Regular readers may remember that last week I was fretting over my upcoming role as moderator at a public forum in Bangor featuring Maine’s senior senator, Susan Collins. Hosted at the Gracie Theater at Husson University in Bangor, Collins’ appearance last Tuesday evening was billed as an invitation to Mainers concerned with issues of aging — issues like caregiving, elder fraud and exploitation, Medicare and Social Security — to convene for an hour of civil discourse. There would be drinks and finger foods beforehand, and an opportunity to mingle and hobnob afterward.
My job was to join the senator on stage after her opening comments, ask her to respond to appropriate questions from the audience and generally flesh out the conversation. The event, part of a series called Dirigo Speaks, was co-sponsored by the Bangor Daily News and the senior-advocacy organization AARP. I was asked to keep the conversation focused on the issues at hand, head off any signs of audience insurgency and maintain an atmosphere of friendly cordiality.
Everything ran smoothly. After an introduction by Lori Parham, director of AARP in Maine, Collins spent about 30 minutes at the podium. She spoke primarily about the work of the U.S. Special Senate Committee on Aging, on which she has served since 1997 and which she has chaired since January 2015.
She talked about drug pricing, recounting the committee’s successful efforts to combat a shocking increase in the price of the EpiPen. She recounted the plight of Byron Martin of Dresden, Maine — a retired pastor who was jailed in Spain after being duped by an online sweetheart into carrying South American cocaine into Europe. (Is it just me, or does anyone else think this story deserves a folk ballad written about it?)
Collins also discussed her commitment to increasing funding for Alzheimer’s research and spoke about the RAISE Family Caregivers Act, bipartisan legislation that would set in process the development of a national framework to support people who are caring for frail loved ones at home.
After her talk, Collins sat with me and took questions from the audience. This was the part of the program that had made me so anxious, fearful of either getting tongue-tied or sounding like a chatty talk-show host instead of a hard-hitting journalist.
I had gotten a few angry emails challenging me to call Collins out on everything from being a traitor to the Republican party to her supposed collusion with a plan to drive Medicare out of existence.
However, this convivial event wasn’t the place to raise those thorny notions, nor was it my role to do so. We were there for a conversation with constituents who took time to be in the audience.
I had received some other, more topical questions from readers and was prepared to pose them, together with questions of my own, in case the conversation ran out of gas. But the purpose of the evening was to give Collins time to interact with the audience, not with me.
Even Martha Raddatz and Anderson Cooper were a little nerved up before that last Clinton-Trump debate, don’t you think? I reminded myself of my days in community theater, waiting backstage for my cue and that excruciating, irretrievable moment when I would walk out on stage, open my mouth and deliver my first line. Everything else would fall into place after that.
And, pretty much, that’s what happened. The audience rose to the occasion with plenty of good questions and comments, ranging from queries about the best time to start tapping Social Security retirement benefits to why prescription medicines in Canada are so much cheaper than they are in the United States. Collins responded intelligently and at length. I kicked the conversation around a little between questions, but basically let her have the floor.
At the end, she spoke openly about the presidential campaign and her distress over it. She has no second thoughts about having distanced herself from many of her fellow Republicans, including Maine Gov. Paul LePage, by publicly denouncing GOP candidate Donald Trump. But, she said, she can’t endorse Democrat Hillary Clinton or Libertarian Gary Johnson, either.
“I feel in a terrible dilemma this year, “ she said, adding that she may resort to writing in a name on her ballot when she votes.
“Why don’t you run, Susan?” someone called from the audience. She laughed it off, but it was evident that most in the theater that night had a lot of respect, and even affection, for Susan Collins, even though they may not have entirely agreed with her politics.
Then she accepted an award from AARP, and the evening was over.
I have to admit, I enjoyed the event fully, from socializing over shrimp and cupcakes in the lobby to watching the last of the guests trail out the door toward the parking lot, engaged in avid conversation.