Say what? LePage’s quick tongue is all the talk

Page A26, column five. That's where David Cheever's flip remark appeared in The New York Times near the end of the 1984 presidential campaign.

Joel Page/Associated Press

Gov. Paul LePage speaks with an unidentified woman on Monday at  the Waterville Rotary Club's annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Breakfast in Waterville.

Cheever, the press flack for Gov. Joseph Brennan, had been asked about the strategy of Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale, who had decided to meet with Biddeford mill workers during a campaign stop in Maine.

"If there's a plan, nobody here knows what it is," Cheever quipped.

Cheever's benign wit didn't translate in print. It angered Mondale's campaign. Brennan, Mondale's Maine campaign chairman and a friend, wasn't pleased, either.

"I thought I was having a good time and so did the reporter," Cheever recalled. "But it was a matter of embarrassment to the governor, and to me."

Page A26, column five of the Times has been emblazoned in Cheever's memory ever since.

It's unclear whether Page A11 of the Jan. 15 Times will ever have that same impact on Gov. Paul LePage, whose pattern of impolitic comments emerged again last week, just nine days into his four-year term. A11 is where the Times ran the story of LePage's on-camera comments to WCSH-6, in which the governor told the local chapter of the NAACP to "kiss my butt."

The video appeared on CNN, Fox News, the websites of all of the major television networks and national political websites. The ensuing firestorm continued throughout last week, boiling over during a heated interview with Dan Demeritt, LePage's communications director and WGAN radio host Ken Altshuler.

LePage's "kiss my butt" comment wasn't the first time a Maine governor, or his spokesperson, had made a public relations gaffe.

In 1975, Gov. James Longley notoriously called legislative leaders "pimps" during a luncheon at the Blaine House, one of many controversial statements depicted in Willis Johnson's colorful book, "The Year of the Longley".

LePage's public relations tribulations are unfolding now, without the benefit of hindsight. That has led some to wonder whether LePage is adjusting to the job. Others worry that his pattern of brusque behavior will become the norm for the next four years.

Demeritt has indicated that the governor isn't terribly concerned with the stir he's causing. He told WGAN last week that LePage said, "I speak my mind and take my lumps."

"He's not letting this stuff distract him," Demeritt said.

But it has become a distraction for Demeritt, whose responsibilities include making sure the governor stays out of trouble. Publicly, Demeritt has brushed off questions about whether running defense for LePage is no small task, but there are moments when his reaction belies his public statements. After LePage's "kiss my butt" comment, the governor looked over to Demeritt, whose expression said it all.

"Oh, I got Dan all upset," LePage said.

LePage's off-the-cuff remarks have also become a distraction from the normally humdrum operation of state government for many others — in Maine and across the nation.

"I respect a politician who speaks candidly," said Lawrence Bloom, a Waterville attorney who repeatedly clashed with LePage over a disputed housing project when the governor was that city's mayor. "But (LePage's) blunt style is way over the edge. He doesn't know how to be candid without being rude or offensive."

"He's a bull in a china shop," Bloom said. "He's going to be an embarrassment to the state."

Although Bloom has an ax to grind, similar comments have appeared in letters to the editor in various newspapers following LePage's "kiss my butt" episode.

Some writers openly worry that LePage is indifferent to his missteps, and not interested in winning over the 62 percent of Mainers who didn't vote for him, only the 38 percent who did.

"So far we have seen nothing but an ill-mannered buffoon who has made the state of Maine a laughing stock," wrote Brunswick's Mary Parsons in the Portland Press Herald.

His core supporters still applaud his candidness.

Portland's Dave DelCamp wrote, "Hey, Gov. LePage, don't listen to your detractors. They're wrong, you're right. Thanks for keeping it real — that's why you were elected."

And others say LePage has had early achievements as the state's new governor, but feel his penchant for unintended controversy is subverting the progression of his agenda.

Al Diamon, who has been covering Maine politics for decades, said LePage's "verbal foolishness" has overshadowed a relatively smooth transition. 

Wrote Diamon in an e-mail, "Compared to any governor I've covered (all of them since Longley), he's doing quite well at everything except public relations. Even there, most of the criticism is coming from people who didn't vote for him. His core support remains solid and the business community is giving him the benefit of the doubt. If he'd just shut up, he'd look brilliant. Well, competent, anyway."

Some, like Cheever and David Farmer, Gov. John Baldacci's communications director, underscore the difficulties of being the state's top executive.

Cheever drew a parallel between his own 1984 slip of the tongue and LePage's "kiss my butt" remark.

"If you watch the video, you can see (LePage) was in a jovial mood," Cheever said. "He wasn't angry when he said it. But some people can take things differently."

Farmer, who served during Baldacci's second term after leaving journalism, said he too, has said things that he regretted. 

"I came to the governor's office from a newsroom culture where people say all kinds of things," Farmer said. "(In the governor's office) I can remember saying something that was maybe a little too flip; maybe it wasn't respectful. There were definitely times that I wish I could've put a comment back in the bottle."

Farmer added that training for governor "occurs on the job."

"It takes time to understand the consequences of what you say," Farmer said. "There's a huge learning curve and that learning comes from the successes and mistakes that are made."

LePage's critics, however, doubt that the governor is capable, or even willing, to learn from his mistakes. They often cite a pattern of controversial performances on the campaign trail, which include LePage informing a group of fishermen that he would tell President Barack Obama "to go to hell" and using a barnyard epithet during a testy exchange with reporters.

There have been other questionable moments.

— Last summer he joked about Democratic gubernatorial candidate Libby Mitchell's age, a quip that drew a rebuke from the AARP.

— He also claimed that a Maine Democratic Party operative had said LePage wasn't fit to be governor because he was French Catholic. The operative, Arden Manning, later produced evidence that showed the accusation to be false.

— During the Republican primary campaign, he claimed the state had a tax on bull semen. According to the Maine Revenue Service, the state actually provides a tax exemption for bull semen.

— LePage also said the Department of Environmental Protection once ordered him to do a buffalo survey when he worked for a power company. The DEP has no record of the survey.

— In December, during his trip to Washington, D.C., he told a Kennebec Journal reporter that 35 states could "automatically" kill the federal health care law. There is no such provision in the U.S. Constitution. Demeritt later said the comment was "lost in translation" with the reporter, a defense made questionable after the reporter released the full transcript of the interview.

LePage's off-color language and blunt style was foreshadowed in Waterville. In 2009, he blasted Baldacci in a Waterville Sentinel report, saying, "All they're doing is transferring state responsibility onto taxpayers, and people keep falling for this governor's bull----." 

While such comments continue to divide LePage's supporters and opponents, there are some people who are uncomfortable talking about them.

Waterville city officials and councilors contacted for this story either didn't return phone calls or declined to comment.

Gov. Angus King, almost always willing to offer an opinion, declined to comment as well — even about his own experience in the governor's office. 

Asked how he viewed LePage's early days in office, Cheever, a state employee, deployed public relations skills from his Brennan years.

"It's apparent that the current governor is not beholden to some sense of diplomacy," Cheever said. "He’d rather be able to talk and speak directly to people. ... The fact that he appears to be, as Gov. Longley was, able to rise above what might be critical of him is because he knows where he is speaking in his heart."

smistler@sunjournal.com

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Comments

Don Raymond's picture

He won the election fair and square.

Now that the Fox News loving people have spoken, I think it's only right to say TOO BAD SO SAD to the bleeding heart "liberal media".
Sounds like the GOP is going to have a field day with the working poor again.
Good luck ignorant Mainers, you deserve exactly what you voted for.
First order of business? Vote on a bill to make the "whoopee pie" the official dessert of Maine.

He's still a buffoon..

It doesn't matter what you try to print to make this guy look good..he's not..bottom line is, he is a low life and an embarrassment to the people of this state that have a little class. Speaking the first thing that comes into your head may be what some perceive as tough, but it just shows the mentality of this person. We have 4 long years of this to put up with along with his fabrication of things he's supposedly done in this state, like the bull semen and buffalo survey..in other words, he's a liar..need we say more?? What else will this guy come up with?? Makes me wonder if he understands waht he is doing and makes me fear for what state this State will be in when he is done with us....

 's picture

Achievements?

What achievements? LePage hasn't done anything yet. He hasn't even named all his cabinet members yet. However, I must admit that I don't look forward to his cabinet appointments considering who he has named thus far. But, I would be a little happy if he would be civil. He appears to really enjoy being disrespectful. He always looks around grinning like he has said something cute. It is not cute. It will never be cute.

 's picture

Picking on and picking apart Governor Lepge.

I have been enjoying the Usual Blather from the Likes of 'Denny'and 'George Blanker' Wow imagine posting with a 'Pseudonym' as 'George blanker' what's he hiding? I often wonder what my good friend 'Clifford Drake" thinks about this'? What is really going on here ?is the usual response from those who either wasted their vote for Cutler or Mitchell,or Moody. and Could have done the right thing shown some Conviction, some principal ,some Vision. These critics instead decided to stay in the Complaining lane. As Usual no new Ideas.

Now as usual when a 'Confederacy of Dunces' is Formed ' The lead' Dunce' in this case 'David 'Farmer' cannot resist the opportunity to offer his Venom Laced Critique at Governor lepage. You see Dave just recently had been Governor Baldacci's Communication Director' Imagine if you will Dave having been like a 'Drunken Sailor' on leave. Let's face it Dave your in Withdrawl you are in need of that Daily Power Fix. It's gone now you have go it alone so instead of sitting back and Minding your own P's and Q's you need to stay Engaged.

Not to worry Governor lepage Is a forgiving Man He knows there are more important tasks to be dealt with. Thanks Danny & George & David' were doing fine.

 's picture

Strong support.

i give gov. Paul lepage my strong support as I do gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona. They both have the Guts to stand up for what is right. We the tax payers have to pay for all the dead beats that the Democrats have been supporting, along with supporting Illegals in this Country. I know of several people that work very very hard sometimes two or more jobs at a time so they can feed their families and keep their families warm. The KJ says Mainers are dealing with the high prices of oil, well who are the ones paying, the people that work. I can tell you of someone very close to me that works every day and more, this person asked for a little help with oil to heat their home. They got turned down as they make a few dollars too much to Deserve any help. The Dead beats on the welfare system keeps their a--es warm for free. This has to change and I believe Gov. Paul Lepage can make this change. So all you whiners go sit with your Dead beat friends and let the Governor do his job.

Jack Jalbert's picture

Lepage's quick tongue

If Paul Lepage can break Maine's bad tax and spend habit then his lack of tact will not matter. Smooth talking politicians have gotten us where we are now. Fiscal responsibility has all but disappeared in local, state, and national politics (as well as people's personal lives). America and Maine have a nasty spending habit and it needs to be addressed. Paul Lepage displayed his rough character during the election cycle and was still elected so lets just let him do his job folks. He's obviously not going to be a butt kisser nor will he speak eloquently but there's much to be done!!

John Moore's picture

What's the Over/Under on Demeritt quitting out of frustration?

It's really funny to see LePage supporters come out and defend what he says as "telling it like it is" when his own guy is clearly visibly frustrated by his lack of decorum. We're only a couple weeks into his administration and already he's made national news for acting like a lummox.

I didn't vote for the guy, but I am hopeful that he can learn to shut his trap and get some things done in Augusta. The taxes here are ridiculous. I wish that someone running on cutting the fat hadn't hired his 22 year old recent college graduate daughter at $10,000 more than the average household salary of Waterville. Even if she was the best person for the job, it smacks of hypocrisy. It's politics as usual.

Let's see what happens in his first 100 days. I'm open to giving the guy a chance. I think he's got some good ideas. But for crying out loud, stop talking like you're back in Little Canada, you're the highest official in the executive branch of the state.

Rufus Ham's picture

Keep up your Indepence, Gov.

Is this Journal so hard up for news that it keeps re-running The Gov's "quick tongues"? Ever think about the POSITIVES? As everyone realizes, the Media is our biggest NEGATIVE factor in this BIG USA !

RONALD RIML's picture

Rufe - That WAS the Guv's Positive....

Most of the conservatives who voted him in have been applauding him for it.

Rufus Ham's picture

Guv's Tongue

Hi, Veritas. Maybe my comment was misunderstood? Meant to mean I approve of what our Gov is saying and doing, at least at the present, but wish the Media would move on and keep things in a more Positive atmosphere.

RONALD RIML's picture

You think?? Coulda surprised me.......

Especially considering the above drivel that you wrote, Denny. No indication of a brain cell firing with 'originality' anywhere.

 's picture

The pee brains are out tonight!!

The pee brains are out tonight!!! The Lepage bunch are a bunch of fruit cakes. And just what the fruit cake has become, they pass the same old cake round and round, and none actually takes a bit.

GARY SAVARD's picture

The perfect storm got Paul

The perfect storm got Paul Lepage elected as governor, and all the bottom feeders are nervous, incuding the liberal " Eliot Cutler for Governor" media, and rightly so. For the first time in a long time, being PC in Maine state politics may not buy you squat. The average working persons and small businesses in this state finally have an ear in Augusta. The whining will not end because the powers that have been driving us down the road to government depnndency for survival over the past 30+ years haven't even been able to digest this yet. It's still all a bad dream to them.

 's picture

Picking on and picking apart Paul Lepage.

Well Dave farmer certainlymneeds to desperately find work since his Gravy train came to an end. Perhaps the Sun Journal should have opted to publish the Positive mention of the Governor in this past Tuesday's Ny Times, or better yet reprint the Editorial by Caostal Weekly Writer and Maine Classic Al Diamond.I did see some Rim shots against Paul from a prior Diamond article but the latest editorial serves up a Heapin Healthy Helping of Lepageiana

It seem so fundamental to Me and Al Diamond that all of this foolish Monday Morning Quaterbacking by the Likes of David farmer and other members of the 'Un Elected Eite as Former President Richard M Nixon loathingly referred to the Media,Just demonstrates how out of touch that they are with the Voting Public.

I recall that when George W Bush was Elected outspoken Critics like Alec baldwin and others were quoted as saying they were going to move to Canada , Well I say to Carpet baggers Like david Farmer and his Ilk should pick up stakes and get back across that Mason Dixon Line. We don't need ya

Here is a Thought We who supported Governor Lepage could Care less what the Likes of David farmer pretends to understand what this Administration, after all imagine if you will he has on his resume that he was the press man for Baldacci. Who in their right mind would want to admit that?Also true to his Credit former governor King does maintain a strict rulle to never speak Publicly about Our Governor or previous Governors espicially those who are currently serving

That My fellow Lepage Supporters is the Difference Between Farmer who like his former Boss is also the purveyor of the Cheap shot unlike Angus S King who has shown Us what a Class Act He is. I can just hear Dave farmer playing a Record of Dusty Springfield Singing Wishin and Hopin' Relax Dave you'll never make it to Prime Time.

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