Maine Gov. Paul LePage’s capacity for churlishness is extraordinary even in the context of the Trump era.

Not only does LePage go into pit-bull attack mode whenever he encounters political opposition or criticism, he even forgoes the opportunity to exploit a feel-good moment when it presents itself unbidden, opting instead, to behave in a “snarky” and “rude” manner.

The terms “snarky” and “rude” are not mine, but those which Hope Osgood, a 16-year-old Camden Hills Regional High School student, used to describe the governor’s response to a letter she wrote to LePage to express her concern about the negative impact the pending repeal of internet “net neutrality” rules could have on her schoolwork.

LePage’s curt response, handwritten on the face of Hope’s letter, was “Hope. Pick up a book and read!” The note was signed, “Governor.” Hope was unimpressed by the reply, as was her grandfather, who told a newspaper that, though he had voted twice for LePage for governor, he wouldn’t do so again if he ran for the U.S. Senate.

Granted that LePage has no control over the net neutrality rules, since that’s the province of the Federal Communications Commission. Granted also that net neutrality, an Obama era initiative, is symbolic to many in the GOP of Democratic interference in, and overregulation of, free market enterprise. What’s more, many of us who are of LePage’s generation would share his sentiment that school-age children should spend more time poring over books and less staring at a computer screen.

But couldn’t LePage have found a more tactful way of saying these things and perhaps even of turning Hope’s letter into a teaching moment? Isn’t that, after all, what leaders are supposed to do?

The episode calls to mind a famous letter exchange between the Soviet leader Yuri Andropov and a Maine school child, Samantha Smith. Andropov, who became General Secretary of the Communist Party (in effect, leader of the Soviet Union) on Nov. 10, 1982, was hardly a gentle or sentimental man. He was an iron-fisted ruler in what was then the planet’s most repressive state. He was a former head of the KGB (the Soviet secret police), had played key roles in crushing the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and Czechoslovakia’s “Prague Spring” in 1968, and was known for his brutal suppression of dissidents.

In November 1982, Samantha, then a 10-year-old elementary school student living in Manchester, Maine, wrote a famous letter to Andropov in which she expressed, with child-like sincerity and naiveté, her concern about the risk of nuclear war between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. during the Reagan era:

Dear Mr. Andropov,

My name is Samantha Smith. I am ten years old. Congratulations on your new job. I have been worrying about Russia and the United States getting into a nuclear war. Are you going to vote to have a war or not? If you aren’t please tell me how you are going to help to not have a war. This question you do not have to answer, but I would like to know why you want to conquer the world or at least our country. God made the world for us to live together in peace and not to fight.

Sincerely,

Samantha Smith

Her letter was first published in the Soviet newspaper Pravda. Then on April 26, 1983, Samantha received a response from Andropov. In his letter, the Soviet leader complimented Samantha, “It seems to me – I can tell by your letter – that you are a courageous and honest girl, resembling Becky, the friend of Tom Sawyer in the famous book of your compatriot Mark Twain.” He assured her that her question was vitally important and of great concern to his country, writing, “Your question is the most important of those that every thinking man can pose. I will reply to you seriously and honestly. Yes, Samantha, we in the Soviet Union are trying to do everything so that there will not be war on Earth.” Finally, he invited and her parents to visit the Soviet Union.

This exchange became a media sensation. In July 1983, Samantha toured the Soviet Union for two weeks as Andropov’s guest, was amazed at how friendly the Russian people acted towards her, and declared at a Moscow press conference that the Russians were “just like us.” She was unable to meet Andropov face-to-face (though they spoke by phone), since he was, by then, gravely ill. (He would die on Feb. 9, 1984).

Samantha’s visit inspired other exchanges of child goodwill ambassadors and may even have signaled the start of a thaw in U.S.-Soviet relations, which culminated in an epic summit meeting between Andropov’s successor, Mikhail Gorbachev, and President Ronald Reagan in October 1986 and an Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 1987.

Unfortunately Samantha, who was killed in a tragic accident when the plane in which she was traveling crashed while attempting to land at the Auburn Lewiston Airport on Aug. 25, 1985, didn’t live to see the peaceful developments she had wished for.

It is ironic that the remarkable achievements of Samantha’s short life were inspired by the words of a political leader who had neither experience in nor sympathy for democracy. If Andropov could react appropriately to Samantha Smith, I don’t see why a democratically elected governor couldn’t do at least as well with Hope Osgood.

So here’s my suggestion to Gov. LePage for the sort of letter he might write if the occasion to respond to a Hope Osgood presents itself again:

Dear Hope,

I thank you for your letter and the time and thought you put into writing it. Net neutrality is an issue which has stirred up a lot of vigorous debate and legitimate concern, and that’s a healthy thing for our democracy. My own view is that too much government regulation is not good for the economy, the market will sort things out and competition among internet providers will lead to an even better experience for users. Please understand, however, that I have no power over the repeal of these rules, as I am only a state governor and the rules are made in Washington. Nevertheless, I am proud to lead a state which is filled with intelligent, curious and engaged youngsters like you. Keep asking the hard questions and looking for the right answers. My best wishes for your future success, and please visit me at the Blaine House when you come to Augusta.

Your governor,

Paul LePage

It wouldn’t be so difficult to pen a note like that. Would it, governor?

Elliott Epstein


Comments are not available on this story.