Book Review: The Vermont Way by Gov. Jim Douglas

The Vermont Way: A Republican Governor Leads America’s Most Liberal State By Jim Douglas (New Haven, Vt.:Common Ground Communications / A Bray Book, 2014, pp. 359, paper $35.00).

Former Governor Jim Douglas’s autobiography, The Vermont Way, details his thirty-eight-year political service to Vermonters. It is an intimate and personal narrative that captures his outgoing demeanor and tries to define his historical legacy.

Shortly after graduation from Middlebury College in 1972, Douglas was elected to the Vermont House. He went on to become majority leader and later joined Governor Richard Snelling’s senior staff. He then served twelve years as secretary of state. He followed that with an eight-year stint as state treasurer, culminating in his election in 2002 as governor, which office he held for four terms, earning more votes than any other politician in Vermont history.

Douglas’s reminiscences, both about his leadership roles and his influence on the political ebbs and flows during his many years of service, make for an interesting personal retrospective.  The book’s title and cutline, taken together, define the inherent tension of his long career. Douglas works to convey what Vermonters already know and like about their former Governor—his dry wit, accessibility, and congenial personality, sharing anecdotal digressions that make clear his affection for Vermonters. At the core of his belief system is his certainty that spending time among Vermonters rather than their politicians enabled him to distill the wisdom and experience of his constituents and bring it to the decision-making process in Montpelier.  He also draws on Vermont’s Republican century prior to 1963 as the philosophical basis for his own legacy.  That long era of virtually one-party rule in Vermont was characterized by leaders who were often progressive with regard to the wellbeing of their neighbors and on environmental issues, while remaining conservative on fiscal issues—a balance that inspired Douglas.  He also references the example of his mentor, Governor Deane C. Davis: “He told Vermonters the truth” (p.13). 

Douglas’s own delivery of hard truths to Vermonters is a recurring theme in the book.  But “truth” is a slippery term, especially in the ideologically charged context of politics, and Douglas takes umbrage when others present facts to buttress political arguments which he disputes.  For example, during his tenure he often asserted as fact that Vermont is the most highly taxed state in the country and that this drives Vermonters and businesses out. Yet according to IRS and Tax Foundation data commissioned by Douglas’s and the legislature’s Blue Ribbon Tax Commission (on which I served with Kathy Hoyt and Bill Sayre), although Vermont does have a relatively high tax burden it ranks somewhere between ninth and thirteenth nationally, depending on the methodology applied. Moreover, the data showed that slightly more people are moving in than moving out, a fact Douglas himself now acknowledges in the book.

The book is compromised, however, by Douglas’s under-edited writing style. Even though this is a memoir, too many sentences begin with “I,” which leaves a reader wondering about Douglas’s concept of political leadership:  Does he see himself as the sole standard bearer for his version of Republicanism?  Did he have or rely on colleagues to help him shape and implement policies?  And too many sentences end with an “!”.  This breathless writing style is often at odds with Douglas’s more serious points. 

Moreover, the narrative is often diminished by Douglas’s defensive reactions to those disagreeing with him.  An example is his general antipathy for the press and media. “Seven Days isn’t really a newspaper,” he writes, “but I stopped reading one that is, The Addison County Independent” (p. 291).  Douglas lambastes the editorial page writer for calling into question his policies and motives. The Addison County Independent is published in Middlebury, Douglas’s hometown, and he later adds, “It’s a little awkward, to be sure, not to read the local paper” (p. 291). He goes on to attack The Rutland Herald / Barre Montpelier Times Argus: “The Mitchells [owner/publishers] have been community-minded and supportive but they give their editors free rein and the staff wrote a number of outrageous editorials in my later terms” (pp. 292-293). “Free rein?” Douglas seems to believe that publishers should dictate their editorial writers’ opinions. He cites an editorial in which the writer suggests that the governor’s opposition to gay marriage was “driven by politics” and that his reasoning was “bogus,” “sad and perplexing,” and “contradictory.” (p. 293).  In this case, the writer of the “outrageous editorials” won a Pulitzer Prize for his writing on the evolution of gay marriage, which Douglas opposes. Not only does Douglas misunderstand editorial firewalls, he asserts, “I guess their view is that, if you disagree with someone, the best approach is to demean his or her arguments rather than rebut them civilly.” He adds, “Gee, how many insults can fit into a single editorial?” and “Wow! Time to take a deep breath!” (p. 291) Sadly, such personal reactions to press criticism substitute for a considered recollection of the evolving political debate and betray a misunderstanding of journalism’s role in a democracy.

Occasionally, a darker side of Douglas emerges, obscuring the otherwise warm and genial style. His retelling of his defeat on gay marriage and the legislative override of his veto, focuses on his animus toward proponents. “He [his successor, Governor Peter Shumlin] later reciprocated by appointing one of the leading lobbyists of the movement to the Supreme Court” (p. 166). Beth Robinson was indeed appointed to the Court, but the implication is that this “lobbyist’s” appointment was political payback, when, in fact, Robinson is an experienced and highly respected attorney who clerked on the Washington D.C. Circuit, often considered a step away from the Supreme Court of the United States. To refer to her as a “lobbyist” and her appointment to the Vermont Supreme Court as a political reward disregards her unimpeachable qualifications.

Douglas is also crisp in his disdain for special interest groups, writing that environmental organizations “often had no connection to a proposal except that they opposed it, they had money, and they liked to cause mischief.” This generalization conveys his frustration, but hardly does justice to the motives at work.  He goes on to say that, “there are outfits like 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 development in the state in the last few years. They try to stop everything” (p. 213). In Douglas’s view there seems to be little room for the interplay of opposing ideas and civil discourse characteristic of democracy. 

Governor Douglas’s autobiography is a comfortable read when it is about himself, his family, his Vermont neighbors, and his almost four decades of political activity. It is the subjective retrospective of a man who sincerely loves his constituents and, in turn, desires their affection. The partisan rhetoric, however, undermines the book’s value as an historical record of his extensive service to Vermonters.                                                                                                                      

Bill Schubart

Bill Schubart is a retired businessman, public radio commentator, and a fiction writer.

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