“As a young man, I put cleverness above respect for others. As a mature person, I hope that I wouldn’t do that … anyway I wouldn’t do it in writing about baseball. I might do it if I was writing about politics.”
– Bill James, baseball analytics guru
People often ask me if I regret any of the snarky things I’ve written about politicians in 25 years of churning out this column (as of last week).
The short answer is no.
The slightly longer answer is if I had it to do over, I’d be even nastier.
The longwinded answer is our political leaders get far too much uncritical adulation and not nearly enough derision. The more years they hang around, the more likely they are to be portrayed by their cult followers as bold figures dedicated to public service, when they’re actually Trumpish sociopaths. Longevity has a way of smoothing rough edges, blurring memories of ill-considered outbursts, exaggerating triumphs and obscuring failures.
In the long term, everyone looks like Mahatma Gandhi – even if, in the short term, they resemble Paul LePage.
What’s needed is not more insults, but more enduring insults, the sort of mud-slinging that sticks even to polished marble busts and gilt-framed oil portraits.
All the iconic images of Maine’s political giants are mostly products of fuzzy recollections and fawning acolytes. Take, for example, the late Republican U.S. Sen. Margaret Chase Smith.
There’s no doubt Smith paved the way for more women to enter politics. But in terms of her impact on legislation, she was a marginal figure. In Patricia L. Schmidt’s biography, “Margaret Chase Smith: Beyond Convention,” she writes, “For many of her most ardent supporters, Margaret was the epitome of the gracious lady. Their highest praise cast her not as a policymaker or leader but as the gracious Grand Duchess – of the blood royal, but not in line of succession.”
The reality of Smith’s tenure in Congress is she was mostly a back-bencher, ignored by her male colleagues both because of her sex and her lack of interest in crafting significant legislation. Revisionist history defines her denunciation of Joe McCarthy as a pivotal moment, but that wasn’t exactly the case. “Margaret had led a charge that no one followed,” Schmidt wrote. “Her effort did little to stop McCarthy or demystify the man.”
How about the late Democratic U.S. Sen. Ed Muskie? He restored the two-party system in Maine. He championed the Clean Water Act. He was so medicated with a rare South American drug during his 1972 vice-presidential campaign that he was nearly catatonic, according to gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson. Thompson also swore Muskie’s campaign manager once told reporters, “My instructions are that the senator should never again be put in a situation where he has to think quickly.”
Is this literally true? Probably not
Is it poetically accurate? Pretty much.
The longer his career dragged on, the more Muskie mumbled through interviews, rambled through speeches and seemed lost in his surroundings. The Maine media pretended not to see it, fearful of tarnishing his legacy.
Bill Cohen? The former GOP U.S. senator spent his tenure as secretary of defense under Democratic President Bill Clinton refusing to sleep on military bases, instead demanding accommodations in four-star hotels. Immediately upon leaving office, he cashed in on his years of public service by starting a lucrative defense lobbying and consulting firm.
George Mitchell? As the Democratic Senate majority leader, he was revered for protecting the environment from attacks by Reagan-era Republicans. But Mitchell’s support of Reagan’s tax cuts and Wall Street-friendly policies was so ardent, it might make even Congressman Bruce Poliquin blush.
Surely Gov. Joshua Chamberlain, he of the victory at Little Round Top during the Civil War’s Battle of Gettysburg, maintains his heroic reputation more than a century and a half after saving the day for the Union.
Actually, Chamberlain’s role is almost entirely a myth created by Hollywood. According to historian Martin Pengelly, his triumph over the Confederates was of little consequence in the battle, and was due, not to brilliant tactics, but to “chance, circumstance and human error.”
That legacy endures in our era of Trump and LePage. Somebody needs to keep pointing it out.
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