last week, in a seminar on sexual harassment, reminded legislators that we're not only in the most interesting job in the world, but also in the job where you are most apt to be criticized.

Criticized not just for our votes, or opinions, or what we stand for, but for what we say, what we do, and who we associate with.

One of my fellow Representatives, who is a referee on the side, said there are times when we "just have to make the call, just blow the whistle and make a decision. You'll be right, in some people's eyes, fifty percent of the time." And, he explained, "they'll think you're wrong the other fifty percent of the time."

When you're in politics, people are quick to criticize. And, because everyone is certainly entitled to an opinion, some of that criticism may be warranted. But not all of it.

Warranted, or not, it always hurts.

My first touch of criticism in the political realm was in my first race, 1994. When I was trying to focus on issues, one of my opponents, perhaps in jest, suggested that I was due for a trip to the beauty shop and should do something with my hair. (I doubt that a male politician running for office would get comments on his hair, color of his suit, or style of his shoes.)

You know, although I was irate at the time, he was probably right. I've never been particularly talented when it comes to doing something with hair. I got the majority of it cut off a year ago, and am still figuring out what to do with it. Last week I got the curling iron tangled in it and it took my husband half an hour to separate my hair from the tool. And it was not, I assure you, painless.

I've resigned myself to being hair-impaired. And I've resigned myself to criticism. I just urge you to personally contact me and tell me what you think. Or write a letter. And have the courage to sign it, or leave your name and phone number.

I'm not sure, however, that I could take the criticism voiced on the national level. Or, on the statewide level.

A couple years ago, in campaign season, a Republican consultant proclaimed that "The Massachusetts Republican State Committee is made up of 50 percent sycophants and 50 percent psychopaths" and that the committee "attracts wackos like dogs attract fleas."

We've all read criticism of our Lt. Governor, pregnant during her campaign, and the ensuing Babygate. Or the helicopter trip home to a sick child. (I would have accepted the ride as well, I think, if offered, and if I had a sick baby three hours drive away).

Just last month, in the Wall Street Journal, the head of the Big Dig in Boston called one of the Governor's top aides a "moron." He called the head of Massport a "reptile."

The Boston newspapers jumped on and called the Governor's staff a "Klown Kollege" and said the "farm team," unable to come up with anyone to replace the Big Dig chair with, was sadly lacking, resembling, the Globe columnist said, "The cast of 'Green Acres.'"

And the presidential debates leading up to this month's primaries took on attack tones, as well. Gore vs. Bradley, Bush vs. McCain. It was the negative aspects, the attacks, the criticism, that made headlines and filled the debates.

Have we gone too far? Do you think negative campaigning has reached new highs? Or lows?

Maybe not. A hundred years ago it was just as bad.

William McKinley's supporters called William Jennings Bryan a "mouth slobbering demagogue" and "wretched boy posing in vapid vanity and resounding rottenness."

Bryan countered, in the next election, that the "Republicans will buy every vote that can be bought, bribe every election judge who can be bribed, corrupt every court that can be corrupted," according to Governing magazine.

Some 200 years ago, in 1800, the Hartford Courant predicted that, if Thomas Jefferson be elected president, "murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will all be openly taught and practiced" and Yale's president warned that "we may see our wives and daughters the victim of legal prostitution."

I guess I'm lucky. So far no one has called me wretched, vapid, a moron or a reptile. Or corrupt. Or a prostitute.

A few other names, perhaps, but none of those. I don't like it, but I can take it.

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