Temperamental politicians have a precedent in Maine

Posted Sept. 17, 2010, at 9:49 p.m.

When Republican gubernatorial candidate Paul LePage went ballistic, bailing out of an Augusta news conference earlier this week as reporters pressed him for answers to tax questions concerning his wife’s homes in Florida and Maine, the resulting fallout was predictable.

His many supporters — 43 percent of likely voters in the five-way Nov. 2 election, according to one recent poll — tended to see the outburst as the commendably honest reaction of a man protective of his family.

Supporters of LePage’s four opponents — Democrat Libby Mitchell and independents Eliot Cutler, Shawn Moody and Kevin Scott — said the meltdown showed that LePage does not have the proper temperament to handle the many heavy pressures that will weigh upon the next governor. One could fairly picture the opposition rushing to crank out television ads featuring the front-runner’s headline-grabbing tantrum.

An informal Web survey conducted by the Bangor Daily News showed that 56 percent of the 2,024 participants believe LePage should not have to answer questions about tax matters he says are his wife’s business. When asked whether a candidate’s temperament should be a factor in the governor’s race, 60 percent of 2,429 respondents indicated it should not.

It was not the first flare-up LePage has had with the news media, and it may not be the last for a man known for speaking his mind, full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes. Not that there is anything wrong with that approach to life. Maine voters have shown over the years that they can relate to a candidate who bluntly tells it as he or she sees it — as opposed to one who filibusters without saying much of anything.

The trick for the candidate lies in knowing when and how to sound off without coming across as a bull in a china shop, and when to stifle the urge and be perceived as a statesman with the patience of Job. As my Down East Yankee friends would say, “It’s hahd.”

For any Mainer who has been around the track a few times and seen his share of political flameouts, the LePage temper glitch brought to mind other Maine politicians who have been cursed — or blessed, contrarians might argue — with a short fuse. The late independent Gov. Jim Longley — elected to office in 1974 when voter unrest was significant, as it is today — is surely high on the list for his well-chronicled public confrontations with legislators and news reporters. Sen. Ed Muskie would be near the top as well.

One eruption Longley is particularly remembered for involved inviting legislative leaders to dinner at the Blaine House and then, over dessert, angrily dressing them down as “pimps” because he suspected that someone in their ranks had tipped off a reporter to a negative story concerning a key appointment in state government. If memory serves, irreverent legislators wore the epithet as a badge of honor as relations with Longley turned increasingly sour.

A knock against Muskie was that he had a world-class temper that tended to surface when he was overtired. There are those who worked on Muskie’s 1972 campaign for the Democratic nomination for president who claim that a temperamental blowout in that year’s New Hampshire primary was the singular event that derailed the campaign. Seasoned Mainers know the story well.

After William Loeb, publisher of Manchester, N.H.’s arch-conservative Union Leader newspaper, had editorially made false allegations against Muskie and his wife, an exhausted and visibly agitated Muskie took to a flatbed trailer outside the paper’s office to vent his indignation and righteous anger with Loeb. Delivered hatless in a raging snowstorm, the mother of all thundering rebukes received front-page coverage across the republic.

Unfortunately — as Muskie would go to his grave insisting — what most reporters covering the event mistook for tears of frustration was, in fact, melting snow from Muskie’s hatless head dripping into his eyes. No matter. The news media hammered at the unseemly image of a would-be leader of the free world allegedly crying in public, and the Muskie candidacy was soon toast, done in by an urban myth that figures to live forever. The nomination went to George McGovern.

I’ve often wondered whether Muskie ever asked himself, “Why didn’t I just wear a damn hat?”

BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. Readers may reach him by e-mail at olddawg@bangordailynews.com.

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