In her 2008 book The Breakthrough, about Obama and other new black politicians, journalist Gwen Ifill devoted a chapter to Patrick. She relates the story of young Deval leaving the tough Chicago South Side for tony Milton Academy. After striving to fit in there — "like landing on a different planet," he has described it — on visits home he encountered accusations of abandoning his roots.
But Patrick, Ifill writes, believed he didn't have to choose; he could learn to live comfortably in both worlds, without fully embracing, or rejecting, either. "It was the beginning of . . . a very strong sense of how many choices are out there and how many of them are false," she quotes him.
That attitude, I believe, helps explain much about Patrick, and how often he confounds people.
It also probably underlies his impatience, bordering on contempt, for much of the press and punditry. They — we — unfailingly frame politics, whether in a campaign horserace or a policy initiative, in black/white, win/lose, pass/fail terms that Patrick rejects.
We also think of politicians like basketball teams in the March Madness tournament: their latest win is just a step up to the next game, and they keep pushing toward the next contest until they get defeated (or, in the rare case, win it all).
I don't think Patrick views things that way. I suspect he sees a wide-open field of opportunities before him, in which he can learn to live comfortably in multiple worlds.
One model suggested by a political veteran is that of former Secretary of State James Baker. Since serving on George H.W. Bush's cabinet, Baker has pursued private business and legal work, and chaired a public policy institute, while playing important Republican Party roles both behind the scenes and as a spokeperson. At the same time, he has accepted assignments as special envoy, working-group member, campaign counsel, or advisor that give him real influence without forcing him to abandon his other efforts.
Patrick, with his legal and business experience, his political success, and his close relationship with Obama, could create a similar multi-faceted post-gubernatorial career for himself.
All of those avenues will be helped by his active participation in Obama's re-election effort. His specific role has not been clearly defined, but he has already formed a federal political action committee to pay for his travels and begun appearing in national media, as he recently did on ABC's This Week — after steadfastly declining such invitations during his first term.
INTERLUDE OR PRELUDE?
It is also possible that Patrick's seeming failure to blaze a clear political path may indicate that he doesn't want one.
Plenty of Patrick-watchers suspect that — as he has alluded to many times — the governor simply wants to be governor long enough to accomplish some real change, and then move on to something else, probably returning to the world of business.
For Patrick, under this theory, public service has been an interlude in his life; a period of giving back for all that has been given to him.
That done, he'll return to taking what he feels he deserves, in the corporate world of wealth, privilege, and influence.