The Universal Notebook: It's Howdy Moody time!

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As a kid growing up in the 1950s, “The Howdy Doody Show,” which ran from 1947-1960, was a staple of my Saturday-morning television viewing.

Howdy Doody was a freckle-faced marionette and ventriloquist’s dummy, the creation of Buffalo Bob Smith, who started each show by asking the kids in the Peanut Gallery, as they called the studio audience, “Say, kids, what time is it?”

On cue the kids would yell, “It’s Howdy Doody time!” Then the Howdy Doody theme song, to the tune of Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay, would play and the pioneering children’s show with its goofy cowboy-circus motif would commence. The cast of characters included a grumpy old skinflint named Phineas T. Bluster, a bizarre hybrid animal named Flub-a-Dub, a mute clown named Clarabell and Chief Thunderthud, a Native American who added the word “Cowabunga” to the American argot.

Every time I see Republican gubernatorial candidate Shawn Moody on television, I think of Howdy Doody. Every word that comes out of his mouth seems to be spoken by someone else.

“Say, Maine, what time is it?”

“It’s Howdy Moody time!”

Shawn Moody is universally regarded as a very nice guy and he has made a success of his auto body business, but the compelling rags-to-riches narrative of the self-made millionaire campaigning on personal authenticity strikes me as just as phony as Howdy Doody.

Shawn Moody has lived a privileged life. He got a lot of help starting his business from his relatives, the Moodys being one of the first families of Gorham. His father was a wealthy paper executive, his uncle was the CEO of Hannaford and his stepfather helped set him up in business. But you won’t hear from Moody about the family cottage at Prouts Neck or the camp on Lake Winnipesaukee. He’s cultivated this “Aw shucks, good ole boy” persona as if he grew up in abject poverty.

Be that as it may, it is Moody’s political persona that’s really phony.

In 2010, he ran for governor as a moderate, pro-choice independent on the theme, “The Party’s Over.” Like independents Angus King and Eliot Cutler, he cast himself as a middle-of-the-road alternative to the divisive, extremist politics of the two-party system. Then last fall, Moody threw in his lot with the LePage Gang, joined the GOP and transformed himself overnight into a lifelong, pro-life conservative.

When Moody ran against Paul LePage in 2010, coming in a distant fourth with but 5 percent of the vote, he seemed to understand that LePage was an incarnation of Phineas T. Bluster, saying “his ties with groups that want to take an ax to school budgets and our critical social safety nets leave a big question mark in my mind.”

In 2014, Moody still had his reservations about LePage, saying he agreed with many of LePage’s policies, but wished the governor would lead “in a way that there’s some civility and respect.”

Still, in late 2017, after LePage had spent seven years taking a meat ax to the social safety net Moody once said he valued, Moody had a sudden conservative conversion when the LePage Gang hijacked and brainwashed him. So now daughter Lauren LePage speaks for Moody, former LePage strategist Brent Littlefield tells him what to say and former LePage Chief of Staff John McGough pulls the strings backstage.

In an interview with journalist Colin Woodard, Moody explained his seduction by saying, “They said, ‘One of your greatest assets, Shawn, is your authenticity, and we’re going to take your message and sharpen it and get you in front of the people who need to hear it.’”

Well, Phineas T. Bluster, Flub-a-Dub, Clarabell and Chief Thunderthud sharpened Shawn Moody’s authenticity to the point where they reduced it to the wood shavings from which they create Howdy Moody, Republican ventriloquist dummy.

“To become a Republican just to get elected looks a bit craven and too strategic,” says Dennis Bailey, who managed Moody’s 2010 independent campaign. “It makes him look like any other politician. To line up with LePage people, that’s everything he was against. He’s a nice guy, but I think he’s made a mistake jumping in with LePage and Trump.”

Why a nice guy like Moody would want to carry on the failed and heartless policies of Paul LePage is anyone’s guess. My own sense is that Moody’s ambition got in the way of ideals. He wants to be governor more than he wants to be true to himself. Sure he’s a really decent guy, which is more than can be said for Paul LePage, but Shawn Moody is simply not his own man, he’s Paul LePage’s puppet.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.