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The people's choice

By John Gould / May 2, 1980



'Twas a weird experience to sit up here in Maine and contemplate the vast seriousness with which the rest of the country accepted out "presidential caucus." The main thing lacking was the raucous horselaugh the canter deserved, but it has been a long time since the American perception languished and anybody saw anything funny in politics. There was one chap on the radio who was dignified with the title of "correspondent," and he even misquoted again the oldie about "as goes Maine so goes the nation."

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Back in the early days of this lingering century, we had a man here in Maine named William R. Pattangall. He was in the magnificent tradition of Major Jack Downing, who was Seba Smith, and he wrote witty and satirical letters to the down-east Machias "Union," dwelling mainly on the shortcomings of Maine Republicans. Mr. Pattangall was a lawyer otherwise, and one of our shrewdest. In time he became Chief Justice of our Maine Supreme Judicial Court, and he would certainly have been our governor except he was a Democrat. Each of his letters to the "Union" was larded with actionable libel, but none of the victims of Patt's pen gave a second's thought to bringing suit against the ablest lawyer in the state. The letters, feigned to have been written by one Stephen A. D. Smith, a plow salesman, were collected into a book called "The Meddybemps Letters" and a copy today will fetch a pretty penny from the antiquarians. Patt's political humor at the expense of the Republicans turned Maine politics around until in 1910 a Democrat was elected governor. In 1903 Patt wrote a line that might have been applied to 1980: "The actual common people ain't so wild over whose going to be president as the candidates are."

Patt summed up traditional Maine politics when he asked Mayor William T. Cobb of Rockland if he planned to run for governor. "Oh, no," said Cobb, "it's not my turn." In those days Maine's state election was held on the second Monday of September biennially. The rest of the country voted in November, so the Maine "early bird" election was indeed a fair indication of what the country was likely to do come November.

Now, back in the 1950s, as a consequence of the long FDR tenure, the Democrats of Maine took an opinion that all this early-bird publicity was to their disadvantage, and agitation started to change the Maine election date to November. The Republicans condescended, and the early-bird vote ceased. However, the change soon proved a tactical mistake, a Maine lost all its free advertising to New Hampshire and its presidential primary. The custom of laughing at political frivolity ended with Judge Pattangall, otherwise there would have been some hilarity when the Democrats who had abolished the early bird now wanted to restore something to take its place. This is how-come we had this "caucus."

Maine has always held caucuses, but untul now they had been unrelated directly to the presidential hoss-race. Each local party chairman would call a caucus, and sometimes people attended. One duty of the caucus was to choose delegates to the state convention, which traditionally was done in this manner: "Does anybody want to go?" Mostly, the replies would be, "No -- I went once." Delegates thus chosen would, at the convention, select delegates to the national convention, usually in like manner. But that's history now, and the new kind of "caucus" which goes right after the presidential nominee himself is awaiting its Pattangall. Most of the bid excitement was in your papers and on the tube -- here in Maine it was a pleasant, sunny Sunday afternoon.

Oh -- the Carter-Mondale telephone campaign slipped a cog, and somehow a glib Georgia Cracker voice got connected with Mirandy Ferguson, oldest living Republica in Knox County. The voice urged her to support Carter, and she's hysterical. Laughin' all day long. Mirandy always votes for McKinley.