Dear Gov. LePage,
Today we invoke the late, great American writer E.B. White, who once said, “Be obscure clearly! Be wild of tongue in a way we can understand.”
And if that doesn’t work, blame it on the Portland Press Herald.
Honestly, Big Guy, I don’t know where to begin.
One minute we’re lapping up one of your anti-welfare news release rants word for word – complete with quotation marks, attribution, the whole nine yards – and the next your own press secretary, the intrepid Adrienne Bennett, is telling the world that “the Portland Press Herald just wants the governor to hate everybody.”
Not sure you need our help with that, sir, but I digress. Let’s go to the replay:
On Wednesday, we ran a story by Press Herald reporter Ed Murphy that essentially reported two things.
The first was that Maine, according to the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis, ranked 39th nationally and dead last in New England for personal income growth in the first quarter of 2014. I know, sir, for a state with an “Open for Business” sign at its border, that’s a big ouch.
The story’s second revelation: Maine’s poor showing stemmed in large part from the feds’ calculation of “transfer receipts” – money that flows from the federal government to the states in the form of Social Security, Medicare, unemployment and other benefits and, alas, funding for Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act.
As state economist Amanda Rector told reporter Murphy, Maine’s refusal (no, make that your refusal) to accept some $300 million in federal health-care reimbursement this year played a big role in the reduction of those transfer receipts for Maine, and thus limited the state’s growth in personal income to 0.5 percent, below the national rate of 0.8 percent.
End of story? We wish.
By Wednesday morning, Department of Health and Human Services spokesman John Martins was hard at work pounding out a long – and highly critical – email to Murphy.
Among Martins’ complaints: “Your story uses the technical term ‘transfer funds’ repeatedly instead of the very easily understood, Plain English terminology – welfare payments.”
That struck those of us who saw the email as odd. Not to mention historic – it was the first time anyone in your administration had ever referred to things like Social Security and Medicare as “welfare payments.”
But wait! There’s more!
While Martins was busy weaving Maine’s disappointing income figures into your administration’s war on the poor, your own press secretary Bennett was drafting a news release titled “Governor LePage: Maine’s Growth in Personal Earnings is a Sign of Improving Economy.”
Talk about being “wild of tongue,” huh Big Guy? If only it were, as old E.B. advised, “in a way we could understand.”
Reporter Eric Russell, poor guy, fielded this story assignment. He dutifully reported your assertion, right there in the news release, that if you take out all those “transfer receipts,” Maine’s personal income growth rockets upward from 0.5 percent to 0.8 percent.
(Good thing the State House was largely empty that day. Nothing’s more foul than the smell of cooking books.)
Russell, stickler for details that he is, went on to punch in your quote about those “transfer receipts,” which you’d just defined to include Social Security and Medicare.
“It doesn’t matter what liberals call these payments,” you said. “It is welfare, pure and simple.”
Ever hear of the third rail of politics, Governor? It’s Social Security, which is never safe to touch. Evah.
But touch it you did. And, after Thursday’s Press Herald led with the headline “Social Security counts as ‘welfare’ to LePage,” scorched you now are.
Not funny, you say? I wholeheartedly agree, although it was hard not to chuckle as Ms. Bennett took to WGAN’s “Morning News With Ken and Mike” on Thursday and blamed the Press Herald for failing in our journalistic duty to protect you from, well, yourself.
Bennett’s contention: That crack you made about those “transfer receipts” all being “welfare, pure and simple,” pertained only to the Medicaid expansion, not to the other “transfer receipts” like Social Security and Medicare.
Amazing. You screw up and, rather than admit it and move on, you blame us for not sanitizing your message before flushing it out the pipeline for all the world to see? (I’ll bet the Roto-Rooter guys have days like this.)
My favorite part of Bennett’s radio chat came when co-host Mike Violette, normally your ally, asked, “In hindsight … could (the press release) have been prepared perhaps more artfully than it was?”
Replied Bennett, “Absolutely. And, you know, you look back and sometimes you read things and you get different perspectives, you get different people reading it and that’s something that we could have taken a look at a little bit more closely and clarified a little bit more. I agree.”
While she’s at it, she might clarify what she herself just said. I’m on my second cup of coffee and I still can’t get my head around it.
So here I sit, looking at yet another news release that just landed with a thud in my inbox.
Now fair warning, Big Guy. I’m going to quote you again. Here goes:
“I don’t think Social Security or Medicare is welfare. Only the most liberal interpretation of my statements about Medicaid expansion would twist my words to include Social Security and Medicare.”
Damn us liberal interpreters, right Governor? One minute we’re taking what you just said and the next we’re putting it out there as … what you just said! Have we no shame?
Where all of this goes from here, as always, depends on whom you ask.
Lord knows we’ve been around this block enough times to know the Press Herald is the newspaper you most love to hate. My gut tells me that, deep down, you and your handlers see this latest brouhaha as a good thing for your ever-loyal base, who salivate like Pavlov’s pups at the mere linkage of the words “liberal” and “welfare” with a thick slice of “Press Herald” in the middle.
But there are others, notably Maine’s many retirees, who will see that headline resurrected on their TV screens this fall and wonder, “Did he really mean that? And if he didn’t, then why on earth did he say it?”
For that one, let’s turn once again to the venerable E.B. White, a master of words if ever there was one, now resting peacefully (we hope) in his grave in the coastal Maine town of Brooklin.
“English usage is sometimes more than mere taste, judgment and education,” White once observed. “Sometimes it’s sheer luck, like getting across the street.”
And sometimes, when you fail to look both ways, you get hit by a bus.