Better rude than boring in politics

By Daniel Dunkle | Sep 15, 2016

One day recently we were talking in the newsroom about the antics of Gov. Paul LePage.

How could he leave that message on a state rep's phone and use such foul language? How does he get away with talking about shooting people he doesn't like in duels?

One of the designers spoke up, saying, "I know you all don't like him, but I feel like he tells the truth." She said the same thing about Donald Trump. She felt he was more authentic than Hillary Clinton.

It wasn't the only time I've heard this sentiment. It may seem like everyone is on the same page about how awful these politicians are, but there is strong support, not only for them, but for some of their behavior.

I almost needed to go bowling with the Big Lebowski to ask the question, "When did my thinking about political behavior get so uptight?"

The democracy we engage in is messy, and it leads to fights. It was perfectly easy to keep voices calm around the supper table back when we had kings and there were no elections. But the minute we started giving people a vote, fights broke out.

As a young reporter I saw this all over Knox County. I can remember when two brothers who were both selectmen in Washington threatened to take their heated debate outside. Unfortunately, no punches were thrown, or I would have had a much better story. Several times at town meetings I have seen arguments become personal and body language become intimidating.

American history shows that we in Knox County are not singular in our passions.

LePage may have been right to long for the 19th century, because his behavior would have seemed tame in those days.

The most famous example of passion getting out of control in politics may be July 11, 1804, when founding father Alexander Hamilton and Vice President Aaron Burr dueled it out with pistols in New Jersey (recorded many places, including History.com's article "6 Vicious Rivalries" by Evan Andrews). Hamilton died from a gunshot wound to the stomach the next day (which dampens my enthusiasm for duels).

Threats and violence were once common among Washington lawmakers, according to the article, "When Congress was Armed and Dangerous," by Joanne B. Freeman in the New York Times, Jan. 11, 2011. In a committee hearing in 1836, a member of the House reached for his gun in outrage over the testimony of a witness. The fleeing witness was then held in contempt when he refused to return! In the 1850s, representatives and senators beat each other with canes.

Kind of reminds me of "Seinfeld," when Jerry asks Kramer what the Senate Whip does.

"Well, you know in the old days, when the senators didn't vote the way that the party leaders wanted 'em to ... they whipped them," Kramer said (Sony Pictures Television, 1995). And we thought he was just being funny.

But that's ancient history. Surely we have evolved since then!

Andrews also wrote about how much Robert Kennedy hated Lyndon Johnson over things the latter had said about John F. Kennedy during a primary battle.

Robert Kennedy personally confronted Johnson in a hotel room to urge him against JFK's offer to serve as vice president.

Kennedy was once even given a Johnson voodoo doll as a joke gift, according to this article.

I love the passion of that. Can you imagine if Trump or Clinton were caught with a voodoo doll of the other? We would never hear the end of it.

Johnson, for his part, called Kennedy a “grandstanding little runt” and vowed, “I’ll cut his throat if it’s the last thing I do.” That sounds a little bit like our governor to me.

What about the language, the use of obscenity?

"August 1993 ... Bill Clinton’s young presidency was riding on the passage of his tax-raising economic program. He had spent weeks lobbying lawmakers — but was still just shy of passage. When Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) told Clinton he was voting no, Clinton’s package was dead. Their conversation erupted in profanities and slammed phones. But Kerrey changed his mind — and Clinton’s plan passed by one vote." This was from Politico's "50 Greatest Political Moments" by Bill Nichols and John F. Harris.

Does this excuse LePage for everything, including his racially charged rhetoric?

Absolutely not!

But everything I've seen indicates that it takes a lot more than a nice clean suit and good manners to win elections.

Trump cut through candidates who were smarter, more refined and just plain safer bets in the primaries. I marveled as Jeb Bush's campaign went nowhere. And Marco Rubio, who seemed so promising, was cast out for the sin of planning a little too carefully what he was going to say before a national audience.

We can go back further. Mitt Romney was polite and boring and not elected. George W. Bush was branded folksy and authentic while Al Gore was branded an arrogant egghead and left off the invitation list to the big post-election keger.

The Democrats played it safe in their campaign against LePage with boring candidates, and now they are doing the same thing on a national level, which has allowed Trump to get as far as he has.

Here's the disconnect. If you really care about these issues and think you have a plan to make people's lives better, you get excited about it. My grandfather was a preacher, and he wasn't afraid to holler on a Sunday morning. My dad and I had a political discussion the other day that violated the city noise ordinance.

Many other people can be calm and civil and talk about the issues without getting into personalities, but not everyone values that the same way. There is a lot of tradition in this country of raising voices and having a good time doing it.

An article today on Politico about why Trump seems to be graded on a curve actually stated Clinton "adheres to established rules of engagement." ("Why Donald Trump gets a pass" by Eli Stokols and Hadas Gold). In other words, she plays it safe.

Americans aren't looking for a president who plays it safe. Right or wrong, they seem to be looking for someone who excites them. They may be looking for that righteous fire in the belly that the old-time politicians had.

Unfortunately, in this election they may only get heartburn.

Daniel Dunkle is news director for Courier Publications. He lives in Rockland with his wife, Christine, two children and two cats. Email him at ddunkle@villagesoup.com.

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