“If we only had 50 Maines, we’d be all right.” That was the conclusion historian and author Rick Perlstein presented at the annual Maine town meeting at the Margaret Chase Smith Library in Skowhegan.
The theme this year was “The Past, Present, and Future of Bipartisanship.” Perlstein and Sen. Angus King were the speakers for this entertaining, informative and stimulating morning, topped off by a delicious lunch catered by Skowhegan’s Heritage House restaurant.
Perlstein spent time in 1998 at the Smith Library researching his book about the 1964 presidential election, in which Smith, then a U.S. senator, was a Republican candidate. His talk was fascinating, focused on his new book to be published in August, titled “The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan.” He says that period, with its resurgence of conservatives, reshaped the nation’s politics over the last half-century.
Most interesting was his contention that, to create true bipartisanship, we need more ideological partisanship by Democrats and less by Republicans. He used President Richard Nixon’s impeachment to demonstrate how “soothing” bipartisanship can be, mentioning our own Republican Congressman Bill Cohen’s vote to impeach the nation’s Republican president.
My first paid political job was as Cohen’s driver in his 1972 congressional campaign, and I’ve always been proud of him and his service, including his vote to impeach Nixon. I had quit my banking job early in 1972 to campaign in New Hampshire for U.S. Rep. Pete McClosky of California, who was running against Nixon in the Republican primary. I got the job with Cohen after I returned home from New Hampshire.
Nixon kept things bipartisan, Perlstein said, and after he left office, Republicans became much more partisan. He also noted that political parties became a lot weaker after Nixon’s Watergate scandal, and Democratic candidates for Congress prevailed in most of the country. Maine bucked that trend with the election of Republican David Emery, whose campaign I managed, to Congress in 1974. That was also the year independent Jim Longley was elected governor. I have always loved the contrariness of Mainers.
Without doubt, Perlstein is right. If the old slogan, “as Maine goes so goes the nation,” was still valid, our country would be better for it.
We’d also be better off if we had more senators like Angus King. The cover of the day’s program featured a photo of King, as a Dartmouth student, and Smith, on campus for her presidential campaign. He told some wonderful stories about Smith, with whom he and his family occasionally lunched when he lived in Skowhegan.
“She always paid,” he said. Then one day, he snuck away to pay the bill before she could. “She was irate,” he reported. And the next time they dined together, she went to the restaurant the day before and paid in advance.
King offered us several observations about the U.S. Senate, which, he said, “is full of ordinary people — pretty good people. We have real differences in approach and philosophy, but all want to do good.”
Nevertheless, the Senate “really is a partisan place,” he noted, “not toxic nor poisonous nor personally partisan, (just) partisan institutionally.” He believes we are fortunate that 20 women serve in the Senate — the most ever.
“In the last four months, the Senate has done four or five significant acts, including the farm bill, budget and flood insurance, and all were led by women,” he reported.
Senators have little chance to develop personal relationships, because — unlike in Smith’s day — “no one lives in D.C. anymore.” Senators fly in to D.C. on Monday morning and out on Thursday afternoon. King is trying to address that problem by hosting small dinner parties for senators, with his wife Mary, at their small D.C. home. He’s also organized a caucus of the 11 former governors now serving in the Senate.
He reported that senators agree on 80 percent of the issues, but then reported that the previous week had been very disappointing. Nevertheless, King seemed optimistic, delighted to be working in such an “amazing, thrilling place.”
Then, just to demonstrate his own bipartisanship, he stepped outside the library and endorsed Sen. Susan Collins for re-election. Collins had attended the morning’s presentation.
If you have never been to the Margaret Chase Smith library, visit there this summer. In the kitchen, Bill Lewis and Smith wrote her famous “Declaration of Conscience” speech, Memorial Day, 1950. It is still very pertinent.