Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press/File
OAKLAND, Maine — I visit it so rarely and so haplessly that the first tee of any golf course is never my happy place. So imagine the chills that ran down my spine when I spotted the smiling man in the crisp red shirt standing there Monday morning, the one who hates me.
Actually, he hates not just me, but everyone I’ve ever worked with. He thinks mankind would be vastly better off without all of us.
So I approached him gingerly, stuck out my hand, and summoned every inch of the decorum that was drilled into me by the nuns in parochial school.
“Good morning, Governor LePage,’’ I began.
That would be Paul LePage, the pugnacious second-term Republican chief executive of Maine, the same guy who told a Portland radio station last week that he’d rather catch diphtheria than spend time with a reporter.
Actually, because I need to be careful to get this perfectly right — something LePage assured me the press almost never does — here’s exactly what he said: “The sooner the print press goes away, the better society will be.’’
It was a lovely summer’s morning. All around us golfers were rushing for their carts, ready to begin a tournament to benefit Blaine House, the governor’s residence in Augusta that dates to 1833.
But first I had a question for LePage. Surely, governor, you don’t wish for the vaporization of the press.
“I mean that,’’ he said evenly. “I sincerely mean that from the bottom of my heart. I think our universities and our written press in this country have gone overboard. They attacked me for just telling the truth. I mean I kept track of every drug dealer who came into the state. It’s not my fault that 93 percent of them are one color. It’s not my fault. That’s the facts.’’
Not exactly the how-‘bout-them-Red-Sox or what’s-your-handicap golf course banter that’s typically overheard before the first Titleist hits the first sand trap.
But in case you haven’t been paying attention, there’s been nothing typical about the way Paul LePage has governed Maine since he was elected in a three-way race in 2010 during the Tea Party’s electoral tsunami.
He’s presided over angry press conferences. He’s traced the state’s opioid crisis to blacks and Hispanics pouring into Maine from out of state. In 2011, he told the NAACP to “kiss my butt.’’ He once joked about blowing up the Portland Press Herald.
He was also easily reelected in 2014.
“I find a lot of what he says outrageous,’’ said Ken Altshuler, a morning radio host on Portland’s WGAN who was at this week’s golf tournament here. “It plays well to conservative Mainers. It plays well to the Tea Partiers. It plays well to the same people who elected Donald Trump, the people who say I want the anti-politician politician. Paul LePage is the anti-politician. He really is.’’
Yes. Want more evidence? He told WGAN last week that sometimes he just makes stuff up to trap and confuse reporters.
“I just love to sit in my office and make up ways so they’ll write these stupid stories because they are just so stupid,’’ he said.
Governor, you’re making things up and you love doing it?
He tilted his head and smiled.
“The reporters of the ’50s and ’60s would check their stories,’’ he said. “They would do research. They’d do investigations and they’d sit down and write a story. Today, it’s like they hear a rumor and they run and that’s the headline.
“I haven’t read the newspapers since 2010. My wife and my kids and my staff read it and they tell me what the gist is. And I am the most hated person in the media. Yeah, I’m fine with that. I enjoy it because I’ve been an honest person my whole life.’’
After all that, a genial LePage asked me to do something that I’m not sure is possible: Don’t take his words personally. It’s not you, he basically said. It’s what you do.
“I don’t dislike individuals,’’ he said. “I hate the system. Technology’s moved ahead so fast that reporters can’t keep up. Everything’s a sound bite. We live in a sound-bite world.’’
And then, surrounded by the beauty of Waterville Country Club, the man who has become the accidental full-employment act for Maine reporters proceeded to supply some doozy sound bites of his own.
On US Senator Angus King, a political independent and himself a former governor of Maine: “He’s the biggest culprit in this state. The worst governor in my lifetime. . . . He’s not a Mainer and he’s taken Mainers to the cleaners.’’
On Massachusetts Republican Governor Charlie Baker: “I think Charlie Baker’s a nice man. But he wants to get reelected in a tough state. He’s not doing what he needs to do. Charlie Baker’s governing to the newspapers instead of governing for good policy.’’
And then it was time to tee off.
As it happens, the governor’s group was just behind the one in which I played by virtue of an invitation from a retired logger, a guy I bumped into over a cold beer in Key West earlier this year. But that’s another story.
As foursomes stacked up on tee boxes, my playing partner and Governor LePage eagerly discussed paper-mill fortunes, with uncommon intensity.
That was good face time for my partner, but those traffic jams, unfortunately, allowed more people, the governor included, to witness how truly anemic my golf game is.
On the 13th tee, I hit the ball off the toe of my club, sending it sailing 20 yards into a thicket of scrub that made it as irretrievable as my dignity.
A couple holes later, I swung and missed with my 3 wood. And those were my better shots.
I imagined LePage laughing, elbowing his partners and saying: “Look at that. Typical member of the liberal media.’’
Later, at the 19th hole, I asked the governor — a pretty good golfer — about his approach to the maddening game, and how he’s improved his swing over the years.
“I’m not a lefty,’’ he told me with a wide grin. “I’m a righty. I’m really right of center.’’
And even in a room full of people who know how to stretch the truth from fairway to green, there was no one who could argue with that.
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