MIDDLEBURY — Former Vermont Gov. James Douglas has penned an autobiography in which he touches upon the highlights of almost 40 years in Vermont politics. In the book, due to be released before year’s end, Douglas offers some candid thoughts on some of the state and federal lawmakers with whom he worked during a political career that he says he has no interest in rekindling.
The underlying theme of the Middlebury Republican’s book will be “How can a Republican succeed in Vermont?”
“I have always said that politics in Vermont is retail,” Douglas said during an interview with the Addison Independenton Monday. “Most Vermonters, if they seek it, have an opportunity to meet the governor and other public officials. I always felt that if they had that opportunity, they would see I didn’t have horns, I wasn’t always the ogre portrayed by my adversaries and quite frankly, by some members of the Fourth Estate.”
Douglas, who will turn 61 next month, hopes Vermonters and folks in many other states will take an opportunity to meet him through his book.
Indeed, 2012 will see the release of two books covering the careers of former Vermont governors. “Philip Hoff: How Red Turned Blue in the Green Mountain State” was released earlier this year. Hoff served as governor from 1963 to 1969.
It is mere coincidence that the two tomes will find their respective ways to the bookstores during the same year.
“I decided to do this book last year,” Douglas said, an endeavor that saw him spend large chunks of time behind his computer typing up thoughts while they remained fresh in his mind.
He asked for a lot of advice from various authors and publishers as he set to work on the project. Along with the Hoff book, he read biographies on former Vermont Gov. Deane Davis and on Connie Bailey, the state’s (and America’s) first female to be elected lieutenant governor during the 1950s.
“Both (the Davis and Bailey books) were published posthumously, and I told (my publisher) my goal was not to follow their lead on that,” Douglas said with a chuckle.
He remains close to the subject matter as an executive in residence at his alma mater, Middlebury College. It’s a role that sees him deliver guest lectures at various classes — primarily those dealing with the field of political science. He has also been assisting college archivists in organizing a lot of the memorabilia accumulated during his eight years as governor that ended in January 2011, after he chose not to run for re-election.
FOCUS ON GOVERNORSHIP
Around two-thirds of Douglas’s book will focus on his time as governor; the rest will touch upon his political influences; his arrival at Middlebury College, where he led the student GOP association during a tumultuous period of the Vietnam War; and his entry into politics, beginning with his election to the Vermont House in 1972, followed by service as a top aide to Gov. Richard Snelling and stints as Vermont’s secretary of state and then treasurer.
The book will not cover the governor’s childhood to a great degree.
“Unless it is something that relates to my political career, I’m not sure it’s really that interesting,” Douglas said. “I just had a normal childhood.”
He does recount volunteering for GOP causes as a junior high schooler and being inspired by Arizona Republican Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign.
But Douglas said he and his publisher, Chris Bray of New Haven-based Common Ground Communications, believe that readers inside and outside of the state will be most interested in his thoughts and actions as governor. He does not want the book to resonate exclusively with political junkies in the Green Mountain State.
“It was suggested to me that people beyond Vermont who buy the book would want to hear about my impressions of people they recognize, like (former U.S. Sen. James) Jeffords (I-Vt.), and (former Vermont Gov. and presidential candidate Howard) Dean and (U.S. Sen. Bernie) Sanders (I-Vt.) — people they’ve heard of,” said Douglas. He also rubbed shoulders with a lot of other governors as a member and officer of the National Governors Association.
With that in mind, Douglas has included some of his impressions of — and interactions with — the above-mentioned politicians, along with thoughts on other members of Vermont’s Congressional delegation and the two U.S. presidents who served during his gubernatorial run: George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
Those who might have pigeonholed Douglas during his political tenure as a demure, perfunctory chief executive might be in for a jolt when his book is released later this year.
“I offer some candid, but not libelous, thoughts on some people,” Douglas said. “My thoughts on some nationally known people may be surprising to people.”
And while he declined to share specifics at this point, he did say his impressions and criticisms will involve politicians on both sides of the aisle.
As governor, Douglas frequently mingled with constituents and wasn’t a magnet for controversy. He believes it was a style that served him well during some rocky times in the Green Mountain State (and the nation in general) confronting the deepest recession since the Great Depression, and the toll of two wars in the Middle East.
With the economy in peril, Douglas and the Legislature confronted and had to mop up tens of millions of dollars in budgetary red ink, with a substantial assist through the federal American Reinvestment and Recovery Act.
And if that task weren’t daunting and gloomy enough, Douglas found himself all-too-frequently attending the funerals of Vermont soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. His book will include an experience at one of those funerals.
“We are still feeling its effects,” Douglas said of the recession and conflicts abroad.
Douglas will also talk about state advances in health care reform, public safety and economic development that occurred during his time as governor. He will also address some of his disappointments — the continuing exodus of young Vermonters to other states for job opportunities; the partisan bickering that he believes has enveloped politics; and the Legislature’s decision in 2009 to override his vetoes on the state budget and same-sex marriage.
The overrides were made possible thanks to a substantial Democratic majority in both the House and Senate during Douglas’s tenure. Douglas was pleased that overrides were infrequent occurrences during his time in office.
“With super-majorities, the Democrats could have their way on any day,” Douglas said.
Vermont became the first state to adopt same-sex marriage by legislative action as opposed to through a court process. Obama has since come out in favor of gay marriage. Douglas said he does not have second thoughts about his 2009 veto.
“There was no right that gay couples had under the civil union law that was enhanced under the marriage law,” Douglas said. “It was really a matter of nomenclature and a distinction I felt was worth preserving.”
Though his views on some social and economic issues diverged with those held by blue state voters, Douglas continued to be re-elected, often by wide margins.
“Even President Obama asked the first time I met him, ‘How did you win in Vermont?’” Douglas said with a smile. “People who look at the state often characterize it as ‘the most liberal,’ or ‘the most Democratic,’ based on criteria and wonder how a Republican governor prevailed.”
He will offer his own answers to that question in his book — which incidentally is being published by a prominent Addison County Democrat. Bray represented the Addison-5 district for four years before launching an unsuccessful bid for lieutenant governor in 2010. He recently announced plans to run for one of Addison County’s two state Senate seats.
“I’ve always like Chris,” Douglas said. “He hasn’t always voted the way I preferred when we served together in Montpelier, but I’ve always respected his integrity, his intellect and his commitment to Vermont. I’ve always felt he was an honorable public servant and someone with whom I could work.”
PRESSING THE FLESH
Once the book is published, Douglas will return to a familiar routine — mingling with people at bookstores and other public venues. Some among them will undoubtedly try to convince him to come out of political retirement.
Those people should not hold their collective breath.
“I talk (in the book) some about the direction of political discourse, particularly at the federal level,” Douglas said. “They continue to fail to make tough decisions.”
That partisan climate, among other things, has soured him on the prospect of another electoral run.
“I really don’t anticipate running for office again.”
Jim Douglas says he’s content for now to work for his alma mater and, above all, spend time with wife, Dorothy, and their grandchildren.
He of course also hopes to sell a few books.
“It would make a great stocking-stuffer,” he said with a chuckle.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]