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Vermont’s Republican Radical

John McClaughry brings an "ornery" yet humane spirit to American politics.

The Roves and Axelrods who afflict American politics would run squealing from a man who in a 1992 fundraising letter for his gubernatorial campaign wrote, “If I don’t raise $50,000 from this mailing I will be forced to drown my litter of Burmese rock pythons. And—get this—if your name is the one drawn from a large drum containing all my contributors’ names YOU (fill in name) will win… ETERNAL LIFE. (Details to be announced later.)”

John McClaughry of Kirby Mountain, Vermont, penner of said letter, was trounced by Democratic incumbent Howard Dean, though the contest did yield a classic photograph of the Republican candidate presenting Governor Dean with the McClaughry campaign attire: a T-shirt bearing the image of a hooded executioner and an emblazoned NEXT. For almost half a century, John McClaughry, kin of Tom and Frank McLaury of Gunfight at the OK Corral fame—Tom and Frank’s “side of the family had a lot of trouble with spelling,” says John—has haunted the GOP as an ornery, irrepressible, and gloriously untamable spirit of the vanished American Republic. If he has been too offbeat or soulful to achieve success as it is measured by timeservers and lickspittles, he has embodied, in political form, the Jeffersonian persuasion.

Now 76, John has produced a characteristically free-swinging and self-deprecating memoir, Promoting Civil Society Among the Heathen, in which he recounts masterstrokes and misadventures while pushing measures to strengthen neighborhoods, small communities, and voluntary associations through such unlikely vessels as George Romney, Senator Charles Percy, and Ronald Reagan. Years ago, John described his politics to me: “I am a 1700s Virginia republican, an 1800 Tertium Quid, an 1830s Loco Foco, an 1850s Republican, an 1890s western progressive, a 1930s agrarian distributist, and today a plain old decentralist agrarian Reaganaut.”

Given that I am wholly in sympathy with this list, Reaganautry excepted, I have wondered why John and I have so frequently disagreed on petty political matters.  I’ve been aghast at his enthusiasm for the likes of Donald Rumsfeld and Pete DuPont; he’s chided me for falling for Ross Perot and Jerry Brown. Well… strange bedfellows and all that.

John is that rare radical who has actually won elections. He served in the Vermont House and Senate, though he lost races for governor and U.S. Senate. He protests, however, that he is not a politician but a “tub thumper for public policies” designed to disperse political and economic power. Some liberals saw him as the silver lining of the nascent Nixon administration. In late 1968, John Osborne in The New Republic wrote up McClaughry as “a remarkable white Republican activist” who was working with black-power leaders and believers in small-scale private enterprise “to promote black opportunity and black control of black communities.” Nothing much came of this, says John, largely due to the “completely uncomprehending” nature of “many Republicans” in matters “relating to neighborhoods, minorities, or civil society.”

Of Maurice Stans, the commerce secretary who oversaw Nixon’s Office of Minority Business Enterprise, McClaughry writes: “Stans’s familiarity with minority groups was apparently limited to ordering about the native porters on his many expeditions to decimate the animal population of Africa.” This guy can write; imagine, had the voters of Vermont the wit to elect McClaughry U.S. Senator in 1982, the trenchantly citric portraits he’d have sketched of Strom Thurmond, Joe Biden, Ted Kennedy, and other knaves he’d have known. McClaughry has written under various names. He ghosted the best lines Ronald Reagan ever recited: his 1975 call for “an end to giantism, for a return to the human scale—the scale that human beings can understand and cope with.” This was similar to the magnificent Karl Hess, Goldwater speechwriter cum Wobbly, scripting a 1968 talk by AuH2O in which the Arizona Cold Warrior told astonished students that he had “much in common with the anarchist wing of SDS.” https://theamericanconservative.com/archive/januaryfebruary-2014/

Alas, a ghost leaves no footprints. McClaughry served a brief and unsatisfying stint on the Reagan White House policy staff, winning demerits from appalled careerists for such acts as leaving midweek to moderate the Kirby town meeting (which he has done since 1967).

McClaughry’s most enduring work appeared under his name: The Vermont Papers (1989), a blueprint for the radical decentralization of his state government that he coauthored with UVT political scientist Frank Bryan. The duo professed “values that are libertarian in the face of authority, decentralist in the face of giantism, and communal among our townspeople.” The Vermont Papers is an idealistic, humane, and neglected book, exuberantly contrary to the political spirit of its age. Finishing John’s sardonic and illuminating memoir, I was reminded of Gloria Grahame’s closing remark to Jimmy Stewart: John McClaughry, I’m glad I know you.

Bill Kauffman is the author of ten books, among them Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette and Ain’t My America.