No one is likely to accuse Gov. LePage of being a smooth talker; glibness is neither one of his weaknesses nor one of his strengths. He is plainspoken to the point of bluntness — or, some might say, to the point of crudeness.
On Friday, crudeness won the day when Maine’s new governor said that the NAACP could “kiss my butt” in response to a TV reporter’s question about the civil rights group’s criticism of his refusal to attend events being held in conjunction with Martin Luther King Day.
LePage was smiling when he said it, and he preceded the comment with a reasonable explanation of his reasons for declining invitations to Monday’s King observances. And yet the remark came off as rude and disrespectful, and it once again raised questions about LePage’s ability and/or willingness to represent the people of Maine in the dignified manner that they expect from their governor.
This is the same LePage, after all, who boasted during the 2010 campaign that he would tell President Obama to “go to hell.” He didn’t follow through on the threat, of course, but he created a media ruckus by making it.
Having survived a grueling gubernatorial campaign, a challenging transition from mayor of Waterville to chief executive of the state and his first full week in the governor’s office, LePage now needs to face up to a lesson he should have learned months ago: He needs to watch his mouth.
He is no longer the little-known mayor of a small city, free to speak his mind at will, insult his opponents as he sees fit and toss off profane asides whenever the mood strikes him. He now represents the people of Maine — all the people, not just those who voted for him and admire him.
Like it or not, he is a player on the national stage, operating in the glare of a scorching media spotlight. What he does and what he says can determine what the rest of the country thinks of our state. He is the face and the voice of Maine and its people; he has a responsibility to present himself accordingly.
Some LePage supporters will no doubt cheer him for his candor. Those supporters will say that it shows the governor will speak his mind and won’t be cowed by special interests. But they should take a minute to think about what the rest of the world will see: The governor of the whitest state in the nation crudely dismissing the nation’s most important civil rights organization three days before the holiday on which Americans pay tribute to our historic struggle for civil rights.
It will matter little that LePage has an adopted son who is black. And it doesn’t matter that he made his comment with a smile or that he was talking about a group that is made up largely of his political opponents.
His comment was flippant at best, hostile at worst and counterproductive, no matter how you look at it.
When we heard that LePage planned to break with Maine governors’ long-standing tradition of attending the Martin Luther King Day events, we were not surprised. He appeared to be sending a message that there was a new governor in Augusta, one with different priorities.
We would have preferred that he had gone to one of the events anyway, and used it as an occasion to honor those, like King, who devoted their lives to ending segregation, while pointing out his differences with the political agenda of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
We would have understood if he’d told the organization that he was too busy to attend but would invite them to his office when he had time. He could have done what busy officeholders typically do at times like this, and sent an aide to convey his well-wishes.
Instead, he flatly refused the invitations. And then he acted as if a reporter’s questions on television were no different than an off-the-record bull session in his back office. He not only insulted many Mainers, but also damaged his ability to do his job.
If supporters don’t believe that, they should think about what might have been today’s headline: His anticipated appearance at the Maine Right to Life Committee’s Hands Around the Capitol Rally, believed to be a first for a Maine governor at the annual event.
The symbolism of Friday’s outburst will likely drown out the symbolism that might have been generated today. It will also drown out the generally positive news that has come out of Augusta this week — a week when his supplemental budget was positively received by lawmakers and his administration seemed to gain some early momentum.
LePage can say he doesn’t care what critics think, and that is his right. But it is our right to expect him to represent all Mainers, not just his supporters, when conducting official state business.
The election is over, and he’s everyone’s governor now. He should act like it.