Hostage rescue politics

Saturday July 21, 2012


A man of God needed help, along with a woman who was taken hostage with him. Rescuing them was "not a Democratic thing. It’s not a Republican thing. It’s a Kingdom thing," said the Rev. Matthew K. Thompson, after the Rev. Michel Louis of Dorchester and Lissa Alphonse of Everett, were released by their Egyptian captor on Monday. But in the kingdom of Mass achusetts, it’s also a power and glory thing.

First, there were joyful prayers of thanksgiving. Then, there was grappling over who, besides the Creator, should get credit for the rescue.

That honor went to Republican Senator Scott Brown. "He made this happen," said Rev. Eugene F. Rivers III, who was with the Louis family when Brown’s office called with news that the captives were safe.

Rivers’s assessment did not sit well with aides to U.S. Senator John F. Kerry, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, who had worked since Friday to get the Americans released. The sly minister, who loves stirring the political pot, especially on Brown’s behalf, said he was contacted by Marie St. Fleur, a former state representative and longtime Kerry supporter; she let him know "how upset the Kerry people are."

And upset they were. A source familiar with Kerry’s role described Brown’s involvement as minimal: a Brown staf fer was in touch with the State Department’s Oper ations Center over the weekend, and on Monday, the department provided that staffer with an e-mail update.

According to a chron ology put together by Kerry’s office, a son of the kidnapped minister called Kerry’s office on Friday. Kerry’s team worked on it over the weekend. As part of the effort to get the hostages released, Kerry spoke twice by phone with U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson and offered to meet with Egyptian officials. Brown also reportedly spoke once with Patterson.

On Monday, after the hostages were released, Kerry also arranged a satellite phone call so relatives in Massachusetts could speak directly with their loved ones. That day, Kerry also spoke with family members in Massachusetts.

For Kerry, waiting so long to make that call to relatives was probably a mistake. Brown had been talking to them since Friday, when the hostages were taken. That’s when Thompson and Rivers called Peter Flaherty, a Brown senior adviser. Flaherty then called Brown, who quickly got in touch with family members and gave them his cell phone number.

"I’m not saying Kerry didn’t do anything," said Rivers. "But they heard from Brown within an hour. It’s not my fault Scott Brown gives his cellphone number out."

In recent weeks, Brown’s staff has been left to walk their boss back from statements that make him sound a little silly, such as his talk of meeting with kings and queens and being called "all the time" by Hillary Clinton. But in the hostage case, Brown is not the one taking credit; others are giving it to him. This saga showcases Brown’s understanding of the power of retail politics. Giving out his cellphone number was a personal touch that resonated with worried relatives.

For Brown and the hostages, there was a happy ending. Praise the Lord and pass the political ammunition.

Joan Vennochi writes for The Boston Globe.


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