As I watched Jon Wertheim’s Jan. 10 interview of Maine’s junior Sen. Angus King on the iconic CBS television program “60 Minutes,” I felt my pulse and respiration rate slow and a sense of serenity come over me.

That’s how you’re supposed to feel after a yoga session, not after listening to a politician speak. But it was a healthy antidote to the stressful events of the prior week. More than that, it gave me hope for the future.

In the interview, King was soft-spoken, calm, conversational, measured and pragmatic. Even his condemnation of the behavior of protestors who had stormed the Capitol building four days earlier was tempered by a sympathetic understanding of their motivations.

Normally I find it hard to tolerate television interviews of members of Congress. Whether they appear on Fox News or CNN, they tend to sound like Robocalls, mouthing slogans that are simplistic, grievance-laden and misleading — designed to appeal to the gut, not the mind.

Over the past four years, President Donald Trump raised this rhetorical technique to a low art form, coining slogans that became part of the political idiom —“make America great again,” “build the wall,” “lock her up,” “drain the swamp,” “repeal and replace,” “impeachment witch hunt,” “Russia collusion hoax,” and, most notorious of all, “stop the steal.”

Doubtless such catchphrases, endlessly repeated, evoked vivid images and triggered powerful emotions in the minds of those Trump supporters who broke into the Capitol. They constituted, in fact, a masterful demonstration of the technique perfected by Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels to mold the German psyche during the Third Reich from 1933 to 1945.

Goebbels cynically described the methodology: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”

And he employed every medium to propagate the lie: radio, newspapers, books, films, posters, speeches, rallies and pageants — saturating Germany society with it. Indeed, Nazi propaganda cast its spell on Germans even as Allied bombers were reducing their cities to rubble and Allied armies overrunning their homeland in the final months of World War II.

King is different in both tone and substance than most of his colleagues.

Whether or not you agree with him, his is the voice of reason and moderation rather than the war cry of an ideological storm trooper.

King doesn’t just talk the talk, he walks the walk. He’s an Independent. Though he’s unaffiliated with either major political party, GOP talking heads routinely dismiss him as just another Democrat because he caucuses with the Senate Democrats. Yet in 2019, GovTrack rated him as the 42d most liberal Senator out of 100. In other words, his voting record on legislation placed him ideologically near the center of the pack, and, if anything, a bit to the right of center.

In the 60 Minutes interview, King explained that he became an Independent in 1994, because he didn’t feel comfortable with the Democrats “on the taxation, regulation side,” didn’t feel comfortable with the Republicans on the “social side,” and decided instead to “take a path up the middle.”

So how has King survived and seemingly thrived in D.C.’s political eco-system, which values tribal loyalty and mindless verbal aggression over political compromise and rational thinking?

Part of it likely is due to his schooling and diverse life experiences. He grew up in a middle-class family in Alexandria, Virginia, and got a blue-chip education at Dartmouth College and University of Virginia Law School before moving to Maine.

Prior to his first campaign for the Senate in 2012, he worked for a public interest law firm in Skowhegan and a small private law firm in Brunswick, served as a legislative assistant to former U.S. Sen. William Hathaway and as chief counsel to the Senate Subcommittee on Alcoholism and Narcotics, hosted a statewide public television political talk show, founded, built and sold successful entrepreneurial ventures devoted to energy conservation and wind power, served as a popular two-time governor of Maine, and lectured at Bowdoin and Bates colleges.

King’s approach might not have worked, however, were it not for a longstanding tradition of independence and moderation in Maine political life. Over the past 50 years, Republican senators William Cohen, Olympia Snowe and (at least until the Trump era) Susan Collins have enjoyed successful careers as practitioners of bi-partisan cooperation. King ascribed this traditional moderation to the nature of the state’s small-town life, where people learn to get along because everyone knows one another and because “repeat business is all there is.”

But what about the shifting political trends in Maine during the past decade — notably Paul LePage’s two terms as governor and the Second District’s strong support for Trump during the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections? Don’t these suggest the state’s politics are moving away from moderation and towards the irrationality, anger and intolerance that marks public discourse at the national level?

King attributed the shift to the increasing sense of hopelessness of rural Maine’s workforce due to the disappearance of local economic drivers such as paper mills. ”They did what they were supposed to do, and yet the world got pulled out from under them,” King said of Trump’s strong following in Northern Maine. “They’re profoundly alienated from the system.”

His prescription for the problem is what he calls “eloquent listening.” “They have to be listened to,” he said. ”And we have to try to understand what’s going on. It’s cultural and someone economic. …It’s a very complicated matter, but we can’t just dismiss it.”

And listen he does! For years, he’s cruised the Maine on his Harley motorcycle, meeting and talking with constituents. “I’ve found you can learn from anybody,” King said, including those “who have different views than I do.” King laughingly recalled one of them telling him, “Angus, you’re always going to be a rider, you’ll never be a biker.”

Perhaps Angus King will never qualify as a real biker! But as long as he keeps riding with bikers he’ll remain a good public servant.

Elliott Epstein is a trial lawyer with Andrucki & King in Lewiston. His Rearview Mirror column, which has appeared in the Sun Journal for 10 years, analyzes current events in an historical context. He is also the author of “Lucifer’s Child,” a book about the notorious 1984 child murder of Angela Palmer. He may be contacted at [email protected]

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