January 18, 2011

DAVID B. OFFER: LePage’s latest crudeness is an embarrassment to the state

By the time you read this column it is possible that Gov. Paul LePage will have apologized for his crude and offensive comment about the NAACP on Friday.

Note that I said possible, not probable.

On Saturday, the governor offered to meet with the NAACP — sometime. That’s a good first step, but it’s not enough to repair the damage LePage caused for himself and the state.

LePage is a proud and stubborn man. That combination makes apologies difficult. Only advisers who are brave and sensible enough to look the governor in the eye can  tell him he needs to go further.

If LePage apologizes, you can stop reading here and wait for my column next week in which I will praise the governor for recognizing his error and dealing with it.

If you are still reading, that means an unrepentant governor still does not understand that his temper and his habit of slipping into vulgarity weakens his ability to lead the state. It will be difficult for LePage to be taken seriously when the focus, both in Maine and nationally, is on his mouth, not his policies.

Effective governors gain headlines for ideas and programs, not because they say they will tell the president of the United States to “go to hell” or that the NAACP can “kiss my butt.”

Can anyone imagine George Mitchell, William Cohen, John Baldacci or Angus King talking like this?

It doesn’t take much for a public figure to be considered a clown — and clowns are not leaders. Some readers may question this criticism, noting that last week I urged people to stop sniping at LePage over minor questions such as his decision not to have poetry or choral music at his inauguration.

I still think that was a reasonable suggestion.

Sadly, the governor’s latest crudeness cannot be considered minor; it’s an embarrassment to the state.

It didn’t have to be that way.

The problem began Friday when LePage said he would not take part in events NAACP events planned for Martin Luther King Day in Orono and Portland because he considered the NAACP a “special interest.”

“I’m not going to be held hostage by special interests,” the governor said. “And if they want, they can look at my family picture. My son happens to be black, so they can do whatever they like about it.”

When a reporter asked the governor if his decision not to take part in the NAACP program was part of a pattern rather than an isolated incident, LePage responded: “Tell ’em to kiss my butt. If they want to play the race card, come to dinner and my son will talk to them.”

LePage missed the point. No one accused him of being a bigot; he is not.

The point is that it is insulting to call the nation’s oldest civil rights organization a special interest — or suggest that it was playing “the race card” or it should “kiss my butt” — especially as the country was preparing to observe a holiday recognizing the importance of civil rights.

Everyone — LePage, the NAACP and the people of Maine — would have been better served if the governor had paused to think before he spoke.

Later, Dan Demeritt, the governor’s spokesman, said that LePage had other plans for Sunday and Monday and that the governor will be focused on managing state government and will spend as much time participating in ceremonial events as past governors.

There would have been far less controversy if LePage or Demeritt had said that the governor had decided there were too many calls for him to spend time at ceremonies so he had decided not to do so. Even better, he could have said someone else would represent him in Bangor and Orono.

Some would have argued that this ceremony, recognizing the importance of civil rights, was one the governor should attend, but the discussion would have been about policy, not vulgarity. LePage did not need to let his temper take over for his brain.

LePage has been governor for about two weeks, and already his runaway mouth has damaged the reputation of the state. The New York Times, CNN and other national media have reported on this latest event.

In a blog for the Washington Post, Jonathan Capehart wrote: “Despite LePage’s offensive posterior invitation, I urge the Portland, Maine, branch of the NAACP to keep inviting the rude governor to events. Blacks are only 1.2 percent of the state’s population. But sooner or later, LePage will have to learn that he can’t talk to citizens of his state like that.”

LePage spokesman Demeritt said that while it is unusual for a governor to use terms like “kiss my butt” it’s part of the way LePage communicates.

“He’s very free spoken,” Demeritt told this newspaper. “He’s got a directness about him that a lot of people find appealing.”

Being free speaking and direct is not the same as being crude, vulgar and obnoxious. And it certainly is not appealing.

David B. Offer is the retired executive editor of the Kennebec Journal and the Morning Sentinel. E-mail davidboffer@hotmail.com

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