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A label Kerry should be proud of

REPUBLICANS picked the wrong lattesipper when they tried to run Howard Dean and his ‘‘liberal freak show’’ out of Iowa on a rail. Instead they got John Kerry, the duck-hunting, affirmative-actiondebunking, gay marriage-opposing war hero determined not to let the opposition pin the ‘‘Massachusetts liberal’’ label on hisNavy blues.

Kerry’s long-awaited campaign ads, unveiled last week and intended to blunt the thrashing he is taking from the Bush campaign in the battleground states, highlight his years as a ‘‘tough prosecutor,’’ his support for victims’ rights and a balanced budget, and, of course, his military achievements. He leaves it up to the women in his life—wife Teresa and daughter Vanessa—to utter L-words like ‘‘generous’’ and ‘‘heart.’’

At a luncheon of the American Society ofNewspaper Editors inWashington last month, Kerry was asked by a sympathetic woman from a Southern newspaper whether his campaign might finally help rehabilitate liberalism’s good name. Kerry was having none of it. ‘‘I think the American people are looking for something different’’ from the traditional liberal and conservative monikers, he said. He declared it is a mistake to ‘‘waste time with phony labels.’’ So allow me.

Webster’s New World Dictionary labels liberal as ‘‘tolerant of views differing from one’s own; broad-minded.’’ And ‘‘favoring reform or progress, as in education, religion, etc; specifically favoring political reforms tending toward democracy and personal freedom for the individual; progressive.’’ And ‘‘giving freely; generous.’’

Wow. Who knew Webster drove a Volvo?

Seen in this light, liberalism—even the Massachusetts variety—doesn’t seem quite the benighted political philosophy the Republicans would have us believe. Liberalism has been bashed so energetically for so long that many have internalized the message. But what is so bad about being a Massachusetts liberal, really? I rather like living in a state that doesn’t tax groceries. Where there is free universal immunization for children. Where the infant mortality rate is lower than Denmark’s.

Massachusetts liberals opened the first public school, the first public libraries, and the first public transit system in the nation.We like our polity public. Public parks, not two-acre private yards ringed with no trespassing signs. Public hospitals, not private boutique medicine for the rich and the free care pool for everyone else. Public debate, not private deals behind committee room doors.

Liberals who live in Massachusetts cherish civic participation, historic preservation, and environmental conservation. We have fostered revolution, abolition, suffrage, and the political empowerment of immigrants, whether Irish or Cape Verdean.

Without much in the way of natural resources, we treasure our state’s glorious human resource and don’t believe that the potential of any individual should go unrealized. That means keeping faith with children, the sick, the aged, and people who find themselves caught in a vise of drug addiction, homelessness, or poverty.

Almost 20 years of derision and Limbaugh-ism notwithstanding, we refuse to consider those ideas corny or quaint or uncool.

Of all the definitions inWebster’s dictionary, only one could be said to be unflattering: ‘‘excessively free or indecorous in behavior; licentious.’’

That’s the image Kerry’s opponents want to hammer into red state America: that people in Massachusetts are all a bunch of immoral swingers, squishy about our ethics, with no spine or stomach for personal responsibilty. Liberal— as in libertine.

I don’t recognize myself in that caricature, and I don’t think people in this state should stand still for it. I know there’s not much call for those ‘‘proud to be a liberal’’ bumper stickers anymore. There’s not enough room on the back of Kerry’s Harley, and it doesn’t really fit on the ‘‘family’’ SUV, either.

But the Massachusetts I know—inventive, caring, educated, diverse— proves it is possible to have both a bleeding heart and a working brain. So bring on the limousines, the brie and chablis, and NPR. All things considered, it’s good to live in the state where the revolutions start.

Renee Loth is editor of the editorial page. Her e-mail address is 

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