GOLLY, WHAT A STIRRING SEND-OFF the Globe gave Charlie Flaherty last week. It was all I could do to maintain my composure as I read about the "emotionally charged farewell speech" that the "witty and unrepentant" former House speaker delivered in the Legislature on Thursday. As I relived "the bright promise of his early years" and the glowing political career that "ended in ashes." As I learned that he claims to be "broke" and expects to spend "the rest of my life and 10 years into eternity" paying off his legal bills.
Ah, capricious Fate! To think this could happen to a man regarded "as a stalwart defender of the underdog." To one who did so much for "hungry children, AIDS patients, or welfare recipients." To somebody styled by Michael Dukakis, no less, as "the little guy's champion." What an affecting scene. Flaherty, the Globe reported, "was by turns touching, funny, emotional." Not to mention "resolutely upbeat." Meanwhile, his predecessor as speaker, the hard-boiled Tommy McGee, was "visibly moved" by Flaherty's swan song. His successor, the incumbent Speaker Thomas Finneran, spoke in a "voice choked with emotion."
Well. Reading all this, I could barely keep my own emotions in check. What was it Oscar Wilde said about the heroine of that Dickens novel? "One must have a heart of stone," he observed, "to read the death of Little Nell without laughing." Exactly.
Newspaper stories can only include so much, of course. Relevant information inevitably gets trimmed for reasons of space. That's doubtless why the account of Flaherty's farewell didn't include the term "crook." Or "unethical." Or "criminal and civil penalties."
The little guy's champion, indeed. Charlie Flaherty is a convicted tax evader. He cheated on his returns, he invented phony records to hide the cheating, and then he lied about it under oath. I'll bet plenty of "little guys" admire him for that. Flaherty took thousands of dollars in bribes -- "illegal gratuities" is the term of art -- from lobbyists and special interests hoping to curry favor with one of the most powerful men in state government. He accepted vacations, dinners, liquor, sports tickets, and free stays in swank digs from Martha's Vineyard to Puerto Rico.
And does he regret his shameful, greedy betrayal? He does not. "I have never done anything to violate my public trust or to abuse my office," he maintains, "and certainly not to enrich myself through public office." Right. Like Nixon, Flaherty is not a crook. And people wonder why voters despise politicians?
Shortly before assuming the speakership, Flaherty told an interviewer: "I believe in government as a means of helping people." We know now what he meant by "people."
When legislators wanted to jack up their pay by 55 percent (and make it retroactive and repeal-proof to boot), the speaker was there to make it happen. When the beer industry, which donates lavishly to Flaherty's campaigns and PACs, wanted a multimillion-dollar goodie slipped into a workers' compensation bill, the speaker came through. When it was time to sneak off to a Caribbean resort for some midwinter sunbathing, parties, and golf (while pretending to be at a legislative conference), the speaker led the way -- and let corporate agents pick up the tab.
But if you were just an ordinary Massachusetts taxpayer, Speaker Flaherty wasn't interested in you. He vehemently fought tax cuts that might ease your financial worries. He wouldn't help you better educate your kids by means of school choice. He snubbed your wishes on term limits for politicians. He sneered at proposals to free you from overregulation by the state.
Almost from the hour he acquired the speakership, Flaherty showed his disdain for fair and representative government. When a package of legislative reforms was proposed early in January 1991, he crushed it. Among the measures he gaveled to defeat were a guaranteed review period for appropriations bills, a rule against taking up tax bills after 10 p.m., a mandatory "economic impact report" for revenue bills, and a requirement of public hearings on any measure hiking taxes by more than $300 million. All shot down. It was a naked display of autocracy, the purpose of which was to gather power into the new speaker's hands.
Now he's gone. Flaherty sat in the Massachusetts House of Representatives for 30 years, and the institution is the worse for his having been there. It is a mark of the Legislature's debased condition that scores of representatives continue to treat him as a distinguished leader. Dozens of them surrounded him in a public show of support after he pleaded guilty to tax felonies and admitted violating the ethics laws. They helped raise more than $100,000 for him at a fund-raiser this summer. They sneaked through a bill to jack up his pension. Dementedly, some even talk of naming a public edifice in his honor. His honor!
Long before anyone ever heard of Flaherty, his mother tried to dissuade him from entering politics. Anna Flaherty, who presumably knew her son's character, feared he would wind up just "like all the rest of them." It's a pity he didn't follow his mother's advice. If he had, Charlie Flaherty today might be something other than a convict and disgrace.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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