The Colonel & the Governor: JFB column in New York Times

June 11, 2012, 9:52 PM
The Colonel and the Governor


By JENNIFER FINNEY BOYLAN
I had last seen Angus King standing on the shores of Maine’s Casco Bay, reading from the autobiography of Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. This was at a benefit for Maine writers and publishers back in 2009. Chamberlain, a revered figure in Maine, was the Bowdoin College professor who prevented the flanking of Federal lines on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, and who might, as a result, have single-handedly saved the Union.

Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain

Comparing King to Chamberlain is a stretch, although it’s true that the two bear more than a slight resemblance to each other, what with the craggy features and the gray mustaches. And like Chamberlain, King has not only served the state as governor (from 1995 to 2003), but he has also taught at Bowdoin (on “Leaders and Leadership”). Still, there are big differences. Chamberlain, for instance, returned to Bowdoin after the war and became its president. King, for his part, set out the day after he left the governor’s office and toured the country with his family in a giant recreational vehicle. (“It wasn’t what’s the legislature going to do with this or that. It was, will the next RV park have a dump station?”)

Still, a connection between the two men may come naturally to some Maine voters, many of whom see the current political system as in need of a fix, and who yearn for someone to face down Congressional partisanship, the gridlock-fighting equivalent of Chamberlain’s resistance against the charging Alabamians on Little Round Top in 1863.

Maine primary voters decide this week between the Republican and Democratic Party candidates who hope to run for Olympia Snowe’s Senate seat. The front-runners, according to polls, include Charles Summers, the Secretary of State, on the Republican side, and State Senator Cynthia Dill and former Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap on the Democratic. Angus King, running as an Independent, commands 56 percent of the vote in a three-way matchup with Summers (21 percent) and Dunlop (12.1 percent) , according to a recent poll taken by the Maine People’s Resource Center.

If King is elected, and if, as some observers predict, the Senate winds up with 50 Republican Senators and 49 Democratic and/or affiliated Independents, then Angus King — who won’t say which party he’ll caucus with — may indeed provide the swing vote in the upper chamber (if, that is, President Obama wins re-election).

It’d be hard to find a more popular politician in Maine than King, except, perhaps, for Chamberlain himself. And by popular, I mean the Colonel has a beer named after him, Shipyard’s Chamberlain Pale Ale. (According to a commenter at beeradvocate.com, it has a “delicious nose” and is “well balanced,” which is more than you can say about most senators.) He’s the one 19th-century Mainer most Americans could probably name, thanks in part to Jeff Daniels’s generous portrayal of him in the film “Gettysburg.” The high point of the movie may be the moment Chamberlain orders the charge, shouting “Bayonets!”

When I took my teenage sons — lifelong Mainers, both of them — to Gettysburg two years ago, they immediately squatted down behind the wall on Little Round Top, picked up tree limbs to use as rifles, and took aim. “The Colonel’s orders,” my older son explained with deadly seriousness, “are to hold this position to the last.”

On June 8th, I visited King’s campaign headquarters in Brunswick for a conversation with the candidate that was, by turns, literary, historical and paradoxical. The first thing I noticed upon entering the offices were the three portraits hanging on the wall — Ronald Reagan, Margaret Chase Smith and Bobby Kennedy. When I asked about this unlikely grouping, King said, “If I’m not confusing to people, they aren’t paying attention.”

“I think I’m on to something politically,” he added. “As I go out and talk to people, the No. 1 thing that people want to talk about is the gridlock in Washington. It comes up 90 percent of the time. More so than health care, energy, the price of gas. People are really angry and fed up. The most common comment, ‘Go down and fix it.’ ”

Angus King

The excerpt from “The Passing of the Armies” I’d heard him read described the surrender of the Confederates at Appomattox. It was Chamberlain whom Grant appointed to receive the surrender, and the colonel created great controversy in the North by ordering his men to give the Southern troops a full salute as they lay down their weapons. “Ah, is this Pickett’s Division?” Chamberlain wrote later:

This little group left of those who on the lurid last day of Gettysburg breasted level cross-fire and thunderbolts of storm, to be strewn back drifting wrecks, where after that awful, futile, pitiful charge we buried them in graves a furlong wide, with names unknown!
How, Chamberlain asked, “could we help falling on our knees, all of us together, and praying God to pity and forgive us all!”

It’s hard to imagine a contemporary politician making a gesture as conciliatory as Chamberlain’s. “But compromise in human affairs is utterly necessary in order to do anything. The constitution itself is rife with compromises. The U.S. Senate itself is the product of compromise,” King told me. “To have people going to the United States Senate who say they don’t believe in compromise is paradoxical and ironic, because it wouldn’t exist but for compromise.”

Politicians who aspire to independence, however, can be thwarted by the binary nature of the Senate. “The current partisan system is severely broken,” King said, “and we can’t fix any of the problems that face the country until we start to talk to one another. Therefore, my intention and expectation and hope is to remain as independent as I can as long as I can. If I can remain fully independent and simply vote on issues according to what I think is best for the country and best for the people of Maine, that’s what I’ll do.”

King will caucus with one of the parties if he has to, however. “If the rules are such that I have to make some commitment to one or the other of the caucuses in order to have a committee assignment, then I’ll do it, because it wouldn’t be fair to Maine to go down there and not be a fully effective, functioning senator. The question then becomes, what does caucusing mean? Part of my decision will be based upon what the two caucuses offer in that regard. If one of them says, ‘All you have to do is vote with us once, to organize the Senate, and after that you’re a free agent, but in exchange for that you’ll be able to be on committees,’ that’s an appealing offer.”

On the whole, King governed from the middle of the road during his tenure in Augusta. He took the controversial position of requiring all school employees to be fingerprinted. He also began the Maine Learning Technology Initiative, which provided Apple laptop computers for all middle schoolers.

He’s supporting Barack Obama for president in 2012, as he did in 2008, after supporting Kerry in 2004. In 2000 he supported George W. Bush.

Maine has a long history of autonomous politicians: Margaret Chase Smith, who delivered her “Declaration of Conscience” on the Senate floor in 1950, criticizing Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee; William Cohen, the lone Republican in Bill Clinton’s cabinet; or, for that matter, outgoing Senator Olympia Snowe herself. (The National Republican Senatorial Committee ran an anti-King ad shortly after he announced his candidacy, suggesting that King had made a secret deal with Democrats to caucus with them, an accusation King describes as “bunk.”)

I asked King if there is something particular to Maine that has created an environment friendly to autonomous politicians. “I think it may go back into the history of the state,” he said. “The people who built this state were independent in the sense of what they did. Who built Maine? Farmers, fishermen and foresters. Those are essentially independent pursuits. The people who came here were flinty, tough, resilient independent people.”

It may be that King is exactly the right man for the moment, like the Colonel on Little Round Top. But there’s another Chamberlain as well, the one who infuriated people with his autonomy, not least by his refusal to support the impeachment of Andrew Johnson. “The Republicans assumed he was going to help them (with the impeachment),” noted King, “that he was going to tilt in their direction, and he didn’t, and they never forgave him. He probably would have been a United States Senator. But he was considered too undependable, and independent.”

After our conversation, I left the King campaign headquarters and drove through the rain to the Pine Grove cemetery, where Chamberlain is buried. His stone was covered with coins left by admirers — pennies bearing the portrait of Chamberlain’s commander in chief. Chamberlain, who died in 1914 of the wounds he received at Petersburg, Va., is said to be the last casualty of the Civil War.

I’d asked the governor what the colonel would say if he found himself in Washington in 2012.

“Charge,” said King. “Bayonets.”

Jennifer Finney Boylan is professor of English at Colby College in Maine. She is the author of twelve books, including “She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders.” Her next book, “Stuck in the Middle with You: Parenthood in Three Genders,” will be published by Random House in 2013.

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