Book Review: The Vermont Way by Gov. Jim Douglas

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

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

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
” (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
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.

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 is a retired businessman, public radio commentator, and a fiction