I’ve known Max Lenington for more than 15 years. I didn’t know him well, since I never did much reporting on Yellowstone County, for which he is treasurer, assessor and county superintendent of schools. But I knew him well enough to believe I had some sense of the kind of person he was.
As far as I knew, he was an open, friendly, completely accessible public servant, more willing than most to find the information you needed as quickly as he could.
He was also, in an odd way, both old-fashioned and flamboyant. Sometimes, with that shock of white hair, he looked older than he was, like a kindly old grandfather. Then you might see him with his leather jacket and sunglasses, roaring down the street on his Harley-Davidson, and he looked like an aging hipster.
All those impressions are now meaningless. Thanks to a series of letters to the editor and statements made in various interviews, he is considered by a wide swath of county residents — and countless people across the country, courtesy of the Internet — as an intemperate, off-the-rails right-wing racist.
If you need a refresher, Lenington wrote a letter to the editor in June, a garden-variety Tea Party denunciation of President Obama, then followed it up in August with a letter, mostly plagiarized, explaining why he hated Obama and his wife.
To that point he had only exhibited, at best, a gross insensitivity regarding race. Then, in October, the Billings Gazette reported that Lenington, writing to his sister on a county-owned computer, opined that Obama had been re-elected because “there are more lesbians, queers, Indians, Mexicans and niggers than the rest of us.”
After months of widespread condemnation and calls for his removal from office — the county attorney concluded there were no grounds for giving him the boot — only a few faint embers of the controversy were still glowing, until last week.
That’s when he wrote what he said was his last letter to the editor. In it, Lenington referred to Obama as a “beige puppet” and lamented the twilight of the “white Christian male who discovered, explored, pioneered, settled and developed the greatest Republic in the history of mankind.”
It didn’t help that much of the letter appeared to have been cribbed from a screed that has been sourced to a white supremacist website. For good measure, Lenington called for “individual acts of defiance and massive displays of civil disobedience,” then promptly wrote yet another letter apologizing for his “over-the-top” comments.
I decided I had to go interview Lenington, to find out what he was thinking, to find out what he hoped to accomplish. To find out, basically, what the hell?
So, what did I learn? Well, for starters, that I shouldn’t characterize him as a racist.
“Whatever you print,” he said, “don’t call me a racist or I’ll never talk to you again.”
So I won’t. Nor will I say that the oceans contain saltwater. As for what he hoped to accomplish, Lenington said he’s always wanted — “I was even that way when I was a kid” — to “get people’s attention.”
But why, I asked. What’s the point?
“I enjoy the infuriation of the liberal left-wing media like you,” he said. “I could say ‘fuck’ and I wouldn’t get as much news as when I said ‘Obama.'”
And that was the oddest thing about our conversation. He kept coming back to the idea that he had gotten into hot water for having had the courage to attack Obama, for exposing truths that the liberal media would not dare print.
When I pressed him, suggesting that the controversy may have had more to do with his use of words like “queer” and “nigger,” and with parroting white supremacist propaganda, he simply wouldn’t hear of it.
“That was probably the only time I used the N-word,” he said. “And that’s only because I was talking to my sister.”
I asked him two or three different ways to explain why talking to his sister justified deploying one of the most inflammatory words in the English language, but his rambling answers never quite got around to directly dealing with the question.
He said he was raised on a ranch near Two Dot, that he had always worked hard and that his sister, who he considers almost his twin, is a conservative Republican who ranches near Neihart.
All he was trying to do, he said, was express the idea that various groups of voters who were not white Christian males would never vote Republican — just what Mitt Romney was referring to when he talked about the “47 percent.”
Lenington said he named the components of that voting bloc — you know, the queers, Mexicans, etc. — because it “wouldn’t mean anything” otherwise. “It’s not racist in my mind at all.” Also, he acknowledged, “Romney was a little more eloquent than I was.”
I told Lenington I had to ask two questions that I’d heard on the street. First, was he a left-wing plant whose goal was to discredit the right wing? I mean, this is the guy who told a Gazette reporter that white supremacists “believe in politics pretty much the same way as the Tea Party.”
For the record, he laughed out loud at the question … and then went on to describe white supremacists as “a frugal group. They want to be left alone. They want the government out of their hair. That’s pretty much like conservatives.”
Maybe, I said, but they also tingle with excitement over the prospect of an imminent “racial holy war.” He said didn’t mean to suggest the Tea Party had anything to do with that business.
“That would have been offensive to conservatives,” he said. “I didn’t mean that.”
Then I asked him the other question I’d heard. Was dementia, which often subjects its victims to fits of anger, a possibility? He laughed out loud again.
“No,” he said. “It’s not dementia. I’m still pretty sharp.”
And then, as he did in his interview with the Gazette, he talked about his black son-in-law and his black granddaughter, a senior at the University of Montana. He loved them both, he said, and though he did apologize to them for his remarks, he doesn’t think either of them would ever consider him a racist.
And then, so help me God, he went on to talk once again about how white Christian males had built this country and invented just about everything worthwhile. “The world wouldn’t have running water if it wasn’t for us,” he said.
He also said he was being persecuted because of the modern tendency to take “political correctness to the 10th degree.” Speaking of Obama’s predecessor, he said: “They used to call poor George Bush everything but a white man, and you never heard people complain about that.”
There was just a moment when Lenington and I seemed to be in agreement. He said one reason he wanted to speak out was to educate young people, who seemed to know nothing of politics or history.
But young people, I said, are the first generation in American history who might live to see a truly post-racial society, when skin color does not register or mean anything at all.
“In that sense, I hope you’re right,” he said.
At the very end of our conversation, Lenington, who plans to retire at the end of the year, did express some regrets. He has worked for the county for 45 years, including 32 years as an elected official, he said, and he has done an exemplary job of overseeing the county’s finances.
“I hope when I’m gone, that’s what people will remember more than what you and I are talking about,” he said.
I said it wasn’t very likely, that for better or worse he would always be remembered for his “over-the-top” remarks. He sighed and said his wife had told him the same thing.
“That’s in the back of my mind,” he said. “That’s why I’m done.”