Graff: 'The Vermont Way,' Jim Douglas’ memoir

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Graff: 'The Vermont Way,' Jim Douglas’ memoir

Tue, 09/02/2014 - 9:38am -- tim

by Chris Graff Jim Douglas’ new autobiography offers up its share of news nuggets: We learn that in 2009 President Obama offered Douglas an ambassadorship, that Douglas stands by his veto of gay marriage, he remains a fan of George W Bush, and that he is really irked by the press. But those looking to best understand Vermont’s 80th governor will find a wealth of stories that taken together paint a very clear picture.

Take, for example, this almost throwaway comment tucked into the chapter on Douglas’ years as state treasurer:

“I noticed that the attire of our employees did not reflect the professionalism I wanted our office to convey to the public,” he writes. “I decided to insist all male staffers wear a tie… I confess to being more than a little old-fashioned in this regard… but I think how someone dresses at work suggests the level of pride he or she has in the office.”

Jim Douglas is “more than a little old-fashioned” in many regards. There is a reason he has such affinity for Calvin Coolidge. Sometimes you feel as if he has just stepped out of a Norman Rockwell illustration for the Saturday Evening Post. He clearly yearns for a time gone by.

Pictured with then Quebec Premier Jean Charest in 2010, one of Douglas' greatest accomplishments was repairing the cross-border relations with Vermont's closest international trading partner after the 1998 ice storm led to the Vermont utilities suing Hydro Quebec for the resultant power outage. Douglas was able to mend the relationship, gain a new power contract for Vermont and, himself, receive a citizenship award from Charest. Courtesy photo.

Douglas’ new memoir, “The Vermont Way: A Republican Governor Leads America’s Most Liberal State,” is as much about the man as the politician. In the book he comes through as he has always appeared: deeply patriotic, conservative, frugal, honest, and, most of all, Republican through and through. He proudly chronicles his volunteer work as a 13-year-old on Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign and his days chairing the Vermont College Republicans while anti-war demonstrations ripped apart college campuses.

The book also offers up a sweeping view of Douglas’ time in Vermont politics, starting with his 1972 election to the Vermont House and ending as he left the governor’s office in 2011, a period in which the Republican Party lost its dominance in the state.

The theme throughout is that the times they are a changing – and not for the better. Douglas has harsh words for the political climate in both DC and Montpelier. Most Americans, Douglas writes, “don’t like the contentiousness they are forced to observe and have every right to demand that their public officials, whose salaries they are paying, get along.”

While he makes it clear that Vermont is better than DC, he complains, “these days there’s a new breed of Democrats and Progressives who have little practical knowledge and are so focused on imposing their views that they haven’t learned how to work with folks who don’t share them. In my experience, no political party has a monopoly on good ideas or common sense.”

Douglas, who served as a member of the Vermont House, secretary of state and treasurer before winning election as governor in 2002, bemoans what he sees as a change in the composition of the Democratic caucus in the state Legislature, which he says is made up of a newer breed of Democrat: “hard left, ideologically driven, and not at all interested in voting independently.”

Douglas, however, has high praise about Democrat US Representative Peter Welch’s tenure as president pro tem of the state Senate in the first half of Douglas’ tenure as governor. “Welch was results-oriented. He had strong views. But, at the end of the day, he wanted to accomplish something.”

Governor Shumlin and Governor Douglas, seen here in 2012, have a cordial relationship. VBM file photo.

“Shumlin was, well, quite another story,” writes Douglas about Peter Shumlin, who served as president pro tem for the second half of Douglas’ tenure and then succeeded him as governor. “No matter what he said, it was likely to change in the next conversation.”

One Democrat with whom Douglas worked well was President Barack Obama, especially while Douglas chaired the National Governors Association. In his memoir Douglas reveals that in the summer of 2009 the White House asked whether the governor might be interested in a presidential appointment, most likely an ambassadorship. Douglas declined.

Douglas was an early supporter of George W Bush and writes that he “is a decent and intelligent man who always did what he believed was best for America. Although we didn’t always see eye to eye on matters of public policy (as governor, I even sued him a few times!), I’m proud to call him my friend.”

On Douglas’ list of accomplishments none gets the attention or passion as does health care reform, starting with the Vermont Blueprint for Health in 2003. “The premise of the Blueprint is quite simple: It’s a whole lot cheaper to keep folks healthy than to treat them after they become sick,” he writes.

Douglas says his veto of the gay marriage bill was based on his personal beliefs. “I believe … that the institution of marriage is worth preserving in its traditional form. The civil union law gave gay couples the same privileges as married folks in the eyes of the state; this new proposal was really a debate over nomenclature,” he says.

Douglas, famous for remembering everyone's name and for his sense of humor, shares a quip with WPTZ reporter Stewart Ledbetter. VBM file photo.

The press comes under harsh criticism from Douglas, especially the Rutland Herald and his hometown newspaper, The Addison Independent. In both cases the focus of his ire are editorials.

He singles out the publisher of the Addison Independent, Angelo Lynn, for critical editorials, especially one in 2007 that said, “Douglas was playing politics in the most petty of ways… he’s not being honest here… he’s slinging the most mud… Douglas’s cynicism is a play taken out of Karl Rove’s manifesto for George W Bush, and it’s just as sick….” 

The title of “The Vermont Way” refers to an overarching belief that Vermont is different, and that its leaders can work together to ensure economic prosperity while protecting its natural beauty.

Douglas feels the Vermont Way is endangered and he lets his frustration flow onto the pages. A prime target is the Conservation Law Foundation, “a special interest law firm whose initials might just as easily stand for ‘Control Land Forever.’ Along with their confederates at the Vermont Law School, they have impeded just about every major development in the state in the last few years,” Douglas writes.

Douglas’ memoir is a rarity. Few Vermont governors have written of their times in office. So “The Vermont Way” offers an inside perspective of serving as the state’s chief executive.

He describes:

  • What it is like to have a state police security detail: “It’s certainly different having a shadow, and it takes some adjustment.”
  • How he decided when to lower the state flag, adding that “as I was riding around the state, there was nothing more annoying to me than to find a flag at a state facility at full-staff when it was supposed to be lowered.”
  • And he discusses what it was like to be commander in chief in a time of war: “There was no sadder occasion than when I comforted a grieving family or spoke at a funeral for a brave Vermonter who gave his life for our country.”

But more than anything Douglas’ memoir is a plea for politicians to work together to get things done. “We have a right to expect cooperation among those we choose to serve,” he writes.

“Compromise does not signal weakness; it indicates a willingness to find common ground and to accomplish something, instead of simply posturing and getting nowhere.”

“The Vermont Way” is published by Common Ground Publications.

Chris Graff, a former Vermont bureau chief of The Associated Press and host of VPT's Vermont This Week, is now vice president for communications at National Life Group. He is author of, Dateline Vermont: Covering and uncovering the newsworthy stories that shaped a state - and influenced a nation. VERY TOP PHOTO: Governor Douglas in Shanghai in 2010. Vermont Business Magazine file photo.