It was — at best — a bit of a stretch.
The Maine Chamber of Commerce held its annual dinner and awards ceremony Friday and landed U.S. Senator Angus King as its keynote speaker.
Thus, the event’s theme was Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
You probably remember the 1939 movie that made actor Jimmy Stewart a star, especially the famous filibuster scene that portrays the young and somewhat naïve Sen. Smith as an adorable champion of integrity, truth, justice and the American Way.
As the movie began production in 1937, Stewart was only 28 years old, two years shy of the minimum age requirement to be a U.S. Senator. Angus King, on the other hand, will soon celebrate his 70th birthday.
In the movie, a young, ambitious and principled man from an unnamed western state is reluctantly chosen by a somewhat corrupt governor to replace a deceased senator.
Back here in Real-ville, King’s trip to Washington D.C. happened much differently. He launched his campaign only days after Olympia Snowe abruptly announced that she would not seek another term in the senate.
King, a very popular, former two-term governor, instantly crushed the hopes of more than a dozen political hopefuls who all dreamed of sugar-plum fairies and huge PAC donations. He adroitly skipped the banality of the primary process by pulling his worn and tattered “Independent” card from his breast pocket.
He quickly raised $3 million, half of which probably came from the sale of a decked-out RV that he purchased to “tour the country with my family” after leaving the Blaine House.
Maine Democrats hung their heads in shame because they knew that they’d been beat. The state GOP, full of pride after taking back the Blaine House and the Legislature a year prior, hoisted up no fewer than four candidates, including three members of Gov. LePage’s cabinet.
Cynthia Dill, a far-left Democratic state senator from Cape Elizabeth — virtually unknown outside the three-mile perimeter that surrounds her home — bravely accepted her party’s nomination for Snowe’s seat and walked dutifully — with her head held high — toward a political slaughter.
Meanwhile, King coyly teased the Maine press corps, saying he wasn’t sure which party he would caucus with if he were elected. The gag order had been issued. The emperor had no clothes, but no one seemed brave enough to say: wait a second . . . dude is a Democrat! Instead, we lathered ourselves in the premise that Governor King would be “independent” and fix all that was broken in DC.
In essence, King won his election approximately 38 seconds after he called Congresswoman Chellie Pingree to tell her what was what.
Mr. Smith? Hardly.
One hit to the body
So, there we were on a Friday night: various members of Maine’s business community, mingling near the cash bar, sampling local foods and waiting to hear from Maine’s junior senator.
Regardless of how you feel about King’s political positions, no one can deny that he is an incredibly smart guy and a skilled politician. He exudes warmth and confidence. He is likable, smart and often — sometimes painfully so — very human; revealing an unabridged and honest insight of “how cool and fun it is” to be a U.S. Senator.
King is also an exceptional public speaker and usually a diligent student of history.
While working as a reporter, I had the pleasure of interviewing Angus King. I spent nearly 45 minutes with him, one-on-one; and it was damn hard to walk away unimpressed from that conversation. In the years that followed, I also greatly enjoyed hearing King speak at numerous public events.
Therefore, I was surprised on Friday when King — for the first time ever — didn’t mention his favorite historical figure: Civil War hero and Maine native Joshua Chamberlain. Instead, King ran through a laundry list of frustrations about the current dysfunction in Washington. And who could blame him?
Currently, public opinion polling of Congress as a whole is running just three points ahead of Osama Bin Laden’s popularity rating.
King led off his assessment of beltway politics - – quite surprisingly — by delivering a pointed jab to President Barack Obama and his signature legislation: the Affordable Care Act. It’s not like Obama needs another critic these days. The President’s own approval numbers are hovering perilously close to George W. Bush numbers.
As we feasted on our salads, King relayed an anecdote about a text message he sent to his chief-of-staff a few weeks ago, when the healthcare.gov site was rolled out.
“If you want to know what the Soviet Union was like in the 1970s, go to this website because nothing works like it should,” King said. There were a few nervous laughs in the room as people turned to one another with puzzled expressions.
“I’m a supporter of the Affordable Care Act, but boy, have they screwed up the implementation,” King went on to say. “It’s really frustrating that they can’t even do a website right.”
Someone just got themselves removed from the President’s Christmas card list.
Shiny, happy people
King continued his rather populist bashing of DC’s political climate, focusing most of his energy into the sometimes stunning changes of a hyper-partisan Congress.
He bemoaned a lack of civility and expressed frustration about his colleagues who are genuinely worried about re-election in 2014 because of an ever-increasing gap of political polarization on both the left and right ends of the political spectrum.
He relayed a story about his interaction with another member of his incoming senate class, Republican Ted Cruz, by saying he found the conversation “interesting and productive” but drew a laugh when revealing that his wife witnessed them talking on C-SPAN and immediately castigated him with a call to his cell phone. “She wanted to know, why are you talking to Ted Cruz?”
It’s easy to be a populist and a centrist, but King’s story revealed that it’s a lot easier to talk the talk than walk the walk. King seems sincere about his willingness and eagerness to find bi-partisan solutions to our nation’s problems, but his own wife went ballistic when he spent just a few moments chatting with someone from the other side of the aisle — albeit someone from way over on the other side.
King also shared insights about some fellow members of the senate, revealing the human side that is often missed by MSNBC, FOX or CNN. For example, King said he learned that Senator Orrin Hatch, a patriarch of the GOP, grew up literally dirt poor in Pennsylvania. Hatch’s family lived in a home with dirt floors and one wall in their home was erected from a salvaged billboard that Hatch’s father was able to drag home.
Of course, King spent a fair amount of time Friday evening rigorously patting himself on the back, portraying himself as the great white hope in the U.S. Senate. He’s a politician, so it’s to be expected; but he conveniently skipped over some remarks he made just a few weeks ago during the government shutdown.
King, who doesn’t hesitate to show his annoyance, told a reporter earlier this year that Republicans who were stalling implementation of the ACA are “guilty of murder.”
Apparently, King’s pleas for a more civil discourse are reserved for those who disagree with him. It’s also surprising, given his penchant for history, that King buys into the half-cocked notion that our Congress is more hyper-partisan now than ever before.
King didn’t win his landslide election because of money or better television ads. Maine voters are smarter than that, especially when they speak so loudly and clearly.
Maine’s voters sent Angus King to Washington simply because they knew he was the right guy for the job. Even King acknowledges that he has difficult shoes to fill, pointing out the state’s legacy in sending remarkable people to Washington: Margaret Chase Smith, Edmund Muskie, George Mitchell and Bill Cohen.
Maine’s voters know that Angus King is stubborn, especially once he buys into an idea. They know who he is, and they respect his feisty temperament and keen intellect. They also know he’s a politician and will sometimes disappoint but rarely back down. King has a long road ahead. He’s not Jimmy Stewart.
King is a real person, complete with all the quirks and inconveniences associated with being human. He proudly led the charge to integrate technology into public classrooms, but yet goes old school with markers and an easel board to make his points. It’s damn hard not to like or respect the guy.
He’s human, and thus, flawed. And if you ask him, he will gladly tell you that being a member of the U.S. Senate is pretty damn “cool.”
Mr. King is not Mr. Smith, but if he wants another term in the U.S. Senate, all he has to do is call Chellie Pingree and tell her to wait another six years.