Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Press Releases: Gov-speak

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Governor Paul LePage famously (and perhaps in jest) threatened to punch MPBN reporter AJ Higgins in the face, back during the 2010 gubernatorial campaign. He probably wants to do it again this week, since Higgins was first to report on the simulated interview LePage did last week with his own employee, Adrienne Bennett, about the changes in Maine's tax code that took effect January 1.
But the brief flurry of publicity about the five-minute clip missed the takeaway. Yes, it was filled with questions both softball and obviously partisan. ("How is it that now you're getting pushback from Democrats in particular about putting more money back into the pockets of Mainers?" is not only the lead-off question but the setup of the entire farcical premise.)
And Bennett, a former TV broadcaster, is not identified by her title (Director of Communications for the Governor's Office) in the actual video — though she is in the text accompanying the video's posting on LePage's official YouTube page; she gives the famously bullying and belligerent governor a calm, friendly reception. She clearly reads from a prepared script of pre-approved questions, and parrots long-disgraced Republican talking points: "A tax cut can stimulate an economy. We know that," she claims, when that's basically never true, and certainly not when the tax cut is in the wealthy-and-corporate-welfare form proposed by LePage and his GOP buddies.
But most importantly, the structure of the piece is so clearly edited, with cuts in both video and audio that would never have passed muster in an actual journalistic interview, that we begin to see LePage's serious tendency toward blundering, even in the most coddling of surroundings (with not only a patsy asking questions but filmed by state Department of Transportation employees, Higgins reports).
We've known since his campaign that LePage is a loose cannon, lurching about the decks of state government, firing (and misfiring) indiscriminately. Now we begin to get a glimpse behind the curtain — things appear to be so bad he can't hold a simple, friendly, five-minute conversation with someone whose career he controls, without going off-message in unproductive ways.
• For contrast this weekend we were offered a roughly similar amount of time watching FORMER GOVERNOR ANGUS KING, now an independent US senator, on an actual journalistic television program, NBC's Meet the Press.
King appeared in a debt-ceiling roundtable with some heavy hitters: former GOP House speaker Newt Gingrich; current House Democratic Caucus leader Xavier Becerra (D-California); the Washington Post's EJ Dionne; and Carly Fiorina, a business executive and vice-chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Moderator David Gregory handed King the first question, and it set the stage for what may become King's m.o. both publicly and privately. First, he answered with a universal, nonpartisan truth: "People have lost confidence in the ability of our government to do anything." Then he turned the conflict itself into the problem at issue, rather than the debt ceiling or other budgetary details: "It's the inability of our government to work in a way to solve these problems that itself, I think, is a drag on the economy." He finished with a statement of principle that's both hard to argue with and rarely found in Washington: "The solutions are more important than the parties."
He found agreement from Gingrich (who described the current DC climate as "exactly the opposite of healthy self-government"), Becerra ("This is no way to run government"), and Fiorina (who urged talking real facts, not political infighting). Then King stayed quiet for most of the rest of the 20-minute segment, adding a short interjection about the facts of the debt ceiling (it's not about future spending, but the past), and finally answering another Gregory question about his independent status: "I could have frank discussions with both sides without being viewed as a member of the enemy camp."
For a non-career politician whose experience is in the executive and not the legislative branch, it was an impressive national debut, and all the stronger for its contrast with LePage's charade.