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SCOT LEHIGH

Unbecoming, Governor

A GENTLEMAN, Oscar Wilde said, never offends anyone unintentionally. The unexpected twist that the piquant prefix "un" adds to the epigram renders it a perfect prescription for politics. Yes, there are times when people must be offended and when enemies must be made. But it shouldn't be done lightly, gratuitously, or pointlessly. And by that standard, one would have to say that Governor Mitt Romney is hardly presiding over a gentlemanly administration.

Too often, the governor and his staffers indulge an impulse to take cheap, petty, pointless shots. This week, for example, the administration used a disagreement over the naming of the main Big Dig tunnel to make not-so-subtle insinuations about the patriotism of legislators.

Noting that Romney, who favors calling the tunnel "the Liberty Tunnel," had been attending a funeral a week for servicemen killed in Iraq, press secretary Shawn Feddeman said: "He feels very strongly we should honor the men and women who have sacrificed for our nation by naming the I-93 tunnel `Liberty.' Clearly the Transportation Committee has a different priority than the governor."

That's leagues over the line. The name of the tunnel is of no great consequence. And the fact that Democratic legislators hope to name it after former US Speaker Tip O'Neill in no way reflects a lack of regard for our men and women in uniform.

"To say that the people in the Legislature don't appreciate what veterans do is not right," says Senator Robert Havern of Arlington, the assistant majority whip. "He knows that's not true."

This is the second such contretemps this month. Earlier, the administration raised hackles with a comment that justified Romney's plans to campaign with Arnold Scharzenegger despite allegations of sexual harassment by noting that Romney had disregarded similar rumors about Ted Kennedy during the 1994 Senate campaign.

Romney eventually disavowed the remark. But for the administration even to issue such a statement, particularly after the senior senator had tried hard to be helpful to the new governor, speaks to a purblind political insensitivity.

In late summer, Romney again played the Legislature for political gain, threatening to lay off social workers and cut youth services unless lawmakers quickly approved more money for the underfunded programs. That threat came even though legislative leaders had already signaled their intent to rectify the shortfall in due course. And before that, there was Romney's claims that it was overspending, rather than the recession, that had landed the state in its current fiscal mess.

Now, again, sometimes enemies are honorably made. In his first year, Romney has shown a laudable reformer's refusal to go along to get along. Early on, he insisted that William Bulger, then president of the University of Massachusetts, shouldn't ignore a congressional committee seeking his testimony. Once Attorney General Thomas Reilly said that Bulger shouldn't continue as UMass chief because of his failure to cooperate in the search for his brother, alleged mobster and murderer James "Whitey" Bulger, Romney quickly added his voice to the call for Bulger's resignation.

Although lawmakers feel that he broke his word on the matter, Romney was also correct to oppose a reorganization plan that would have given legislative leaders carte blanche to raise the pay of their lieutenants.

More recently, he struck exactly the right note in insisting that Treasurer Timothy Cahill conduct a thorough search for a new pension-fund manager rather than simply slide his handpicked candidate into the job.

In each case, the new governor has been a breath of fresh air in the stale corridors of Beacon Hill. Enemies engendered in those controversies are fairly and intentionally made, over principles important enough to warrant a fight.

But the cheap shots of the sort that the administration too often indulges in are something entirely different. They inject an element of bitterness far beyond that which legitimate public-policy differences merit.

Debating Shannon O'Brien last October, Romney admonished his Democratic opponent for several of her charges, chiding that those accusations were "unbecoming." Now the offputting behavior is emanating from his own administration. Which is why, if he wants to hold the high ground, Romney needs to impose a more becoming code of political conduct -- both on himself and on the sharp-elbowed team he leads.

Scot Lehigh's e-mail address is lehigh@globe.com.

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