Would you like to relive the COVID-19 pandemic?
I suspect the unanimous answer starts with “Are you” and ends with “nuts?”
But I mean vicariously, in an unmasked, month-by-month way, through the story of the governor of an older, sprawling, less affluent state?
This observational opportunity comes in the form of a new book that focuses on the first year of the pandemic, framing it partly through the engaging letters Ashirah Knapp, an off-the-grid constituent and mother, penned to Maine Governor Janet Mills as Mills struggled to control the spread of a virus that struck, spread, and then surged repeatedly.
“In Other Words, Leadership: How a Young Mother’s Weekly Letters to Her Governor Helped Both Women Brave the First Pandemic Year” was written by longtime public-radio journalist and podcaster Shannon A. Mullen. Homesteaders in their early 40s, Knapp and her husband are raising two children in the central Maine town of Temple, population 530, where they run an outdoor-leadership school. Mullen also had access to relevant sections of Mills’s daily journal.
On Saturday, Maine Senator Angus King moderated a discussion between Mills, Knapp, and Mullen about the book, whose month-by-month narrative brings to life the challenges and choices Maine and Mills faced at any given time.
Although the subject is serious, much of the discussion was laugh-out-loud funny, thanks to the wry raillery of the two Pine Tree State politicians.
On the day she declared a state of civil emergency closing down much of the state, Mills called former governors to ask if they had ever done anything similar. The word from erstwhile governor Joe Brennan was no. But King noted that he had, during the winter storm that brought frozen chaos to northern New England 25 years ago.
“Yes, I did. In the great ice storm of 1998,” Mills recounted him telling her.
“Holy cow. Three whole days!” Mills joked at the event.
“At least a week,” deadpanned King.
King’s advice, Mills said, had been to get out and be with the people and always to tell the truth, whether the news was good or bad.
“Two pieces of advice, one was OK, so a 50 percent average,” quipped King. “In the major leagues, that would be a big deal.”
On a serious note, King had high praise for Mills, saying she made well-considered but tough decisions whose negative economic and personal impacts were felt immediately but whose benefits — the prevention of illness and death — were much harder to quantify or even to realize, and so carried little political reward.
“I’ve never seen a person make so many hard decisions over such a long period of time,” said the independent US senator.
Which is the same quality that led Knapp to begin her regular handwritten letters to the governor.
“I was completely amazed at the level and intensity of the rancor that was being aimed at this woman,” Knapp said. Feeling that Mills was providing smart, humane, science-based leadership, “I wanted to support her in the face of everything that was coming at her.” For her part, Mills said she drew solace from the expressions of support and details of daily life she received from Knapp.
Mullen’s well-researched book shows the difficulties that faced a governor trying to do the right thing even as then-president Donald Trump was mocking mask-wearing and pressuring governors to reopen their states. At one point, a frustrated Mills vented to her journal that then-first lady Melania Trump should file for divorce.
“In Other Words, Leadership” also offers a look at some of the Brueghelian boors and buffoons Mills encountered as she worked to protect the state.
There was, for example, the Sanford-based fundamentalist pastor who flouted COVID travel, social distancing, and mask-wearing regulations as a way of drawing attention to himself. A wedding he presided over in Millinocket, some 70 miles north of Bangor, became a super-spreader event.
Meanwhile, the owner of a popular ski-area microbrewery took to Fox News to blast Mills for her COVID regulations. He divulged her personal cellphone number, leading to a barrage of nasty voice and text messages. The governor wasn’t flustered, but later she was blunt. The stunt, she told Mullen, was a “dirtball thing to do.”
Last fall, voters rewarded Mills with an easy victory over polarizing former Republican governor Paul LePage. Now, Mullen’s enjoyable book is shining some well-deserved light on the low-key governor whose level-headed leadership helped guide Maine out of the woods.