I’m not sure what the protocol is for this sort of thing, so I’m just going to go ahead and do it:

I hereby proclaim today Adrienne Bennett Appreciation Day.

I’m not kidding. After all she’s been through, first as Gov. Paul LePage’s press secretary and now as his director of communications, Bennett deserves at last one day when all of Maine pauses to thank her for her willingness, day in and day out, to explain the man who defies explanation.

Just ask a few of her predecessors.

“I worked for a governor who would listen,” recalled David Farmer, who served for four years as Gov. John Baldacci’s communications director, in an interview Tuesday. “I’m not sure the current governor does that — and I think that makes Adrienne’s job very difficult.”

If not downright impossible.

Bennett’s latest travails stem from LePage’s claim on July 25 that Maine students are looked down upon by colleges and universities throughout the United States. And that the College of William & Mary in Virginia will not look at an application from Maine without first requiring a placement exam to see if you qualify.

The latest in a long line of “say what?” moments came during a news conference intended to spur LePage’s education agenda. That objective, like so many before it, got swept away in the stream of consciousness that runs unchecked from LePage’s perpetually closed mind to his ever-open mouth.

Still, lest we digress, our focus today is not on the Big Guy. It’s on the poor woman we pay to stand between us and LePage and, like a loyal soldier in a losing battle, stand her ground even while the general beats a hasty retreat.

In an email Tuesday, Bennett politely declined comment on just how tough a summer this has been. She didn’t need to — her attempts to contain the damage from LePage’s latest gaffes demonstrate the futility of speaking for a guy who sees facts as a luxury that his administration simply can’t afford.

Late last week, after officials at William & Mary stated not once but twice that they treat Maine students just like everyone else, Bennett bravely stepped up and told Kennebec Journal reporter Susan McMillan that “someone at the school” told LePage about the nonexistent exam way back in 2005 … or maybe it was 2006.

Someone from the college?

“That’s my understanding,” said Bennett.

Then, on Monday, Bennett told the Bangor Daily News that the “looked down upon” quote came not from any single experience or empirical evidence. Rather, it sprang from Guv’s own “life experience.”

“He’s a businessman. It’s from his life experience of talking to people,” Bennett told the newspaper. “While it’s anecdotal, he believes it.”

Note that Bennett no longer claimed it was true — because it isn’t. All she could do was draw a line between reality and LePage Land and infer, with the poker face that’s now familiar to all of Maine, that her boss prefers the latter.

The diss of his entire state, of course, came right on the heels of LePage’s now-infamous description of the Internal Revenue Service as “the new Gestapo” during a radio rant last month against the Affordable Care Act.

Even as that one lit up the national news wires, a clearly frustrated Bennett told the Maine media that when she wrote the radio remarks for LePage, the Gestapo reference was not included. It came, she said, after “healthy dialogue” about whether it was on-message and, more importantly, an appropriate thing for Maine’s chief executive to say.

Put more simply, Bennett tried to talk LePage out of uttering something that was as moronic as it was offensive. He then went ahead and said it anyway.

And therein lies Bennett’s dilemma.

As former Baldacci spokesman Farmer observed, “You can only do so much to protect someone from themselves. And I think this governor is much different in form and function than at least the other governors I’ve known.”

Talk to Farmer and other past gubernatorial mouthpieces and a palpable sympathy for Bennett emerges, along with a sense that her place in front of the media is not augmented by a much-needed spot in the governor’s inner circle.

Dennis Bailey, who was spokesman for Gov. Angus King, said he took the job on the condition that he have unfettered access to the man at the top.

“If I didn’t have access, I didn’t feel like a could do my job,” said Bailey. In Bennett’s case, he said, “I get a sense that she’s not in on the ground floor.”

Worse yet, Bailey said, Bennett doesn’t appear to play a big role in crafting a message even after LePage’s foot-in-mouth moments hijack the news cycle. Rather, he said, LePage “changes his story from day to day, so she has to too.”

“You want to be in there while they’re cooking up that story so you can say, ‘Wait a minute, I’m not sure that’s going to work,'” Bailey said. “But I don’t think that’s her job.”

Even Dan Demeritt, who ran LePage’s communications operation for just over a year and now writes an op-ed column for this newspaper, noted that LePage’s “communications mishaps” made the press office “a challenging environment to work in.”

Doubling back to clarify a policy statement or fix a flawed statistic is one thing, Demeritt said. But when a governor tells his own state that it’s “looked down upon” by the rest of the country, well, that’s quite another.

“You can’t fix that,” Demeritt said. “You can’t go back and explain that away.”

Yet that is what Bennett tries, time and again, to do. And in the process, her name becomes interchangeable with that of the governor who seems hellbent on turning his home state into a national punch line.

I know, I know, nobody forced Bennett to take the job. And she’s free to walk away anytime it becomes unbearable.

But I can’t help but feel sorry for the woman as she looks into the camera and takes one hit after another for a governor who has done nothing to earn such loyalty.

“She’s shown a toughness that cannot be denied,” said Farmer, who remembers Bennett as a competent Bangor-based television reporter who once covered the Baldacci administration. “I mean she’s tough as nails, buddy, and she’s taking it.”

Unlike the buffoon hiding behind her.

 

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