Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Small Is Bountiful

Eagle Scout, hobo, Reagan speechwriter—John McClaughry is the most underappreciated man in American politics.

Credit: phloxii

The two most desirable qualities in a politician—wit and an aversion to wielding power—are, to the media and the deciders, the most disabling. Wit, whether folksy (Morris Udall) or caustic (Bob Dole), is no aid to presidential ambitions, and Ron Paul’s admirable renunciation of the sword caused the press to regard him as a loon. The witless (Nikki Haley, Gavin Newsom) and power-crazed (Hillary Clinton, John McCain) get much better press.

There hasn’t been a politico in our lifetimes who has combined wit with an inappetence for controlling others quite as potently as Vermont’s John McClaughry. I checked in with John, still irrepressible at 86 years of age, upon the recent online publication of The Decentralism File, a rich lectionary appearing courtesy of the E.F. Schumacher Center and accessible at www.centerforneweconomics.org.


Eagle Scout, hobo (as “Feather River John” he rode boxcars for 5,000 miles), Steve McQueen lookalike, Vermont state representative and senator, speechwriter for the pre-presidential Ronald Reagan, agrarian-libertarian-populist idea man, a Jeffersonian in the best sense of that honorable and now nearly extinct adjective—John McClaughry is the most underappreciated and unheeded man in modern American politics. 

As a politico, he was…offbeat. Combing through my thick McClaughry file I find this reply form for those who donated to his 1992 campaign for Governor of Vermont: 

Dear John: I am enthusiastically enclosing the proceeds of my invalid mother’s pension account, or equivalent thereof, to support your campaign for Governor. I certify that I am not under indictment or otherwise in a position to cause you more embarrassment than this contribution will cause me.

Republican McClaughry ran and lost that race to Democratic incumbent Howard Dean, just as he ran and lost a 1982 primary race for U.S. Senate to incumbent Robert Stafford: by offering a vison of “a land where power, like the ownership of property, is not concentrated in the hands of the few, but distributed widely among the many.”

The many, alas, did not pull his lever. John’s friend Frank Bryan, the University of Vermont professor who wrote the standard academic work on town meeting governance (Real Democracy), explained McClaughry’s political dilemma: “How, with limited funds, to articulate his views to an electorate that does not possess the necessary concepts or language?”


The concepts and language are on glorious display in Schumacher’s Decentralism File, described by John as a digital collection of 120-plus “selections of decentralist thought from many different historic eras, authors, and countries…exhibit[ing] the depth and breadth of decentralist thinking across the political, social, and economic spheres of human organization, and across time.”

Stretching from Lao Tzu through Wendell Berry, the Decentralism File’s authors include Jane Jacobs, George Kennan, Paul Goodman, Norman Mailer, Robert Nisbet, and unexpected communists (Rosa Luxemburg!) and anti-communists (Richard Nixon!). The New Left Students for a Democratic Society’s Port Huron Statement is here, as are manifestoes from Plaid Cymru of Wales and the Cornish Nationalist Party.

Bobby Kennedy (the first one) is represented by two speeches in which he laments that “Bigness, loss of community, organizations and society grown far past the human scale—these are the besetting sins of the twentieth century.” They are no less besetting in the 21st. John recalls, “I spent two hours with RFK in 1968 at Harvard and found him a changed and better man from his earlier days as a savage partisan.”

I’ve always dismissed the Clash’s admonitory lyric “The new groups are not concerned/With what there is to be learned” as humorlessly dogmatic, but—and jeez I sound like an old guy—I do wish the young ’uns would explore the inspiriting and fecund traditions, based in love and liberty and cooperation, to which we are heirs. Robert Nisbet and Dorothy Day are much better for the soul—not to mention our country—than keyboard belligerents fantasizing over ways the state can punish their political foes. 

A recent cancer diagnosis won’t stop John McClaughry from adding to his proudest accomplishment: he has been elected Town Moderator of Kirby (pop. 521) every year since 1967. He’s also wrapping up his long-gestating memoir, Lizard Tracks Across the Jello, though he concedes that “the first 2,500 pages drag in spots.”

When I ask John what he’d have done differently in his career if he’d known then what he knows now, he answers, “I would have seized supreme power and crushed my opponents under my iron heel!”

John McClaughry is just about the only politician at this authoritarian moment who would make that joke—and just about the only one who wouldn’t actually mean it.