Don't Mean a Thing if it Ain't Got That Swing

by David Trumbull

October 5, 2000


In an election year no national, statewide, or Suffolk County politician dares miss the East Boston Columbus Day Parade. South Boston's Saint Patrick's Day Parade may generate more publicity, but it is seven months before the election. Italian-Americans have their combination national holiday and ethic pride festival a mere four weeks before the November election and every office-seeker will be Italian for the day.

In fact, many of the politicians are Italian. The Governor of the Commonwealth (Cellucci), the Mayor of Boston (Menino), the US Congressman for East Boston and nearby communities (Capuano), as well as the local State Senator (Travaglini) and State Representative (Petruccelli)--each has, as we say, a name ending in a vowel.

The 14% of Bay Staters who claim Italian heritage are remarkably independent--about as likely to vote Republican as Democrat. These are exactly the "swing" voters who decide elections. There will be a George W. Bush contingent in the parade. I marched in Eastie for the elder Bush eight years ago, and plan to march again this year for the younger.

A hundred years ago, Columbus was riding high. The Knights of Columbus was founded, in 1882, in New Haven, Connecticut. There was even a well-organized cause for the canonization of the explorer who bore Christ to the New World. By contrast, In 1992, on the 500th anniversary of the first voyage, one group of parade marchers--I was pleased to hear them booed--bore signs denouncing Columbus the white male instrument of genocide.

I recently reread Samuel Eliot Morison's two-volume biography Columbus. Harvard professor Morison's book came out at the most fortuitous time, 1942, halfway between the hagiographic biographies on the 400th anniversary and the Columbus-bashing in 1992. Unlike most biographers of Columbus, who emphasize the results--for good or bad--of Columbus's voyages, Morison focused on the feat itself and on the man who pulled it off. A sailor, Morison, got in a wooden-hulled ship of about the same size one of Columbus's larger ships and set out to trace parts of Columbus's voyages.

Columbus's contemporaries knew, of course, that the world was round. But no one believed an east to west voyage to the Indies possible. With a 25,000 mile circumference, the earth was, they correctly thought, simply too large to circumnavigate in the ships of the time. You would run out of food and your wooden vessel would fall apart before you could complete the journey.

Columbus had his own calculations, wildly off it turns out, of the circumference of the globe. Read Morison and you are pushed to conclude that Columbus was both the greatest sailor and worst geographer of his age. His knowledge of other fields was equally faulty. To assure a hospitable reception in the Indies, he carried with him a letter of introduction, in Latin, to the Grand Khan (a title already then a century or more out of use). He also brought along a Jewish interpreter to converse with the emperor of China in Hebrew and Arabic!

As we all know, Columbus did not bring back the riches of the Indies. After a few more attempts to find the Indies in the Caribbean, he retired to Spain where he spent the rest of his life lobbying the crown for a pension and for a title. He eventually got his title, "Admiral of the Ocean Sea." He even got the pension.

So here we are, a month away from what will likely be a very close election. Swing voters viewing the Columbus Day parade may decide the outcome. I think Governor Cellucci understands that. Why, at his inaugural ball the entertainment was Big Bad Voodoo Daddy--a swing band.


[David Trumbull is Chairman of the Cambridge Republican City Committee.]