A citizen's guide to Vermont's political circus


By Stephen Morris

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:    19 May 2019   :    a PUBLIC SERVICE of The Public Press   :
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The Mayflower moving van pulled up in front of our house on one of those wet slushy days in April when the state careens between winter, spring and mud. An unexpected moving van is an event of note on a country road. The driver, a large man dressed in a nylon Windbreaker and wearing low-cut sneakers, jumped out of the cab and walked to our door in that delicate way one moves when each step brings a fresh influx of slush. By the time he reached the door, he was shivering.

He spoke in a voice that said deep, rural South, inquiring about a house that meant he still had a couple of miles of muddy road ahead. We gave him detailed directions and offered hot tea, which he politely declined. He turned back toward his truck, reached a point where his sneakers were overwhelmed by the wet snow, then turned back and said, "You know, y'all crazy to be living here."

Vermont is the chosen state. The people here want to be here. People either made a conscious decision to come here despite the isolation, high cost of living and harsh climate, or they were born here and decided to stay despite the isolation, high cost of living and harsh climate. But, as the Mayflower driver said, this process of self-selection inevitably results in a state that is full of "crazy" people and proudly so. Nowhere is the state's craziness more apparent than on Vermont's political landscape which is jumbled, bumpy and as inevitable as the rocks that the frost pushes up through the garden each spring.

Vermont's political heritage has taken a 90-degree turn since its days of rock-solid Republicanism, when politicians didn't say or even do much. Vermont's political scene a half century ago was epitomized by the likes of laconic Calvin Coolidge, who is once said to have responded "you lose," when a woman at a dinner party bet she could make him say more than three words. Now the state is full of political characters, some quite noisy. Vermont is the only state with a socialist in the House of Representatives, Bernie Sanders, who looks like the mad inventor in Back to the Future. Vermont produced Howard Dean, a sober sort of guy while he was governor, but who screamed his way to national prominence in the most startling personal transformation since Katie Couric went blonde. We had Fred Tuttle in a GOP Senate primary asking his opponent Jack McMullen how many teats are on a dairy cow and how to pronounce Calais. Then, after winning the GOP nomination, he declared his support for his Democratic opponent Patrick Leahy. Vermont has James Jeffords, who as a just-elected Congressman in 1975 lived in an RV in Washington to save money. It gave us Ruth Dwyer who inspired farmers to paint "Take Back Vermont!" on their plastic hay bales during the debate over civil unions.

Not that Vermont has a monopoly on colorful political figures. Consider Wilbur Mills jumping into the Potomac Tidal Basin, Gary Hart on the fantail of the yacht Monkey Business, Arnold Schwarzenegger and his "girly men," anything whatsoever about Jesse Ventura. These figures, however, seem lifted from the pages of People Magazine or the National Enquirer. When it comes to a rich playbill, the cast of characters in Vermont's political theater are second to none.

Two recent political gatherings provided the latest evidence of the idiosyncratic (fortunately, not lunatic) fringe in Vermont. To an outsider such gatherings might seem both confusing and amusing.

FreedomFest 2005, held at Vermont Technical College, is sponsored by the Ethan Allen Institute. The day is gray and wet, with waves of rain whipping across the campus. The cars in the parking lot outside Judd Gymnasium are the cars your father's friends used to drive – Cadillacs and Lincolns. No Toyota Priuses here, no rusty Subarus covered with bumper stickers.

Inside, special interest groups have set up modest displays advocating property rights (P.O.S.T. Property Owners Standing Together), gun issues (Gun Owners of Vermont) and conservative agendas (FreedomWorks: Citizens for a Sound Economy & Empower America).

The crowd bows for a solemn invocation from the Rev. Craig Benson, after which hands go over hearts for the Pledge of Allegiance. John McClaughry, founder of the Ethan Allen Institute, gives a lively speech based on colonial patriot Samuel Adams, who once said: "It does not require a majority to prevail, but rather an irate, tireless minority keen to set brush fires in people's minds." McClaughry illustrates his point by pulling out a big bottle of Sam's namesake beer. It's his opinion that conservatives have been out-organized, out-politicized and out-energized by Democrats, resulting in the loss of their majority in the Vermont House and Senate. He's doing what he can to pour gas on the various brush piles he sees.

McClaughry, who in his youth was an Eagle Scout and who as a young man once went on an adventure hopping freight trains, hails from Illinois. He arrived in Vermont in 1963, the year after Democrat Phil Hoff broke the Republicans' 109-year stranglehold on the governorship. He bought 200 acres in Kirby for under $12 per acre and built himself a log cabin, felling the first 25 trees with an ax before finally realizing that a neighbor with a chainsaw could make faster work of it.

This is the stuff of flatlander legend. A graduate of Columbia and Berkeley, McClaughry sought a contemplative perch where he could surround himself with books and observe the political landscape. He is now part of it. He has been the moderator at Kirby's town meeting for the past 32 years. Although often characterized as a conservative, McClaughry describes himself as a Jeffersonian. His Ethan Allen Institute (named for another prominent Vermont flatlander) is a free market think tank that he operates out of his home – a second, more comfortable log home that he built in 1970.

McClaughry, at least lately, is more a political observer than activist, but he organized FreedomFest. And in doing so he has brought together a rather unlikely collection of organizations. The conference, for example, has the Gun Owners of Vermont displaying next to the Libertarians who are handing out "Lefties for Liberty" fliers that declare that "Freedom is Organic" and depicts a long-haired, bearded peacenik flashing the two-fingered sign and saying "Dude, Where's my freedom?" Breakout sessions follow the invocation. Attendees scurry through the rain to classrooms on the VTC campus where advocates generally promote the conservative position on specific issues, such as education ("Costs are out of control, because local school boards haven't had the courage or good sense to say ‘no' to increasing budgets in an era of declining enrollments"), energy, land and environment ("Global warming? Let the market handle it."), and the biggest bugaboo, health care ("When has the government ever shown it can do a better job than the private sector of managing anything?"). The sessions are brief, disciplined and oriented toward grassroots organizing.

The afternoon's keynote speaker, Stephen Moore, from the editorial staff of the Wall Street Journal is pointedly critical of President Bush, but for a surprising reason. According to Moore, the president is acting too much like a Democrat, running a deficit budget and authorizing spending bills that are laden with pork.

Moore supports lower taxes, smaller government and privatization of disaster relief. With fresh memories of the FEMA disaster following Hurricane Katrina, he points out that Chicago following its devastating fire in 1871 was completely rebuilt without a nickel of federal aid.

He finds a receptive response with the FreedomFest audience. Moore's speech is interspersed with humor and eye-opening statistics. It's a smart and appealing face on conservatism that you rarely see on the evening news. He draws applause when he waves the big bottle of Sam Adams beer that McClaughry gave him. Conservatives and libertarians can have fun, too.

The bumper stickers at Secession Conference tell a different story: No GMOs, President Bush didn't win the election, get out of Iraq, global warming is going to kill us all. The event is much more theatrical. A costumed Ethan Allen sits mounted on horseback at the entrance to the Statehouse greeting all comers. They won't be reciting the Pledge of Allegiance here.

The setting in the House chamber provides at least a touch of institutional dignity. There is an invocation, but this one is provided by the (Ir)reverend Ben O'Matchstick, a former performer for Bread and Puppet theatre. He solemnly advocates secession, but it's hard to be too solemn when you are an irreverend.

Ethan, minus horse, then takes center stage to recount his capture of Fort Ticonderoga. As impersonated by James Hogue, an actor and radio talk show host from Plainfield, this Ethan cuts a splendid figure, but he loses his momentum when he is forced to cut from his indignation at the Yorkers to briefly consult his script.

He is followed by one of the founders of the 2nd Vermont Republic, Thomas Naylor. This group wants Vermont to exercise its right to secede from the United States and resume existence as an independent state, similar to Denmark or perhaps Luxembourg. America, says Naylor, is an empire that is out of control and that has lost its moral authority to lead anyone, anywhere on the globe.

Vermont is Naylor's chosen state. He chose it when he retired, because it was the place in America that most reminded him of Switzerland, a country that has successfully navigated the path of neutrality and has prospered in the process. After an academic career that includes a doctorate in economics, a professorship at Duke University and authorship of several dozen books, including "Affluenza," which became a popular documentary on public television, Naylor cites two major enemies whom he considers to be threats to Vermonters' freedom. They are the United States government and Corporate America, which he says controls the government. Lesser enemies might include Wal-Mart and the media. Don't look for a political solution to the problems, says Naylor, because Republicans and Democrats are essentially two versions of the same party. The Democrats "haven't had a new idea since the 1960s." Looking for Hillary Clinton or Condoleezza Rice for salvation? Don't bother, he says. The outlook for the future under either of them would be "grim." On that cheery note Naylor reminds us that this is a Secession Conference, and he hopes that the group will approve two resolutions by day's end.

Naylor is part polemic, part performance. He has the calm demeanor of a professor, but his words are those of a young radical. Physically, there's a passing resemblance to Bernie Sanders. His delivery may not be as fiery as Sanders', but his content is more flammable. He clearly savors his time on center stage.

Naylor says he's not concerned about Vermont's ability to exist as an independent republic. Vermont has little strategic importance here, so the threat of invasion would be remote. We could contract out our defense as does Costa Rica. He manages to keep a straight face even as he tells an interviewer that Vermont could adopt the euro as its currency.

The media are much in evidence at this event. The Associated Press later estimates in a story that the event attracted a crowd of 100, which eventually provokes a response from Rob Williams, a founder of an organization called Vermont Commons, whose goals are closely aligned with the 2nd Vermont Republic. In his organization's blog Williams reprints the AP story but claims actual attendance of 300. Judging from the abundance of laptops and microphones at the event, perhaps the difference is whether reporters were excluded in the AP estimate.

The first keynote speaker is Kevin Graffagnino, who is not an advocate of secession, but a scholar on Ethan and Ira Allen and is executive director of the Vermont Historical Society. His recent book "The Quotable Ethan Allen," co-authored with H. Nicholas Muller III, gives clues as to how one historical figure can unify groups from such opposite ends of the political spectrum. Graffagnino, by the way, hails from New York, but Vermont is his chosen state.

Graffagnino points out that the invocation of Ethan Allen, an "attractive and very malleable historical icon," to support causes or defame enemies is nothing new. Any number of groups have commandeered support by claiming " ‘If Ethan was alive today, he'd be standing right here with us,'" according to Graffagnino. Equally common is the corollary to defame an opponent. "Ethan Allen would be rolling over in his grave if … (fill in the blank with the adversary of choice) … were to do (fill in the blank)."

Allen was an accomplished writer who penned several best-selling books. He used "words as effectively as his musket," says Graffagnino, adding, "If anyone enjoyed public attention, it was Ethan Allen." McClaughry and Naylor, it seems, are in good company.

Allen's statements, while quotable, were often somewhat enigmatic. Take, for example, his famous response to the Yorkers who wanted to annex Vermont, "The gods of the valleys are not Gods of the hills." That caused head-scratching on both sides. Exactly what does that mean?

Following Graffagnino to the podium is Frank Bryan, author, UVM professor, champion of town meeting and a figure whose political stance is every bit as elusive as Allen's. He wastes no time in using Vermont's founding father to frame the debate, calling Ethan Allen "a patriot for Vermont." Moments later, however, he adds that some considered Allen a traitor for negotiating on his own with the Canadians to potentially deliver Vermont back into the hands of the British. But Bryan himself says that since Vermont was an independent republic at that time, Allen had every right to negotiate with anyone and, therefore, was not a traitor.

Bryan was born across the river in New Hampshire, because that's where the hospital was, but few can claim a more genuine Green Mountain pedigree. His position on the political spectrum may be as clear as the Winooski River after a thunderstorm, but he states his eclectic views with such conviction and good humor that he makes believers of skeptics. Raised a New Deal Democrat, he flipped to the Republicans and even co-wrote a book with John McClaughry.

A stalwart conservative Republican amid the liberal tsunami of University of Vermont academics, cracks began appearing in Bryan's party loyalty when Ronald Reagan forced Vermont to raise its drinking age, then crumbled when George Bush Jr. inflicted "No Child Left Behind" on the state. One senses that Bryan delights in going against the flow. He tells us to ignore the fabricated news (the word he uses is "crap") that entertainment-driven media feeds us from Washington and to pay more attention to what happens in our own back yards.

Bryan's own back yard (front, too) was at one time populated by 17 junk cars. They were all Chevettes, the simplest, least expensive Chevy made between 1976 and 1987. ("Junk" is a qualitative term. The cars had value to Bryan. They were junk only to his Starksboro neighbors who thought 17 dysfunctional autos constituted an eyesore. Perhaps if they were Corvettes, not Chevettes, his neighbors would have felt differently.) As a staunch defender of the rights of property owners, Bryan felt entitled even to an eyesore, but he relented, deciding that community peace was more important than defending individual rights. He now describes his personal position as a "decentralist communitarian." And, there is peace in Starksboro.

Bryan does support the aim of eventual Vermont secession. For now he advocates preparing for secession from the United States by putting in place the policies and infrastructure that are more conducive to small state survival. He's on record as saying that, "despite its flaws, America remains our best hope for a peaceful transition from a world of warring nation-states to one of truly united nations." (From the April 22, Vermont Commons blog). When that time comes, he hopes Vermont will be one of those nations.

The crowd seems to agree. There's no sense of irony when he states that what he likes about his chosen state is that "In Vermont you learn to suffer fools." It takes courage to live here, and he defines courage as "living with ambiguity," a phrase coined by his co-author and friend Bill Mares. It may appear to some like a mixed message, but when he closes paraphrasing Alexander Solzhenitsyn who said that you can pave the entire world, but eventually there will be a crack in the cement and "from that crack, freedom will emerge," it's as if he is Ethan Allen, standing shoulder to shoulder with them.

The crowd gives him a standing ovation.

The next speaker is James Howard Kunstler, author of "The Long Emergency." His topic is "The Cheap Oil Endgame" and concerns the scenario he foresees as we confront skyrocketing energy prices and concurrent shortages. He predicts turbulence between different population factions due to the "latent encoded behavior of the NASCAR community who," he says, "are only 25 years into civilized behavior." It's a statement that would get him tarred and feathered at Thunder Road, but he's in friendly confines today.

He, too, gets a standing ovation.

In addition to Ethan Allen and freedom, a common denominator for FreedomFest and the Secession Conference is the presence of members of the Libertarian Party.

(At FreedomFest I took what is called "World's Smallest Political Quiz." Lo and behold, I discover after all these years I am a Libertarian. Sample question: "Military service should be voluntary. There should be no draft. Agree? Maybe? Disagree?" I am familiar with the question, because I have taken a similar test from the American Civil Liberties Union. And I learned I should join their organization as well.)

At the Secession Conference I meet Hardy Machia, one-time gubernatorial candidate for the Libertarian Party. The Libertarians are the rare group that manages to straddle the extreme left and right wings of the political spectrum. Vermont is also the chosen state of Hardy Machia whose clean-cut appearance could qualify him as a young Republican for Reagan.

His politics, however, do not evoke Reagan. The Libertarians are "ProChoice on everything." They support making the environment "Vermont Clean," meaning zero tolerance for pollution in lakes, rivers and streams. They are for "renewable crops for farmers," "livable wage" and tax cuts. "Freedom," according to the Libertarians "is our natural state." The Libertarians appear equally at home at both FreedomFest and the Secession Conference.

John McClaughry is not in attendance at the Secession Conference, but he was invited. In the letter he sent Naylor declining to attend, McClaughry writes that he does not share the premises that "America has become an overbearing tyrannical force for evil in the world," that "America will collapse in the next 20 years" or that "Vermont, freed from the protection of the Bill of Rights, dominated by politically correct, anti-property, anti-gun, neo-totalitarian socialists would be a place worth living." Those seem like valid reasons to stay home.

The debate on freedom in Vermont will likely rage on. If you like to scream, change parties, dress up in colonial garb and drink beer, the Vermont political scene is a good place to be. All that is left to complete the scene is for every player in Vermont's political circus to be given a colorful nickname. The major politicians already have them thanks to Peter Freyne, political columnist for Seven Days. Some might think Freyne's sobriquets silly … or juvenile … or mean-spirited, but others think they add color to an arena prone to take itself too seriously. For example, until recently, state representative David Zuckerman was simply a diligent organic farmer, a member of the Progressive party and the chair of the House Agriculture Committee. His political stature, however, took a huge step toward celebrity when Freyne dubbed him the "Pony-tail Prog."

Other Vermont politicians who have been "Freyned" are Hoho (Howard Dean), Scoobie-Doo (Brian Dubie), Chainsaw Liz (Elizabeth Ready), and Governor Scissorhands (Jim Douglas). The governor earned his "Scissorhands" label by working approximately 23 hours a day, enough so that it takes two state troopers to keep up with him. As a result, nearly every Vermonter has an opportunity to watch him cut a ribbon. He also has tossed cow pies and has eaten many pieces of cake. We have all had the chance to shake his hand or tell him what we think should be done about health care. It's not like this in other states.

The nether reaches of Vermont's political scene are hungry for equal time and billing. Won't they benefit from a dash of the WWF (World Wrestling Federation) glitz? The Ethan Allen Institute's McClaughry, who is generally serious-minded and righteous, could become "Just John." The quotable Bryan will become even more so as "Frank the Crank," while "Doubting Thomas" Naylor could even more effectively continue his mistrust of government and big business. Whenever definitive historical accuracy is called for, we can turn to Kevin "The Bookman" Graffagnino.

Or maybe Ethan Allen gives us all the color we need.

Ethan Allen died in 1789 at the age of 51, two years before Vermont joined the union. He and a servant had just picked up a load of hay from his cousin Ebenezer Allen up in the Champlain Islands and were bringing it back on the ice when he fell into a semi-conscious state from which he never recovered. No one, not even "The Bookman," can say definitively how Ethan would feel about Vermont Secession. There is no telling if he would agree with the Libertarians about legalizing marijuana or with Frank Bryan on lowering the drinking age. There's no doubt, however, that he would relish that his name, words and image are still synonymous with freedom. Long may he frame the political debate in his chosen state. Let freedom ring!

Published December 4, 2005 in Vermont Today

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