by John O’Brien
In 1976, my father ran for governor of Vermont. I really wanted to vote for him but I was only 13.
In 1980, a moderate Republican congressman from Illinois, John Anderson, ran for president. At high school debate tournaments, I wore his button on the lapel of my tweed blazer. I really wanted to vote for him, but I was only 17.
In 1998, in a race to represent Vermont in the U.S. Senate, a high school dropout ran against a Harvard-educated millionaire. All things being equal—neither candidate had ever held elected office—I voted for the dropout. His name was Fred Tuttle. It was the happiest “X” I’d made in my life.
OK, admittedly, I was Fred Tuttle’s campaign manager. And before he ran for the U.S. Senate, I’d made a fictional movie, called Man with a Plan, about Fred running for the U.S. House. Released in 1996, Man with a Plan made Fred into something of a local folk hero. Life Magazine declared him to be “perhaps New England’s most beloved political figure since JFK himself.” That year, by Town Meeting Day—the day of Vermont’s presidential primary—even though he wasn’t running for anything, Fred had become someone voters really wanted to vote for. The next day, the Times Argus’s front page headline announced, “Dole Takes Vermont, But Fred Gets His Share.”
Why is it that, when I voted for Fred Tuttle in the 1998 GOP primary, I felt like I was John Hancock signing the Declaration of Independence, whereas all my other votes, before and after, have had all the satisfaction of getting a flu shot?
I’m not so cynical that I’ve given up on politics or government, but I’m sympathetic to those who have. As someone who leans more to the left than to the right, I generally agree with the policies supported by our president, our Washington delegation, and our governor, but I’m troubled by the seeming invincibility of incumbents and the absence of competitive races. Isn’t it worrisome that something like 625,000 people live in Vermont and we can’t find a single person to run as a Republican for attorney general? Or secretary of state? Or auditor of accounts? Or state treasurer? Wouldn’t it be more invigorating to head to the polls on November 4 if Jim Douglas revealed, “I want to be secretary of state . . . again!” If Rusty DeWees confessed, “The Logger wants to be your auditor of accounts!” If Sharon Meyer, candidate for state treasurer, announced, “I want to predict Vermont’s bond rating, not the weather for the weekend!”
For me, what made the Fred Tuttle versus Jack McMullen race so singular was that it had all the elements of a Hollywood boxing match.
The contender. I wouldn’t have asked Fred to run if I didn’t think he could win the election. It’s not uncommon for professional comedians or garrulous wingnuts to run for office, but no one takes them seriously and ultimately almost no one votes for them. If Fred had run directly against a Jim Douglas or a Bernie Sanders, he would have gotten a few laughs, a few votes and be forgotten. But in Jack McMullen, Fred had a worthy (or perhaps “equally unworthy” would be more accurate) opponent. Since neither candidate could run on his record, the race offered a delicious contrast: unknown, Massachusetts CEO-type with millions and party endorsement seeks GOP nomination for U.S. Senate against retired Vermont farmer with name recognition, a sense of humor and 77 dollars.
The underdog. When the Republican Party challenged the legitimacy of the voter signatures that Fred submitted to the secretary of state in order to get on the ballot, Fred was immediately cast as the feisty underdog and McMullen and the GOP came off looking like bullies. Considering that political parties, as a rule, don’t endorse one of their candidates over another before their primary elections, and that, historically, the Tuttles had voted Republican in every election since Abraham Lincoln ran for president, the attempt to keep Fred off the GOP ballot seemed exclusionary and downright un-American. Soon after, I received a letter from a woman in Strafford accusing me of making a “mockery” of politics. Somewhere, Mark Twain was smiling.
The haymaker. Near the end of the race, Jack and Fred were invited by Vermont Public Radio to a candidates’ debate. At the beginning of the broadcast, each candidate had the chance to ask the other a few direct questions. Jack’s Harvard education and unabated hubris did not prepare him for Fred’s simple queries. When asked to pronounce the Vermont town spelled “C-a-l-a-i-s,” he pronounced it the way they do in France. When asked what a tedder does, he pleaded ignorance. When asked how many teats a cow has, Jack confidently answered, “six.” I never heard the rest of the debate—at that point a couple of McMullen’s collegiate mercenaries cornered me to practice their trash talk and make predictions of glorious victory.
Fred’s glorious victory in the GOP primary was soon put in perspective—Sen. Patrick Leahy easily won the general election and returned to Washington for his fifth term.
When I look at the short list of candidates I really wanted to vote for, none of them got elected. What if, in an upset for the ages, Fred had actually beaten Leahy? Would Vermont be a different place today? Would there be more jobs here or less opportunity? Would the foliage be brighter or duller, the winters be longer or shorter? I can only say it would have been something else. In Man with a Plan, when reporter Bryan Pfeiffer challenges Fred’s long list of campaign pledges with “Fred, it sounds like you’re promising a chicken in every pot,” Fred shoots back in his Yankee Zen way: “That’s right, a chicken in every egg.”