Gov. LePage is not a politician. At least that’s what he tells us all the time.

Sometimes it’s when he’s explaining why he said something that he wished he hadn’t, but more often it’s when he’s running for office or leading the state government.

“I’m not a politician” is an all-purpose claim. He even calls his permanent campaign organization “People Before Politics,” as if everybody else had it the other way around.

We all know what he means when he says he’s not a politician. He’s saying is that he doesn’t “play games” and tell the people what they want to hear, pretend that he likes somebody he can’t stand or sell out and compromise. Despite what he does for a living, being something other than a politician is a point of honor for the governor.

He didn’t make this up. A lot of people can’t stand politicians. Even Webster’s New World Dictionary tells us that the term is “frequently used in a derogatory sense, with implications of seeking personal or partisan gain.”

LePage isn’t the first anti-politician to run for office, and next year he won’t be the first to try to maintain his outsider status while running for re-election. No one should be surprised if it works.

But “politician” doesn’t have to be a dirty word, and in these days of reflection on the life of Nelson Mandela, we should remember what the alternatives to politics are: tyranny and violence. We may not always like politicians, but we need them.

This week we are seeing images of Mandela the saint, which you would expect at a funeral, but people who knew him saw something else as well.

Paul Taylor, who was the Washington Post bureau chief when Mandela was freed from prison, wrote last week that South Africa’s first black president was “cunning, iron-willed, bull-headed, contemptuous – and more embittered than he let on.”

Mandela formed a historic partnership with F.W. de Klerk, the last white president of the country (and Mandela’s last jailer). The two were co-recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize and presented a living example of mutual respect, but according to Taylor, they didn’t like each other much.

“Mandela had no compunctions about using de Klerk as a scapegoat whenever it served his purposes,” Taylor wrote, including at a news conference on the day the Nobel was announced.

Mandela also kept his supporters in line by using “his martyr’s halo like a club” if his judgment was challenged. “Scold, flatter, demand, cajole – when you occupy the moral high ground, your tactical options are practically limitless. Mandela’s genius was knowing how and when to deploy them all,” Taylor wrote.

Mandela succeeded at an almost impossible task: He had to convince the white minority that they could voluntarily surrender power without being massacred, and convince militant blacks to take the reins of government without taking revenge for a lifetime of oppression. He didn’t do it alone, but he had to develop a movement of people who shared his vision. He did it with his words, he did it with his writing – he did it with politics.

Which brings me back to the governor. This is not a column about how Paul LePage is not as good a leader as Nelson Mandela: No one is. Mandela is one of those once-in-an-epoch figures whom historians will be studying for centuries.

But maybe it’s time we drop the “frequently … derogatory” part of the “politician” definition and respect the profession for what it can be in the right hands.

The next time a politician brags that he’s not a politician, we should ask – why not?

Can’t get along with the other party? Mandela could, and the other party had once put him in prison. Can’t risk saying “no” to the base? Mandela did, and the base followed.

Mandela walked into prison a socialist who favored nationalized industry. He came out 27 years later and created a state with a robust private sector. He had one principle: freedom. Everything else was negotiable.

The world needs politicians and politics. Self-government is still the best way to tackle complex problems, balance the needs of many different interests and promote the greatest good for the greatest number. Democracies make the best decisions: Dictatorships and monarchies are famous for being unable to say “no” when the leader makes a mistake.

Gov. LePage is wrong. He is a politician. And that is something of which he can be very proud.

Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or at: [email protected]

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