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In Praise of Politicians


by David Kelley

Sometimes, in the midst of an election year, it is easy to tire of lawn signs, debates and sound bites. But few groups of people are more critical to our community or our future than politicians. John Kennedy used to say, “Politics is the most honorable profession,” and I can think of no place on earth that has produced a more honorable group of politicians than Vermont. No matter how irritating or tiring politicians might be, most deserve our gratitude. My grandfather was the state treasurer, but I didn’t pay much attention to politics until 1970 when I was in college.

On May 4, 1970, the Ohio National Guard opened fire on unarmed college students protesting the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War. The guardsmen fired 67 rounds in 13 seconds. They killed four students and wounded nine others. All of us at UVM went into shock. We stopped going to class and the school closed down. My friends and I found a car and started driving to Washington, D.C. By the time we got to Washington we were joined by tens of thousands of other students. I remember hearing the Beatles The Long and Winding Road over and over again. And I remember Lars Larsen getting arrested.

Tom Hayes was the Republican lieutenant governor of Vermont at the time. Deane Davis was the governor. Davis was out of state at some kind of conference. Hayes directed that the flag at the State House be lowered to half-mast. When Davis returned to Montpelier he countermanded Hayes’ order. Hayes was so incensed he said he would run against an incumbent from his own party, pretty much committing political suicide, but becoming our voice and my first living hero.

My best friend was at Middlebury. That summer we volunteered to work on Tom’s campaign and spent a lot of time handing out “Tom Hayes” bumper stickers. The more I got to know Tom the more I admired him. I remember him saying that it would be safer to leave your wallet on a table in the middle of a bunch of Vermont politicians than any other group of people on earth. Tom had gone to UVM and then to Georgetown Law School. That summer I decided that when I finished at UVM I was going to go to Georgetown Law School just as he had.

At Georgetown I got a job as a proctor for the Senate pages and then a job monitoring congressional hearings for a law firm on M Street. I got to watch people who I would look up to and admire for the rest of my life—Democrats and Republicans alike: Mike Mansfield from Montana, Phil Hart from Michigan and a man who was then a first term Congressman from Maine, William Cohen. The man I admired the most was George Aiken from Vermont.

After law school my best friends stayed behind to work for big firms with big names like Morgan, Lewis and Bockius and Venable, Baetcher, Howard and Civiletti. I took a vow of poverty and decided to become a country lawyer with the notion that someday I might become a congressman. To say that I was naïve would be the understatement of this, as well as the last, century. After losing two races for state’s attorney (and one for the State Senate, just for good measure) it dawned on me that God did not intend for me to be a politician.

By the time I had this epiphany I had become a visiting scholar at the Russian Research Center and had been nurturing student exchange programs and representing a handful of businesses in the then Soviet Union. As the Soviet Union began its transition from Communism (some would say collapse), Jim Jeffords, first as a congressman, and then as the junior senator from Vermont, took a special interest in our exchange programs. He went out of his way to be to be our advocate in Washington. Together with his wife Liz, he came to visit me while I was working in Moscow. By then he had joined Tom Hayes, Phil Hart, Mike Mansfield, William Cohen and George Aiken in my pantheon of long admired politicians. And because of Jim Jeffords I faced one more political drubbing.

In 1991 the then Republican governor of Vermont, Richard Snelling, died in office. His lieutenant governor, Howard Dean, thus became governor. A great politician in his own right and a good governor as well, Howard Dean was enormously popular. By 1994 there were no Republicans willing to run against him. I vaguely remember talking to Jim Douglas and saying it would be insane for him, or anyone else, to risk a career with a genuine future in politics, in a race against Gov. Dean.

In early July, Allen Martin, the Chairman of the State Republican Committee and a lawyer I had the deepest respect for, called me and, probably understanding that by now I had come to realize I did not have any future in politics whatsoever, asked if I would run. I politely declined. But persistence was one of the qualities that made Allen a great lawyer. So next Allen had Jim Jeffords call me. It was difficult to say no to a United States senator, especially Jim Jeffords. So I said, “What the hell.”

With T.E. Lawrence’s words in mind that, “There could be no honor in a sure success, but much might be wrested from a sure defeat,” I had one of the best summers of my life. While losing in a landslide, I still had a chance to talk and share ideas with hundreds of people. I had a chance to debate important issues with a man whose intelligence and character I admired. And I learned to have an even deeper appreciation for the people who seek public office. Nothing is harder than calling your friends and asking them for money. It is a humbling experience, day after day, to call your relatives, your roommates from college, your clients and even your ex-wife (who by the way donated the maximum allowed by law) and to ask them to write you a check. To run from a court room in Newport to a radio station in Rutland, and then back to Montpelier can bring on a special brand of heart burn. I might add that losing is not fun either, but I had learned that long ago.

There are politicians I don’t agree with. There are a few I don’t even like. But there are none I don’t respect. And I am grateful to all of them who make the sacrifices called for to make our democracy work. It is their sacrifices that guarantee ours is still, to borrow Lincoln’s phrase, a government “of the people, by the people and for the people.”

Tom Hayes shared the shock and sorrow of an entire generation when he lowered the flag at the Vermont State House to half-mast. He assured the demise of his own personal ambitions when he challenged an incumbent governor from his own party. But he gave voice to people whose voices deserved to be heard and he inspired many of us to look inside ourselves throughout life to find, perhaps in smaller ways, the moral courage to speak our truths without regard to personal consequences.

I can think of nothing more praiseworthy.