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Learning curves

It is worth remembering that a misguided telephone call marked the beginning of the end of Thomas F. Reilly's political career.

The steep, inexorable slide in Reilly's Democratic campaign for governor began when the attorney general admitted calling the Worcester district attorney to urge him not to release autopsy results on two teenagers killed in a car crash after a night of drinking.

The girls were daughters of a Reilly friend and campaign contributor.

A tearful Reilly insisted that his motive had been only to spare the grieving parents further painful publicity. He would have done the same for anyone, he said.

The public did not question Reilly's compassion; it was less sure of his political judgment, seeing in his intervention on a friend's behalf the sort of special access that accounts for much of the cynicism about politics in Massachusetts.

Now comes Governor Deval Patrick, the Democratic newcomer swept into office last November on the strength of his promise to end business as usual on Beacon Hill.

It turns out that he picked up his telephone not for a personal friend in emotional anguish but for a corporate friend in financial distress.

This is not progress.

Patrick's contention that he was acting as a private citizen when he made a call to Citigroup on behalf of a financially strapped mortgage lender on whose board he once sat betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be governor of the Commonwealth.

He stopped being a private citizen the day he took the oath of office.

Every telephone call he makes now, whether to Citigroup or to his dry cleaner, comes from the governor of Massachusetts.

Coincidentally or not, a week after Patrick's call on behalf of Ameriquest Mortgage, Citigroup struck a deal to extend cash and a line of credit to the mortgage company that paid Patrick $360,000 a year for two years when he was on its board of directors.

Patrick said he was merely providing a character reference for the firm's owners, not advocating on their behalf. If I owned a competing mortgage company, that might sound like a distinction without a difference.

"I get it. I really do," a chastened Patrick said in telephone interview yesterday about the call he now characterizes as "a stupid mistake."

"I have no stake in this game," he said. "The state has no stake in this game. But I don't get to draw a line between my private self and my public self. Maybe I'm resisting that a little bit, and that's why I keep making these stupid mistakes."

The last eight weeks on Beacon Hill have been an eerie echo of those early Aaron Sorkin scripts from "The West Wing," with the morally superior chief executive and his acolytes exhibiting flashes of pique when their good intentions are not automatically presumed and their mistakes not instantly absolved.

Some of the missteps have been trivial and the news coverage overblown, but Patrick cannot have it both ways.

If symbolism matters when he stages his swearing-in on the steps of the State House, then it matters when he chooses a Cadillac as his official car.

"Shame on me for not running the political traps first," he said of the criticism he has encountered about everything from his new office drapes to his wife's staff.

He has been preoccupied, drafting a state budget that required him "to learn a whole new language," he said. "As engaged as I want to be in the big policy issues, what I am learning is that every small thing counts, too."

Politics has "a steep learning curve," Patrick acknowledged, promising that those critics looking for patterns, divining the seeds of his administration's eventual downfall in each error in judgment will be disappointed.

"It is too early for that," he said. "I made a mistake. Period. I am going to do my level best not to make it again."

Eileen McNamara is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at

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 EILEEN MCNAMARA: Learning curves
 STEVE BAILEY: Deval's bad call
 GLOBE EDITORIAL: Patrick makes the wrong call
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