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Words and deeds

IN AUGUST OF THIS YEAR, on the last possible day, I went to Town Hall in Plymouth and asked the town clerk, an old friend in a still-small town, to change my registration from the Republican to the Democratic Party. The clerk obliged, but not before asking the rhetorical question, ‘‘Does your mother know you are here?’’ I asked if he had felt the earth move as I entered Town Hall, for if he had it was my mother, turning over in her grave.

A native of Massachusetts, I was brought up on a very simple political syllogism: Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves; Abraham Lincoln was a Republican; therefore, vote Republican. With few exceptions, I have done so. It was always a matter of pride to me to belong to the party of Coolidge, Lodge, Saltonstall, Herter, and Sargent, men of probity and good government—or ‘‘Goo-Goos,’’ as James Michael Curley used to call them—and I was proud that the first black senator in Congress since Reconstruction was Edward Brooke, a Republican from Massachusetts.

Thus, it was no small thing to abandon the party of Lincoln, and I did so not simply to vote for Deval Patrick but to affirm that the values I have always held, that stood for the best in Massachusetts, are now to be found in this non-Yankee from Chicago. Ronald Reagan, at whose second inauguration I offered the benediction, once said that he hadn’t left the Democratic Party but that it had left him; I must say I feel the same way about the Republican Party.

Fortunately, I changed my registration before the nasty tone of the final race had been set, moved to do so by the conviction that words matter, ideas count, and an articulate vision is no small thing in the important matter of public discourse and public policy. When I think of some of the finest public utterances in our American experience—Lincoln’s second inaugural, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first inaugural and fireside chats, and, most significantly, Governor John Winthrop’s sermon aboard the Arbella about Massachusetts as the biblical ‘‘city set on a hill,’’ I realize that we have been starving for words that move and inspire us, instill hope and not fear, and suggest the highest purposes for the common good.

Thus, for me, rhetoric is important, for it suggests ideas and ideals, and they become the foundation for sound policies that restore confidence in government as an agency for good.

It is a welcome possibility and not simply a naive hope that an intelligent, passionate, and articulate governor, well supported by a public mandate, can persuade even a self-interested and entrenched Legislature that the public good requires much more than has been on offer in recent administrations. Change is in the air in Washington and in Boston—change that will restore us to our better natures, making the ‘‘common wealth’’ just that once again.

Peter J. Gomes is the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals at Harvard and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church.

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