Matters of Opinion

State Senator Dan Wolf: The Tragic Fall of the Uber Mensch

DanThere is certainly no one interested in politics on Cape Cod who wouldn’t agree that the biggest story, as well as the biggest political drama, on the Cape this summer was the candidacy of state senator Dan Wolf for governor. Wolf was not only a favorite son, a generous patron of the cape’s non-profits, a progressive voice in the legislature, but a mensch, a genuinely good guy. His decision to call off his campaign this week because the state ethics commission chose not to grant him a conflict-of-interest exemption was received with an intensity of disappointment as strong as the wave of elation that greeted his announcement to run. For progressives of all stripes the news was a tragedy. For a novelist like me, in fact, it has all the elements of a very classic tragedy in the tradition of Aristotle.

Not to bore you with Theater 101, an Aristotelian tragedy involves a drama concerning a character’s downfall with incidents arousing pity and fear, and ending in a katharsis of emotions. All these elements are apparent in the story of a progressive businessman who attempts to shake up a state government that is ultimately responsible for his demise. Who didn’t feel pity for the candidate, and even more for ourselves? And who didn’t fear that if a guy with Dan’s drive and qualifications couldn’t get on the ballot, we might never see his likes again?

But the element that really drove home the tragic implications of this saga was what Aristotle called Hamar-tiah, sometimes translated as tragic error; an element in the character of the protagonist that causes him to bring on his own downfall. To my mind this tragic error had nothing to with Dan Wolf’s weakness. Quite the contrary, the tragic error may have been the strength of his belief of the fairness of our system.

According to the Cape Cod Times Dan maintained that he was blindsided — or tripped up — by the Ethics Commission’s ruling. He said, “My concern is that the system inherently now has trip wires in it that you wouldn’t necessarily see from the outside as you step in.”

It was a kind of blindness, or tragic error, that has befallen many truly good politicians. Mike Dukakis comes to mind when he was blind-sided by the Willy Horton ads of George Bush and Lee Atwater, his pit bull campaign manager. Ed Muskie. Al Gore. John F. Kennedy. There’s a long list of really good-hearted people who simply didn’t see how low politics can get, or the lengths to which entrenched insiders will go to foil the competition or the campaign of a plucky newcomer who wants to change business as usual.

Some people thought Dan Wolf’s best recourse was an appeal to Superior Court but according to the Cape Cod Times Dan said he might drop out of the governor’s race and resign his Senate seat rather than take his case to the courts.

This bespeaks a man who honestly thinks he is right. Someone who feels that if he makes his case in the sunlight, that reason will vindicate him; that our just political system will find its way out of the darkness. Unfortunately, a man who may have been somewhat blind to the way that system really works.

The final element of tragedy is the catharsis, the experience of deep emotions that make us wiser and able to change. How will we change as a result of watching the saga of Dan Wolf and the Ethics Commission?

Will we become cynical? Will we knuckle under to the entrenched state machine? Will we lose the “anything is possible” attitude that makes Cape Cod so unique? I don’t think so.

I think Dan Wolf will stay in the senate. I think he’ll build a state-wide reputation from his good work. I think he’ll earn the respect of the establishment politicians and off-Cape voters. I think this tragedy will open his eyes to the elements that want to thwart real progress.

I do not believe the candidacy of Dan Wolf for Governor is dead. I think it we will see it again in the future, and everyone knows, what doesn’t kill you just makes you stronger.

I’m Ira Wood … and that’s my opinion.

Matters of Opinion are Ira Wood’s short, personal, often rather odd takes on current events. They wrap up the WOMR News on most Fridays at 12:30 PM and are available as podcasts HERE. Feel free to email Ira to tell him what you think.