Peter Lemiska
A Colonel Nicholson moment for Massachusetts
By Peter Lemiska
January 22, 2010

Most of us over the age of 50 remember the epic World War II film, "The Bridge on the River Kwai." It told a powerful story of the courage and determination of a group of British prisoners of war in Burma, forced to construct a railroad bridge in support of the Japanese war effort. The senior member of the group was Colonel Nicholson, portrayed by Alec Guinness.

So what could a fictional World War II British colonel possibly have in common with the good people of Massachusetts?

The possibility of a Republican victory in Tuesday's election was anticipated, but the final point spread was staggering, especially considering Barack Obama's last minute effort to resuscitate Martha Coakley's faltering campaign. Political strategists will be debating for weeks to come how a Republican managed to pull out such a resounding victory in this overwhelmingly Democratic state.

But Obama supporters, it seems, have it all figured out. After absorbing this monumental loss, they gamely collected their dignity, raised their chins up high, and immediately began pointing fingers. White House Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, reportedly blamed Coakley and her campaign committee for failing to see Republican Scott Brown's surge in time. "The White House did everything we were asked to do," Obama Senior Advisor David Axelrod said on election day. "I think if we had been asked earlier, we would have responded earlier."

And that was only the beginning.

Even after one year of occupying the White House, and three years of controlling congress, Democrats still managed to blame the Bush Administration for the Massachusetts upset. In a prepared statement issued just after Coakley's concession speech, Chris Van Hollen, Chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, argued that "House Democrats have been preparing since day one last year for what we knew historically would be a very challenging election cycle." Then he went on to explain why: "President George W. Bush and House Republicans drove our economy into a ditch and tried to run away from the accident."

Obama, himself, echoed those remarks during a later interview in which he stated, "The same thing that swept Scott Brown into office swept me into office. People are angry, and they're frustrated. Not just because of what's happened in the last year or two years, but what's happened over the last eight years."

So, from their perspective, Scott Brown won this election mostly because Martha Coakley wasn't a strong enough candidate, she ran a sloppy campaign, and she made too many gaffs. Besides that, George Bush's fingerprints were all over this fiasco.

But this flurry of finger-pointing by the administration was merely any attempt to distance itself from the election and obscure the real reason for the numbing defeat on Tuesday. The reason Massachusetts voted the way it did can be found in that classic 1957 film, specifically in the character of Colonel Nicholson. Early in the film, he decides that, since his men have no choice but to build the bridge, he will prove British superiority to the Japanese by constructing a bridge better than anything they can build a perfect bridge. He becomes obsessed with the project, even protective of it. His honest passion causes him to lose sight of his real priority winning the war. And when allied forces come to destroy the bridge, he even tries to defend it, alerting the Japanese and causing the death of one of the demolition team members. As if awakening from a dream, Colonel Nicholson suddenly realizes just how wrong he had been.

With a quizzical look on his face he asks himself, "What have I done?" Then, he redeems himself by pushing the plunger on the detonator, destroying his beloved bridge.

No, the election outcome had little to do with Martha Coakley and nothing to do with George Bush. Any objective observer can look at the focus groups, the post-election interviews, and Obama's plummeting approval numbers to understand that Massachusetts was sending a message. Yes, it was a rejection of a monstrous health care bill no one understood or wanted. And it was a repudiation of an arrogant and overzealous congress that continues to ignore the will of the people. But it was so much more. It was outrage over the covert and corrupt political deals and false promises of transparency and bipartisanship. It was shock over the administration's nave and dangerous position on enemy combatants. It was anger and frustration caused by the unbridled spending and those 10% unemployment figures. And, yes, it was disgust with the tax cheats, radical ideologues, and America apologists who found their way into the Obama administration.

When Massachusetts voters walked into the voting booth, they must have been thinking back to the last presidential election, when they were filled with high hopes and lofty expectations. They contrasted those feelings with the reality of today, and, like Colonel Nicholson, awakened to the realization of just how wrong they had been in November 2008. Then they pulled the lever.

© Peter Lemiska


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Peter Lemiska

Peter Lemiska is a freelance writer and former Senior Special Agent of the U.S. Secret Service... (more)


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