It was a book for the ages, a look back, but with plenty of advice and insight into the future of politics in Maine.
In 2002, Christian Potholm’s book, “The Delights of Democracy,” included flattering book jacket endorsements from U.S. Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins. But it was Gov. Angus King’s comments that made me laugh.
Potholm, a Bowdoin College professor and Maine’s most successful and savvy political pollster and strategist, had been a top consultant for King’s gubernatorial campaign.
“Look, I had to pay a bundle for some of this advice,” wrote King. “Getting it for the price of this book is a steal.”
A lot of people in and out of politics read the book, which is still relevant today. It is witty, entertaining, wise, insightful and it even says nice things about me. OK, so Potholm doesn’t always get it right.
But he certainly got it right for me, and set my life’s course of political activism, when he hired me to be Bill Cohen’s driver in Cohen’s first congressional campaign, which Potholm managed.
If you read this book you will be a better-informed voter, with much more understanding of the behind-the-scenes processes that manipulate your opinions and votes. Yup, you are being manipulated. But you also might be inspired to participate in the delights of democracy, as Potholm so aptly describes our country’s system of politics and government.
He even tells you how to make your vote count twice. And it’s legal!
Most importantly, Potholm will set you straight on a number of hot-button issues that continue to drive our votes today, but in more mysterious ways than we understand. Abortion, gay rights, gun control — they are all illuminated here by Maine’s most masterful political operative.
Favorite chapters include “Mt. McKinley,” in which Potholm writes about political activists, who flood the gubernatorial race with clean elections candidates at $1 million apiece of tax money. It’s one of my fantasies.
And Potholm’s enlightening explanation of the gun-control battle, in a chapter titled, “The Right to Arm Bears,” bears reading by both sides of that ongoing war.
And I’ll bet you didn’t know that “males who don’t care about the issue,” decided one of the most contentious referendums about abortion.
The eclectic Bowdoin professor mixes in some marvelous anecdotes from his own life, including the Christmas holidays during which he and his cousin shot rats out of the car on Baxter Boulevard in Portland. Probably not still doing that these days.
The chapter on Francos is a must read. Potholm was the first to focus on the important swing votes that Francos bring to Maine’s polling places every election. The collective votes of Francos will be critical this year in the bear referendum.
Potholm argues — with plenty of illustrative cases to back up his opinion — that money doesn’t win campaigns in Maine. “Often more money is spent in a losing cause,” he reported.
He cites five examples. The side with the most money lost the bottle-bill contest in 1979, the telephone measured-service referendum in 1986, the Forest Compact I in 1996, Forest Compact II in 1997, and gay rights campaign in 1998.
This book profiles some great Mainers, including Chuck Cianchette, Jack Havey and John Day, but the most moving piece is about Potholm’s cousin, Charles Petersen, who died in May of 2000 after a heroic battle with cancer. Every teacher — because Petersen was a teacher — and indeed, every other reader, will be inspired by this story.
Whatever your political party and persuasion, you will gain important insight into your own political standing in the chapter titled, “Free To Be Me.” It turns out you are not free to be you. Your politics is determined by your parents’ politics.
Apparently, I am the exception to this Potholm rule. Linda and I raised our three children to think for themselves, and they all became Democrats. I can only hope there are other exceptions to the Potholm rule out there in some Maine Democratic families that are raising Republicans.
The book includes thoughtful essays about national issues and politics, including 9/11, the Bush and Clinton administrations, democracy with a small d and a big D, and even African politics — ironically one of Potholm’s specialties.
Like today’s supermarket, this book has something for everyone. Walk down the aisle and you’ll pick a lot of good stuff off the shelves.