My Friend Howard
by Bruce Longstreet
The most telling comment on the state of our Republic heard in awhile was uttered by a high official of the recent Schwarzenegger campaign. Dismissing the importance of discouraging poll numbers during the "bad behavior" flare-up, (newspeak for "sexual assault") he said "most voters don't begin to focus on a race until the last week, and the most effective way to reach them is with thirty-second teevee spots." He said it with the swagger of a man who knew he had money enough to give 'em thirty-second spots a-plenty.
So there it was in a nutshell. The un-spun truth. That is, the right to govern ourselves by selecting the people who represent us, that gloried jewel of our democracy, the very principle they always tell us we're fighting and dying for when they send us off to fight and die, is entrusted mostly to people who believe television commercials.
I lived in Vermont's capital city during the ascendancy of Howard Dean to Lieutenant Governor and later to Governor. He and I also had a minor professional association that had us on a first name basis for a while, and although I do not wish to have this taken as an endorsement of his candidacy, the Howard Dean I see represented in the media and talked about by the local mountebanks is a bizarre caricature. Actually, a bizarre series of contradicting caricatures. His marriage must be troubled if his wife won't come out and shake hands and kiss babies for him. Then, he is callous for using his wife as a campaign prop by having her appear on the stump with him in Iowa. He became both an unelectable pipsqueak of an ex-Governor from a tiny, inconsequential state and a fearsome moneyed juggernaut that had to be stopped before he ravaged the entire political landscape. A party maverick who is too cozy with the party establishment. He is too liberal. He is too conservative. He is too centrist. He is pragmatic and reckless. He's an angry and volatile loose cannon who is too buttoned down and guarded. He's a racist and a gun nut and the darling of Vermont's Saab driving, Birkenstocks-and-socks yuppie liberals. He is a champion and a betrayer of gay rights. If all or even some of the candidacies are as distorted as this, and don't doubt that they are, it's no wonder the Disney people are one of our major purveyors of news and information, is it? And is it a wonder we get the quality of candidates we always get when we ask people of quality to subject themselves and their families to this impossible scrutiny, where any wrong decision or indiscreet utterance can be career ending? I really didn't know Howard Dean all that well. Just enough to see how unfair and cruel the distortion of his character and capability is. He is, I will hazard, well-intentioned and service oriented. I never detected an undue political ambition about him. He is a doer and he is an achiever. He's very smart, and well informed. He is not a tilter-at-windmills. I don't think he would do this unless he saw a way that he could actually win. It pained me to see the big guns of the National Punditocracy, and the Establishment Democratic Party, trained on the poor ol' ex-Governor of Vermont when it looked like he had hit a raw nerve. That the Democratic National Party is a fraud. And that this revelation might make for a winning platform. Oh! Save us John Kerry!
Democracy has a flavor and tone in Vermont that actually makes you revel in the joys, freedoms, and responsibilities of citizenship. Government is one of the most closely watched and discussed topics in Vermont, particularly in Montpelier, the capital city. Montpelier contains about 9,000 citizens, making it the smallest state capital in the nation and the only one without a McDonald's, as they will all certainly tell you with pride. It has, or had, (I haven't been there since the Bush economy) a thriving three-square block downtown area filled mostly with independently owned Mom and Pop businesses of long standing. The State House is a five-minute walk from the heart of Main Street and, especially when the legislature was in session, the town was lousy with politicians and officials. You might find yourself behind the Chief Justice of the state Supreme Court in the lunchtime sandwich line at the deli. You might see Patrick Leahy, then the chairman of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, in Bermuda shorts pushing a basket full of hotdogs, buns and other barbecue supplies around the Grand Union, his self-driven Buick sedan with Senate plates parked in the lot next to pick-up trucks and rusted beaters. You could buttonhole your one and only congressman outside a coffee shop and give him a piece of your mind about an especially cynical, party line vote he had recently made. Politics is up-close and personal there. So up-close and personal, a female friend reported, with some prodding, on then-Governor Madeline Kunin's fancy in unmentionables, having been locker room neighbors with her at the local health club. (Tasteful and expensive is what I heard... the underwear, I mean.) Vermont politicians are used to answering for their actions directly to people on the street or in the general store. That's a good trait for your elected representatives to have.
Vermont has a citizen-legislature with very few full-time politicians. The legislative session is from January to whenever they get done, but everybody, legislators and constituents alike, gets cranky if the session extends very far into May. Dairy farmers, school teachers, professionals, insurance agents, self-employed entrepreneurs and other ordinary souls make up the two houses, and they all are anxious to get back to their families and livelihoods, as their stipend and per-diem actually see most of them losing money when they serve in government. This is the exact opposite from most legislatures where members make most of their fortunes when they are in session. Town Meeting Day is more than a charming throw-back to simpler times, but a beautiful model of small scale self-rule enhanced rather than diminished by its plainness and clumsiness. Town Meeting is one day in March when most of the incorporated towns and villages have a general meeting of the citizenry in a big hall. Often there are hundreds of people packed in, and they stay all day long. After electing a moderator they take care of all the town's business by consent, including a line by line approval of the budget. It is like the ancient Athenian Assembly, in which all the citizens are allowed to sit in congress, rise to speak, and vote on the pressing business of their community, mainly, how the taxpayers' money is going to be spent. And how much will they tax themselves. There's a killer potluck, too. There's nothing like it, at least not in any other place I've ever lived.
It's no wonder then that the national media and expert talking heads, what Calvin Trillin refers to as "the Sabbath Gasbags" on the Sunday talk shows, are confused. It's hard to get a read on Vermont-style democracy because it is found practically nowhere else.
Consider their Congressional delegation. There are only three in it, Vermont making up only one congressional district to go with the requisite two U.S. Senators. Congressman Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed socialist, Senator Patrick Leahy, yer standard liberal Democrat, and the notorious Senator James Jeffords, a former moderate Republican who turned in his party membership in disgust over the incipient Bush administration. Three entirely different flavors of political philosophy, all elected by the same statewide constituency. So what is in common with these men? They are all persons of personal integrity, at least by Congressional standards. That's a big deal in Vermont. Party affiliation doesn't mean much. Usually the vote goes to the better candidate, regardless of party. In the years I lived in Vermont I rarely bristled at the quality of my representation in Washington or Montpelier, or on the city council for that matter. Vermonters have that tradition. They generally know how to pick em. And the elected representatives are in turn very sensitive to the will of the people. That alone is a reason to take Howard Dean seriously as a Presidential candidate. The endorsement of the voters of Vermont, who returned him to office for five two-year terms. "Governor of Vermont" may not be an impressive line on a Presidential resumé, but having the people of Vermont as a reference is pretty weighty.