Out Of Bounds: When Attacking King Goes Too Far

I don’t think it is any secret that I am opposed to Angus King’s candidacy for the United States Senate. I have, admittedly, been on a rather aggressive push lately to shine a light on his record, question his judgement, and argue that he would be an ineffective, hypocritical and dishonest representative for the people of Maine in Congress’ upper chamber.

I’ve made no secret of my lack of respect for the man, or my belief that he is a thin-skinned apostate of the independence and moderation Mainers value so highly. I believe he is not being straight with the people of Maine about what he intends to do, I believe the reality of what he wants to do is potentially damaging to the state that I love, and I believe he is so insecure about being justifiably questioned about those things, that he very inappropriately attempts to shut down criticism to protect that which he is trying to hide from voters.

In being such a loud and consistent critic, I have earned more than a few critics of my own.  Some have valid points that, believe it or not, I recognize and internalize, while others are just upset that their favorite politician is being dragged to the wood shed.

But one thing I hope those who don’t like my anti-King series here can agree on; I’ve kept it to King.  My problems with him are all with him and flaws that I perceive to impact the quality of his representation of the people of Maine in a position of great authority.  Ideologically or ethically, it has always been about King, and ultimately what he would do once he were elected.

Sadly, from my perspective, the criticism of King has recently turned in a disturbing direction.  A direction I do not like, do not support, and will not participate in.

Indeed, initially I wasn’t even going to write this column, because I didn’t want to publicize or talk about this new line of attack.  But I’ve gotten enough emails with the subject line, “Have you seen this?” and “Wow”, and enough people are talking about it, that it deserves a response.

On Wednesday of this week, Crash Barry – who I almost always enjoy reading, and whose criticism of King has been excellent this year – discovered that Ben Herman, Angus King’s college-aged son, has a particularly vile and disgusting Twitter feed, in which he posts racist, sexist, agist, homophobic and just generally offensive things.

To Barry’s credit, the focus of his piece was a simple question:  How can the unusually paranoid, tightly scripted, social media controlling King campaign allow Herman’s feed to continue to exist, given the potential for embarrassment it has for the campaign?

Some of the tweets that Barry notes are from campaign events that Herman attended with his father.  In one particular example, Herman, while his father was campaigning at an event in Fryeburg, posted a picture of an African-American child eating watermelon with the phrase, “you know…”.  The post had obvious racial undertones, with basically any interpretation of what he meant being bad.

In the past, Herman has ridiculed a paraplegic for urinary incontinence, made offensive statements about a number of ethnic minorities, women and homosexuals, and he seems to revel in his access to, and ability to drink, alcohol.

Barry’s criticism of Herman, and by extension the King campaign, made me wince.  I do not like family being dragged into a campaign.  Never have, never will.  Ultimately, though, the case he was making, while a little bit of a stretch, still seemed substantive enough for me:

But the lack of awareness of the liabilities of social media does seem like another indicator that King isn’t ready for modern politics. After all, his son’s online antics could potentially offend a huge chunk of Maine’s electorate.

If he’s elected, King better get used to being watched online and elsewhere. In addition to the media, he’ll be trailed by trackers, citizen journalists, wind warriors and anti-one-percenters who all have an interest in keeping an eye on this corporatist millionaire.

This may be a tad unfair, but is still mostly true.  King struggled out of the gate dealing with a harmless and funny parody of him on Twitter (the now infamous @KingAngus), and since then hasn’t shown much social media savvy or awareness.

It is curious that such an obvious and potentially damaging social media account has been allowed to continue, while the King campaign continues to call up television stations to complain about negative coverage, and try to get reporters and columnists fired for daring to object to King’s campaign.

That said, it still made me very uneasy, because it stepped into dangerous and quite frankly irrelevant territory for me: King’s family.

It is certainly within the realm of possibility that King asked his son to stop acting this way on Twitter, and his son refused.  He is older than 18 now, and no one can make him do anything.  I actually believe it may be to Angus King’s credit that he “let it go”, rather than trying to force his son to stop by going to Twitter to shut the account down, or some other strong arm tactic which would have bee done only to save his reputation.

And even if King is simply oblivious to his son’s antics on social media, I have a very hard time drawing any kind of conclusions from that.  As a former digital staffer in the United States Senate, I can tell you all with absolute certainty that more than half (probably more than two-thirds) of the current members of the Senate don’t have the slightest idea of what Twitter is, and are absolutely terrified of Facebook.

Being social media savvy is not a prerequisite for service in the Senate, and frankly bringing up a family members offensive use of social media tells me nothing about the candidate.

So, I was squeamish to begin with.  But I thought Barry was at least trying to approach the situation from a good place, so I just went on with my week.

Enter, today’s piece in The Bollard by Chris Busby.

Busby – who notes that the piece he wrote was supposed to be a BDN column but was rejected for a few reasons – picks up where Barry left off, and brings the conversation, at least from my perspective, into extremely inappropriate territory.

The piece doesn’t pull any punches right out of the gate:

The man who promises to bring Maine values to the United States Senate has clearly failed to do so in his own home.

That, is a low blow.

Busby goes on:

The tweets reveal that Herman’s privileged upbringing as the scion of one of Maine’s most prominent families has not made him a young man of character, class or compassion.

The rest of the article is a rehash of many of the offensive things Herman said, and an analysis of what they mean.  Nothing particularly new.

But unlike Barry’s original piece, this article was intensely personal, particularly in its implication that Angus King is such a poor father that he “clearly failed to [bring Maine values to] his own home”, and the not-so-subtle implication that Herman’s behavior has some kind of bearing on what kind of Senator King would be.

To be sure, the family of a public official has no choice but to deal with a microscope being on them.  They are subject to extra scrutiny, and there are plenty of occasions where personal dynamics within a family are entirely appropriate to write about, criticize, and use as fodder for judgement against a politician.

But in those instances, it should be something relating directly to what a candidate did or didn’t do.  Cheating on a spouse reflects a troubling willingness to break important promises for the fulfillment of ones’ own ego.  Estranging ones’ self from a homosexual child because you condemn their lifestyle reveals an insecurity, weakness, and small-mindedness that should be discouraged in public servants.  Allowing children to drink in ones’ home in an attempt to be the “cool” parent, reveals immaturity and a dangerous disregard for responsibility.

All of these types of things should naturally be considered by voters, because they deal specifically with the judgement of an aspirant to power.

Ben Herman and his disgusting Twitter feed, however, do not belong in that class, and quite frankly I am offended at the implication that Angus King is somehow a bad father because he has a crass, immature son.

There is an endless parade of phenomenal fathers who have seen their children slip into any number of regrettable traps in life.  As children grow older, no matter what values you work to instill in them, there is the potential that they may be stolen away from you by the insidious pull of sex, drugs, alcohol, and selfishness.

Having a child in their early twenties who is a little too in love with the freedom that comes from living on their own and having no rulemaker beside themselves is hardly a unique phenomenon.

It is not a surprise that someone, particularly a person so obviously entrenched with the collegiate religions of sports and alcohol, would struggle with maturity, respect, and appropriate social behavior.

Beyond that, it is also something of a stretch to judge a person on the inanity of Twitter.  Don’t mistake that as my excusing a single word Herman said, but something is wrong with a world where we attempt to drag down the father of somebody who made some stupid tweets, while we as a society exalt the gutter trash that is modern celebrity culture.  If we are talking about Twitter, one has several examples of heroes of American pop culture who make Ben Herman look like a harmless nobody.

The only way that I would find this line of criticism of King appropriate is if somehow we were to learn that Angus was throwing his son keggers, buying him prostitutes, and teaching him racist jokes.

Everything I have ever heard about Angus King has shown him to be an extremely nice man, who loves his children, enjoys life and does nothing in excess.  While one can never know without having actually been there to watch, I have a sneaking suspicion he is an excellent father that tried hard to raise a good and decent son.

Attacking the family of a public figure is dangerous, and there should be a much higher bar than this to do it.  While Herman certainly brought this on himself, if he were not the son of Angus King, absolutely no one on planet earth would know who he is, or care that he has some growing up to do.

Angus King is asking for you to vote for him as your representative of Maine in the United States Senate.  I happen to believe he would not be the best choice Maine could make, and I will continue to say so.  I do not want to see him elected.

But when examining this man, we should be evaluating his temperament, judgement, intelligence, ethical standard as it relates to lawmaking, ideas, ideology, and ability to work with people to accomplish goals.

These are the things that will matter to his job performance as he represents you in Washington.  These are the things you should consider, and we as members of the media should focus our attention on.

There is more than enough material out there to oppose King on those criteria, without getting personal and attacking his children as some kind of perverse guilt by association, or implying that he is not a good father.

Family dynamics can be used to judge a politician, but it should only be done when there is some kind of direct link to who that politician is, and what they would do.  That standard has not even come close to being met here.

The only person who should be judged for the activities of Ben Herman, is Ben Herman.  And I would caution ye who would be the first to throw a stone in his direction to take a look at your surroundings and make sure you aren’t in a glass house.

There is no excusing anything he said on Twitter, but an examination of ones’ own life often reveals a great number of mistakes, particularly in ones’ youth, that make any self-righteous indignation more than a little hypocritical.  Hopefully Herman learns from his mistakes, and as he matures he corrects them.

In the meantime, however, let’s stay away from this type of attack on not only Angus King, but all those in public service.  Our politics is already poison enough on substance, and we don’t need to do this.

Angus King is the wrong choice for Maine, he is wrong on the issues, he is hiding the truth of his opinions and intentions from the voters, and he would not make a good Senator, in my opinion.

It is on that basis that I will speak about him, and after this column, no others.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.