Deval Patrick: Massachusetts’ Idealist-in-Chief

With a new "rags to riches" memoir out, the governor tells The Root why he loves teachers, rejects cynicism and thinks blacks should be sensitive to the gay-marriage struggle.

Neilson Barnard/Getty Images
Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

When Barack Obama invoked the inspiring words of famous leaders during his 2008 presidential campaign, followed by the refrain “just words,” he was striking back at his opponents’ claims that he lacked the experience to back up his soaring rhetoric, as well as at the cynicism that he believed was infecting the American political process. “Don’t tell me words don’t matter,” he would tell audiences. ” ‘I have a dream’ — just words? … ‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself’ — just words?”

When it was discovered that a similar stump speech had been used by Deval Patrick in his own 2006 campaign for Massachusetts governor, Obama’s critics accused him of plagiarism. “Lifting whole passages is not change you can believe in; it’s change you can Xerox,” quipped opponent Hillary Clinton during a primary-campaign debate.

Not so, says Patrick, who in a new memoir says that he battled a similar kind of cynicism in the gubernatorial battle he went on to win. “Detractors will dismiss what you have to say as empty rhetoric just because it’s inspirational,” Patrick says in A Reason to Believe: Lessons From an Improbable Life, which was released last week by Random House’s Broadway Books imprint. “I shared with [Obama] the riff I had developed in my own campaign — “just words” — and invited him to use it if he ever found it helpful.”

Generosity of spirit and idealism are constant themes throughout A Reason to Believe, which relates Patrick’s journey from the South Side of Chicago, where he grew up in poverty during the civil rights era, to the Massachusetts governor’s office, where he made history as the first black person installed there. “Idealism is vital. It sustains the human soul … It is the essential ingredient in human progress,” Patrick says.

That outlook appears to have sustained the 56-year-old Chicago native through various experiences in his “improbable” life:  a game-changing opportunity from the A Better Chance program for a prep-school education (a portion of the book’s proceeds will go toward the nonprofit); attending college and law school at Harvard University; traveling and working in Africa as a young man; working as an attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and then later under President Bill Clinton as assistant attorney general for civil rights; advising corporate giants Texaco and Coca-Cola as general counsel; and finally, winning two terms as Massachusetts’ governor. 

It certainly took faith in a better life to take him through occasionally violent childhood bullying; a rocky and sometimes estranged relationship with his father, jazz musician Laurdine Kenneth “Pat” Patrick; as well as his wife Diane’s public bout with depression during his first term in office.

Patrick’s sunny disposition was evident during an interview this week with The Root, during which he shared his insights about the current budget battles, education reform, gay marriage and whether he’ll run in 2016.

The Root: How has the book been received so far?

Deval Patrick: It’s very new and unfamiliar — writing and then talking about a book, especially as a sitting governor. Everyone seems to expect that it’s either the groundwork for a new campaign or I’m settling political scores. This is not that book.