“I have never been so mad about a phone call in my life.” That was our U.S. Senator, Angus King, laying down a marker on the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic. And for Angus King, that was saying something.
Maine has known Angus King for a long time, first as the long-time TV host of Maine Watch on Maine Public television. He put his law degree to work for Pine Tree Legal as an aide to Maine Senator William Hathaway, and in the alternative energy field.
In 1994 he ran for governor of Maine as an independent and won with a narrow plurality in a five-way race, besting former Governor Joe Brennan. He never looked back, winning re-election in 1998, another five-way race, with 59 percent of the vote.
King’s “I’ve never been so mad” statement was in itself Exhibit A about his temperament. He just doesn’t get mad. Entering state politics from a non-political background, he was often bemused by the behavior and motivations of the political animals surrounding him in Augusta, but mad? Hardly ever.
In the year 2000, working furiously to pass his “Learning Technology” initiative that would put personal computers into the hands of every student in grades seven through twelve, King and his talented legislative liaison staff went after the votes, legislator by legislator.
It is customary to refer to this vote solicitation process as “breaking arms.” King had his own version of strong-arming a legislature. Invited to his office to hear the pitch on Learning Technology, legislators might expect veiled threats of losing treasured committee assignments, seeing all their bills vetoed, or at the very least losing access to all-important communications with the chief executive.
Not Angus. His version of breaking arms was to sit a legislator down and, eyeball to eyeball, lay out the reasons why he had proposed this first-in-the-nation initiative. “I really hope you can support this. It’s so important for our kids.” No senators were harmed in the passage of this initiative, and pass it did.
During his gubernatorial election campaigns, it was not unknown for Angus, in the throes of his pitch, to step down from the stage at a community hall, walk up to a now-disconcerted advocate for, say, a community bike trail, look her in the eye, and say “Let’s build a trail.” It was magic. What it was not was BS. He delivered.
After his allotted two terms as governor, Angus returned to private life. He toured the U.S. with his family in an RV, wrote a book about the experience, and then taught at Bowdoin College. In 2012, he ran for U.S. senator.
He won with 53 percent of the vote and won a second U.S. senate term with 54 percent. Both times, as an independent, he was in a three-way race. His challengers ended up far behind. In the 2018 election, two icons of Maine politics, Senators George Mitchell and Bill Cohen, endorsed him.
In an interview about independent politicians, King said party members are “penalized for being reasonable.” Party politics are so polarized that candidates in either party are at risk if they stray from party extremes, the so-called “base” of party loyalists. An independent has theoretical latitude to walk a middle ground, but even they are subject to party dictates.
In Congress, an independent aligns with one party or the other. It is through the parties that offices are assigned, committee members appointed and myriad other perks and responsibilities doled out. In this way, independents are pressured to toe the party line. But they do have one advantage. When the chips are down, they can speak their mind.
Mostly, the mind of Angus King is expressed as King the historian, not King the politician. Ask him about a current political situation and his response will generally be couched in the context of history. Whether he is on TV in Washington, D.C., or in front of a classroom at Bowdoin, he goes to root causes, historic trends and the lessons of the past.
So when Angus King says he has “never been so mad,” and called the inadequate response of the Trump administration to the coronavirus crisis a “dereliction of duty,” it marked a distinct departure from his usual demeanor and an extraordinarily strong reproach.
Finally, one senator spoke out. One senator said it out loud. With so many senators, governors and executive branch officials cowed by a president whose good graces are the only job security, Angus King said not only what he thought, but also what almost everyone in the top levels of government thinks. Thank you, Angus.
Vice President Mike Pence, himself a former governor, surely knew the truth when he heard it. One can only wonder if, somewhere inside, he felt a moment of shame.