The contrast couldn’t be more striking.
On one hand, there is the imagery of Anthony Scaramucci, President Donald Trump’s short time communications director, hair slicked back, reaching into a female reporter’s personal space over and over as he desperately attempted to bully a series of lies into reality.
On the other, there is Maine’s senior senator, Susan Collins, unassumingly returning home to the Bangor airport Friday morning where a small crowd of Mainers erupted into spontaneous applause, earnestly thankful for the battle she had just waged on their behalf.
This contrast — between pettiness and earnestness, between the honorable and the base — has been a cornerstone of Maine’s sense of political self for decades.
Our federal government just had one of its most embarrassing weeks ever. Republican leadership tried and failed to ram a deeply flawed and unvetted healthcare overhaul bill through the U.S. Senate in the dead of night. Trump abruptly proclaimed a ban on transgendered people serving in the military through his Twitter account. The White House communications director went on an on-the-record, profanity-laced tirade to a reporter, calling Trump’s chief of staff a “f*** paranoid schizophrenic” and claiming Chief Strategist Steve Bannon was fellating himself. Threats were made via Twitter about staff members having the FBI investigate other staff members. And the president fired his own chief of staff, Reince Priebus, leaving Priebus alone in a black Suburban on the tarmac next to Air Force One, as the rest of the motorcade pulled away.
Last week marked the Trump administration’s leap from floundering incompetence to performance-art-caliber insanity.
Recent observers of Maine politics are quite familiar with this kind of absurdity. Gov. Paul LePage’s tenure in office has been marked by similarly petty, sniveling behavior — calling fellow Republicans “socialists,” using state funding to exact revenge on political adversaries, haranguing the press, and even fantasizing about shooting a Democratic lawmaker “right between” the eyes. Our governor told reporters “black people come up the highway and they kill Mainers,” and that these same black men were coming to Maine to sell drugs and impregnate young, white girls. Our governor also told a political cartoonists’ teenage son that he wanted to shoot his father.
In Maine, we’re no strangers to executive-level lunacy.
But it wasn’t always this way. And at the end of last week’s chaos, we were given a couple stark reminders of a prouder day in Maine politics.
The first was the spontaneous moment at the Bangor Airport. Collins was returning after a grueling week in Washington, not to the angry mobs faced by some of her colleagues in Congress, but to a thankful crowd of Mainers that know her for who she is — a Mainer, first and foremost, one of us. The cheers reflected agreement with her vote against an ill-conceived bill, for sure, but they also reflected an earnest appreciation for the hard work we all know she does in Washington on our behalf. This wasn’t some celebrity trip through an airport to be whisked away by a limousine, this was a hard-working Mainer returning from hazardous duty in a city that’s not her home.
Another stark reminder of the soul of Maine politics happened at another airport, this time in Portland. Sen. Angus King was also returning from a rough week in Washington, and he spoke to reporters right after he got off the plane.
Instead of puffing himself up and using the attention to promote himself, King spent a substantial amount of his time praising his colleague, Collins, for her bravery during the health care debate. According to the Bangor Daily News, King said he had never seen a greater act of political courage and commitment.
There weren’t banners or streamers or even a podium, it was just King standing there with his suitcase, taking questions from the press. With no fear of transparency and no animosity toward reporters, he patiently relayed his experience during the healthcare battle. There were no clever word games or dodges, it was an honest man addressing earnest reporters about a serious matter.
The way it used to be, and the way it should be, in a state that King likes to refer to as “one big small town.”
Compare this to what’s happening in Washington lately: Members of the Trump administration crashing into each other in fits of lascivious self-interest, reporters insulted and lied to, public servants fired over Twitter.
Or compare the actions of our two senators to what’s been happening in Augusta lately: Government shutdowns and bitter, angry talk-radio monologues, commissioners fired for cooperating with legislators, threats and insults and claims of “fake news.”
It didn’t used to be this way in Maine, and it doesn’t have to continue.
Our senators this week reminded us that courage, transparency, and comity can still exist in politics, even at times of great conflict.
Politics does not have to be a race to the bottom.
This is an important reminder as we begin the process of picking new leadership for Maine in 2018.