Angus King

PROFILE-June 2012
By Jaed Coffin
Photographs by Jack Montgomery + courtesy of Angus King

Another Great Compromise: The Unretirement of Angus King


It’s a cold and sunny Saturday morning in early April and Angus King, a month after announcing his bid to be the next senator of Maine, is driving south from Brunswick on 295 to catch his son Ben’s noon lacrosse game at the University of New England in Biddeford. Just 12 hours ago, the two-term former governor appeared live on CNN in an interview segment about the impact of independent politicians in the United States congress, as a series of capital-letter interjections flashed under his chin like front-page headlines: “ONE MAN COULD DETERMINE SENATE CONTROL;” “SENATE MAJORITY UP FOR GRABS; ” “RACE IN MAINE COULD TILT THE BALANCE.” Perhaps what America saw was a charismatic man in his late 60s with blond-gray hair and a mustache dressed in a shirt and tie. What Americans didn’t see was that underneath the shirt and tie, Angus wore a T-shirt bearing the image of Joshua Chamberlain, the Civil War hero and four-term Maine governor. In Brunswick, Angus lives a short walk from Chamberlain’s former home. From his driveway, you can see a statue of Chamberlain gazing over downtown like a patron saint.

Since leaving Brunswick, our conversation has wandered through a pasture of only vaguely related topics, from the poetic genius of Shakespeare to the integration of fiber-optic broadband access in rural Maine; from the origins of the Navajo language to a technology- and inquiry-based revolution in education, to the meaning of the giant plastic cow statue we passed right before we got on the highway. Today’s a Saturday, after all, and there’s no reason to talk politics when the official start of campaign season is still 44 hours away.

In the passenger seat, former first lady of Maine, Mary Herman, is tapping out emails, writing letters, and returning phone calls to all the people who have volunteered to support her husband’s campaign. The renewed support of these people—many of whom worked tirelessly for Angus during his two terms as governor—is, Angus will later say, one of the accomplishments he’s most proud of from his eight years in Augusta. An hour ago, Mary was scrambling around the kitchen, making tea, stuffing sandwiches and seat cushions into a tote bag, and showing Angus a blown-up photograph of the two of them kissing on the night that Angus announced his candidacy during his annual spring lecture on leadership at Bowdoin College. The next morning—March 6—the image appeared on the front page of the Kennebec Journal.

In the back seat, Angus and Mary’s 18-year-old daughter, Molly, a senior at Brunswick High School who will be heading to St. Lawrence University next fall, is half-reading Mockingjay and half-listening to her father explain the evolution and history of the United States Senate, and how, regardless of population, even a small state like Maine with just a million people still gets to send two senators to Washington. This crucial decision balanced the precarious relationship between federal and state power. “That’s why they called it the Great Compromise,” Angus says, mostly to himself.

But I just don’t buy it. I’ve known Angus for almost 20 years now—I grew up in his neighborhood, and my friend’s sister used to babysit Molly and Ben—and to a non-politician like me, the truer Great Compromise is the fact that Angus, on the verge of retirement, has suddenly decided to forego a hard-earned, full-time vacation to run in what could very well be the most crucial election of the decade. When I last spoke to him earlier this winter, Angus told me about an RV show he and Mary planned to attend. With Molly off to college, they thought it might be nice to spend a year touring the country, much as they did after his second term as governor, but this time without the kids.

And yet it was not long after our conversation about retirement that Senator Olympia Snowe, fed up with bipartisan gridlock in Washington, announced that she would not be running for another term. Hours after Snowe’s resignation, Angus began receiving emails from trusted advisers, colleagues, and friends. He invited them all to his house for a roundtable meeting, and he realized in short order that there was only one question confronting him: Could he make a difference? Six days later, Angus announced his candidacy.

Now, as we weave through the narrow streets of Biddeford, the weight of Angus’s decision seems to reveal itself in the brick walls of the mills along the Saco River, in the leafless skeletal trees sprouting from the sidewalk, in the vaguely fascinated eyes of people in the University of New England sports complex parking lot who—despite his sunglasses, hat, and puffy down jacket—recognize Angus as one of the most popular governors in the history of our state, and the man who much of our country now believes could overhaul the way things get done in Washington. Yet as we make our way to the field and sit down in the bleachers, Angus walks with the same quiet servitude of all the other fathers who have come here to watch their sons play a sport that few from their generation understand.

By halftime, UNE is up by five goals. Two periods later, they’ve won the game 11–6. Angus, Mary, and Molly follow Ben to a tailgate party, where Angus chats with the coaches about how the team is doing and who in their league is winning. To Angus, though, it seems the most pressing problem is what has happened to Ben’s new cleats: one of the studs has snapped off, apparently as the result of a product defect. For the next 20 minutes, Angus holds the cleat upside down in his hands. As he shows and describes the problem to the other fathers, he looks as though he’s redesigning the cleat in his head, imagining the mechanics of a better mold or reinventing the very concept of a cleated shoe to ensure that this kind of preventable failure will never befall a young person—and particularly his own son—ever again.

The sky turns pale on the ride back to Brunswick, and with Molly gone—she’s spending the night on campus with Ben—the world of Angus King feels falsely calm. Crossing back through Biddeford, past the old textile mills and new windmill in Saco that rises above them, past the new Run of the Mill Public House and Brewery, the Downeaster Amtrak stop, and Rapid Ray’s burger joint, it’s hard not to think that Maine—as a place, a culture, and a system of elusive, evolving questions—might be too complex a problem even for Angus King to solve.

“I’ve been accused in the past of having this cock-eyed optimism for believing that things can actually get better, that things can be fixed,” Angus says. “I don’t want to compare the Senate to a tool, but I feel as though the tool we’re using is broken, and the kitchen pipes are leaking everywhere, and in order to get things done we need to fix the tool.” Then Angus refers to his recent inspiration from the story of Oakland A’s head coach Billy Beane, who was profiled in the book Moneyball. To Angus, Moneyball is a story about a man who couldn’t compete with the status quo, so he had to “do something entirely different to fix the problem from the outside.” In short, Independent Baseball.

“I don’t know whether I can really change things or not,” Angus tells me as we make our way past Portland and back onto 295, “but until we try something different, I know that there’s a zero-percent chance of things getting better.” Angus reminds me of the life of Joshua Chamberlain, a man who accomplished so much despite suffering such impending odds—war, injury, disease. “And so I said to myself, I’m not going to do this because I wanted to go RVing? Because I wanted more vacation? When I thought of it that way, it was pretty hard to say no.”

It’s after four o’clock by the time we get back to the King-Herman home. It’s colder now, and the wind is picking up. Inside, Mary makes tea, while Angus recalls two experiences that even now, decades later, continue to guide him.

The first one occurred when he was a freshman at Hammond High School in Alexandria, Virginia, in the late 1950s. This was during the early days of the Civil Rights movement, when states were reluctantly beginning the integration of black and white students in the public school system. Hammond High was one of the first schools in Virginia to open its doors to black students, and Angus still recalls the day the two United States Marshalls escorted Jimmy and Patsy Ragland through the main entrance. The entire school had gathered in the hallway to witness the moment. The two students stood still before the silent crowd, until a rising voice—”Excuse me! Pardon me!” —broke the silence. The voice belonged to the senior captain of the football team, Mike Vopatek. Vopatek walked up to Jimmy and Patsy Ragland, shook their hands, welcomed them to his school, and offered to escort them to their first class. “It could have gone either way that day,” Angus says. “But it didn’t. It was one of the strongest examples of real leadership that I’ve ever seen.”

The other experience occurred in 1966, the year that Angus and a college friend spent a summer riding motorcycles across Eastern Europe, behind the Iron Curtain, to see for themselves the true face of communism that their own nation both romanticized and denounced. Angus recalls the beautiful dark cities, the armed guards on street corners, and the empty faces of civilians. One night in a pub in Yugoslavia, they met a gang of worn young men who, after several minutes of charades, explained that they worked for the railroad. They had never met an American before, and the night ended with the men brawling over who would have the honor to host their foreign guests. To resolve the conflict, they all decided to spend the night in the hayloft of a nearby barn. Later that summer, while camped along the Danube River near Prague, Angus and his friend met four East German medical students. At one point, the East Germans asked where their new American friends were headed next. When Angus and his traveling partner said they were riding on to Paris, then London, and then flying home, there was a moment of somber silence broken by the East Germans’ wistful admission that they couldn’t leave the Soviet Bloc because their government feared they wouldn’t come back. As the young men parted ways, they all agreed that any political system that had to lock its people in was “pretty lousy.” The most powerful lesson Angus learned from that summer: “Whether we like it or not, government matters.”

Off the kitchen in the King-Herman home there is a small office, perhaps ten by ten feet, where Angus works most days. The far wall is adorned with large photographs of Joshua Chamberlain, his daughter Molly, and Angus’s father, Stanley King—a former United States Commissioner and “the most honest and honorable man I have ever known”—in a black judge’s robe. To the right, there is a small wooden sign that reads “Boss” on it, and another wooden sign hung high upon the wall that says “Count Your Blessings.” On the opposite wall is a bookshelf filled with political biographies, books on Maine, a Bible, and several more photographs: one of Angus receiving a prestigious academic award at Dartmouth, a photograph of Angus and his three grown sons—Angus, Duncan, and James—from his first marriage. There is also a black-and-white portrait of Margaret Chase Smith—the first woman to serve in both the Senate and House of Representatives, and the first woman from Maine to serve in either branch—during the final years of her life, holding Angus and Mary’s son, Ben, as a baby. On the same shelf sits a certificate from the Virginia Theological Seminary. Angus is a lifetime member of the Episcopal Church, and though he rarely speaks about his spirituality and considers himself “the guy who sits in the back,” he walks to church every Sunday and refers to his faith as a force that gives him “great guidance.” He also credits the church for giving him his first and only political experience—as the administrator of the Christmas Bazaar—prior to becoming governor.

Back in the living room, Mary is sitting on the couch, a blanket over her legs, contemplating the rare and welcome silence in their home—she just realized that with Molly gone for the night, she and Angus have no plans. “If she hadn’t been in agreement with me about running,” Angus tells me, “I wouldn’t have done it.” Now, Angus and Mary are planning his campaign schedule around two spring sports schedules for Molly and Ben because he and Mary intend to make every one of their games. If Molly wasn’t graduating this year, Angus assures me that he wouldn’t have run for the senate seat because he wouldn’t want to let it get in the way of her final year at home. He learned from his three older boys how quickly time passes, and how, once they’re 16, “they’re basically gone.”

Tomorrow is Easter. Angus’s sons will come to visit with their wives and children, Molly and Ben will return from Biddeford, and grandchildren will be crawling all over the floor. The next day, on Monday morning, at 10:30 a.m., Angus will stand before a packed campaign office in downtown Brunswick. In the crowd will be members of the Associated Press, and a smattering of local personalities: former independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler; Theresa Chan, the manager of Little Tokyo Restaurant, and Judy Marsh, the co-owner of the old boatyard at the end of Mere Point. After a moment of nearly meditative quiet, Angus will lean forward into the microphone, and recite from memory the words of the only American politician whom he may admire as much as Joshua Chamberlain—Abraham Lincoln. As he recalls Lincoln’s words—”we must rise with the occasion…we must think anew and act anew…and then we shall save our country”—they will sound as though they were not only written for today but, perhaps, for another day come November.

As I step outside and close the door behind me, I can see Angus and Mary through the window glass: their eyes half-closed, sitting side by side in the fading daylight to indulge in a soon-to-be-rare activity—an afternoon nap. On my way past the Chamberlain statue, I notice that Chamberlain’s brow always looks kind of shadowy and mournful, and that his hand, resting upon air, seems to hold down an invisible, rising, dangerous thing. As I move past the statue, the angle changes, and now it looks more like Chamberlain is in repose, or perhaps in waiting. And that’s when I think of the last thing Angus said before I left his home: “A few years after we left the Blaine House, I asked Mary, ‘When do I get to stop caring?'” Angus then turned to Mary. “You remember what you told me?”

Mary smiled and nodded from behind the countertop where her pot of tea had just finished boiling. “Yes,” Mary said. “I told you, ‘Never!'”

“That’s right,” Angus said, nodding to himself and speaking mostly to the rising semi-darkness that now filled his living room. “You told me, ‘Never’.”

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