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Achin’to be Aiken

Why candidates long to be the next George Aiken

photo courtesy of UVM Special Collections

By Shay Totten | Vermont Guardian

Posted July 14, 2006

This article was posted on July 14, 2006 and was part of our ongoing political coverage in the midterm elections that saw two major seats up for grabs in Vermont — U.S. Senate and U.S. House. With GOP credentials outside of the state in tatters, many in-state Republicans invoked a familiar name while talking with voters.

A modern election cycle doesn’t go by without candidates, especially Republicans, invoking the name of George Aiken, beloved former governor and senator.

But does Aiken’s legacy still hold purchase in Vermont, and more importantly, in Washington? A number of Vermonters who worked with, knew, or studied his career in politics say that by being an Aiken Republican, a candidate is purposefully distancing themselves from an increasingly conservative national GOP — a strain of Republicanism that Aiken cursed for years and fought to keep from taking control of the party.

It’s clear that many of the top Republicans running for office this fall — from Gov. Jim Douglas to congressional hopefuls Rich Tarrant and Martha Rainville, as well as one House candidate in the Northeast Kingdom — are trying to distinguish themselves from a national party, and a president, that don’t have much support in Vermont.

“I think that the references to Aiken you are seeing in the campaigns for the Senate and House are efforts by the Republicans candidates to say, ‘Yes, I am a Republican, but I am a good Republican. I will be independent and will reflect the views of George Aiken,’” said Chris Graff, the former Vermont Associated Press bureau chief and longtime political reporter. “I suspect those Republicans would love to say they are Jim Jeffords Republicans, but of course, that doesn’t work anymore.”

Steve Terry, senior vice president of communications at Green Mountain Power who worked for Aiken from 1969 to 1975, agrees with Graff’s assessment, and said Vermont is probably one of the last places where someone could run on Aiken’s principles and still get elected.

“The only way you can be elected as a Republican in Vermont, in my judgment, is that you have to disassociate yourself from the White House and ‘that’ Republican Party, and the best way to get people to focus on that is to get linked to the kind of Republican George Aiken was, which was really very focused on rural America,” said Terry, a Democrat. “It was focused on the strength of cooperatives, and the strength of what we would now call the blue-collar labor movement.”

Aiken was also very keen on education and social welfare programs, Terry said. “There are probably not many places in the country today where you could say you were a Republican of that kind and get elected.”

Fighting for the GOP

It was 1968 when Aiken was last on the ballot in Vermont. The voting age was 21 at the time, making the youngest Aiken supporters 59 years old this year, noted Eric Davis, political science professor at Middlebury College.

“The first thing I wonder is how many people know who George Aiken was,” said Davis. The state’s changing demographics and growing population in the past four decades may have left some of Aiken’s legacy to the stuff of myth.

Aiken is best remembered as a feisty politician who fought “big business” on behalf of the farmers and working people, and often fought with conservatives in his own party as he tried to move the GOP in a more progressive direction, modeled in part after Teddy Roosevelt’s platforms.

“He was trying to make sure the party was not overwhelmed by conservatives from the Midwest, which is where the conservatives in the party existed at that time because the South didn’t have anybody,” said Garrison Nelson, a University of Vermont political science professor.

That fight began long before Aiken was a U.S. senator.

Born on Aug. 20, 1892, in Dummerston, Aiken later moved to Putney with his family. He showed an early knack for growing plants and later turned that into a business, first growing fruit, then running a nursery and then growing wildflowers.

There was no real Democratic Party in Vermont until the 1960s, and to enter politics during Aiken’s formative years, you had to be a Republican. For Aiken, that didn’t mean giving up on some strong values about the role of agriculture in the rural economy.

Aiken served as governor from 1937 to 1941, and U.S. senator from 1940 to 1975. Before that, he worked his way up the electoral ladder, serving six years in the Vermont House, including a two-year stint as speaker, as well as two years as lieutenant governor.

Along his rise, he rankled fellow Republicans, and confounded his opponents, mainly the utilities, railroads, and banks, who were not used to losing at politics.

He even ticked off national Republicans in a speech broadcast live, in which he called on his national brethren to “purge the party organization of its reactionary and unfair elements, to focus its forces on the recognition of the youth of our nation, to prepare immediately an affirmative program — that is the demand which the Republican leadership of Vermont makes on the Republican leadership of the nation. If that demand is not met, we must look elsewhere for an organization through which thoughtful and devoted Americans of North and South, East and West, can join together to work for the good of all.”

His legacy transcended his own achievements in politics, leading Graff to choose Aiken as the most influential Vermonter of the 20th century.

Graff bestowed the honor not for Aiken’s years in the U.S. Senate — where he became known as the “wise old owl” and was well regarded by senators from both major parties — but for his work in the 1930s when he rose up through the ranks in Vermont politics, and was branded “that Communist” by the chairman of the state Republican Party.

“The banks, the railroads, the marble companies, and the granite companies all lost their monopoly on Vermont government when Aiken became governor. And he gave the forgotten farmer a new deal — giving them and all rural residents the will and the way to survive. Aiken fought ‘the big boys,’ as he liked to call them,” said Graff.

“While everyone focuses today on Aiken the independent, he did try hard to make the GOP more progressive throughout his career,” Graff added.

Many of today’s Vermont politicians try to link themselves to Aiken in order to “somehow convince voters that they have the same kind of passion and same kind of feeling and advocacy for rural values and rural America,” Terry said. “He was always ready to fight for the people of Vermont — all of the people. “

Terry said Aiken’s other great asset was his common sense. “He could cut through complicated issues or questions and could have a simple but yet profound answer.”

Aiken in today’s Washington

Observers agree that the Washington that was home to a unique friendship between Aiken and Democratic Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield is long since gone.

Today, members of Congress reach across the aisle less to achieve a goal or strike balance on a bill, but more often to point fingers and accuse the other side of doing something wrong.

“Party didn’t matter to him; he found his allies where he could find them and had a close personal relationship with many Democrats,” said Davis. “That just doesn’t happen with today’s hyper-partisanship in Washington. An important part of his legacy is that party is not the be-all and end-all.”

Lola Aiken said her late husband’s friendship with Mansfield was based on two very basic components: comfort and trust.

“They could talk to one another about anything, and they never let out what they talked about,” said Lola Aiken. “And it was comfortable to be around them because they were not always trying to get people to notice them.”

That said, she doesn’t think that Aiken would enjoy today’s Washington nearly as much as he did when he served.

“I think he would be very upset about it. Today you find everyone is fighting each other,” said Lola Aiken, “when we actually need to fight as a country.”

Other observers also see the days of the Aiken-Mansfield alliance as a thing of the past.

“Aiken would be as unhappy in Washington as Jeffords was, but more so. It is impossible to imagine things like the Aiken-Mansfield breakfasts happening today. George Aiken thrived in a world in which people trusted each other and senators reached across the aisle. That is no longer there,” said Graff.

Davis mused, “I wonder if today Aiken would even be a Republican.”

Nelson believes Aiken would be a Republican, albeit an unhappy one. “Today, he would be miserable, and George and others would have said something. He wouldn’t have been like Jeffords and left the party, but he would have just found it very unpleasant to be in,” said Nelson.

“I think one of the major differences between that era and now is that polarization had yet to exist, and there were a substantial number of liberal to moderate Republicans in the Senate, and they are now gone,” he added.

Though Aiken was considered a fiscal conservative, he was not a social conservative by any means, and was not uncomfortable about making his views known within the party, said Nelson.

Aiken today would still be strong magnet for people of both sides, because he was not judgmental about someone based on their party label, Terry said.

“He was a great balancing wheel between the Republicans and Democrats when [Mansfield] was the majority leader. They would have discussions that were never partisan-based,” said Terry. “And in fairness, the politics then was not as so rigidly partisan as it is now, and there weren’t as many single-issue groups as there are now. In that sense it was easier for people to sort of build coalitions and to build and cross party lines, such as they did on Vietnam.”

Aiken, though voting for many of the key resolutions that allowed the invasion of Vietnam, worked with members of both parties, especially “dove” Democrats, to bring about an end to the war. He did not favor an immediate withdrawal of troops, and stood by Nixon who did, week by week, begin reducing troop strength in Southeast Asia as promised.

It was Terry’s job to verify the weekly troop strength reports for Aiken.

Who are today’s Aiken Republicans?

Just about any Republican running for office these days considers themselves an Aiken Republican.

By default, Gov. Douglas is the keeper of the flame, according to Nelson.

But Graff thinks it really falls to former Attorney General and Chief Justice of the Vermont Supreme Court Jeff Amestoy, Jeffords, and former Rep. Tom Little, a Shelburne Republican.

Statewide politicians like former U.S. Rep. Dick Mallary and Douglas are “more conservative than the Aiken Republicans, but certainly both have the integrity and independence of Aiken.

“In some ways, I don’t think the mantle really was passed on from Aiken to younger Republicans,” said Davis. “However, if there’s anyone in the Aiken spirit, it’s Jeffords.”

Davis, too, believes that truly Jeffords is the last of the Aiken Republicans holding office today. Others, such as Douglas, Mallary, or former Gov. Richard Snelling, are either more conservative than Aiken, no longer in office, or dead. Davis said former U.S. Rep. Peter Smith was also in the Aiken mold.

Nelson notes that Vermont’s Republicans, like the national party, have changed their tone since Aiken. “It’s a smaller party, for sure, but more conservative, and in some ways Douglas is a throwback to an earlier era, and that’s why the Dems have such difficult time gaining traction against him.”

Davis finds it ironic that Tarrant is the politician most closely associated with Aiken, as it was Aiken who famously boasted of spending less than $28 (in some stories the figure is $17) on his 1968 reelection bid — enough to pay the postage to mail in his petitions.

Tarrant is expected to spend more than $5 million, and perhaps as much as $10 million, setting a potential record for the most money spent per capita in any U.S. Senate election.

Terry, too, finds some irony in the connection between Tarrant and Aiken. Namely, that Aiken never met a federal tax dollar he didn’t like, especially if it was spent in Vermont, and especially if it was spent on Vermont’s farmers.

Lola Aiken said the first politician whose election committee she agreed to co-chair was Snelling’s.

“Snelling would listen,” she said. “I had great respect for him, and rode with him when he was traveling sometimes.”

Lola Aiken said George Aiken was also a good listener, and was willing to change his mind if given a good argument.

She chose to lend her support to Tarrant this election cycle because she “thought he was more capable of doing what needed to be done because he didn’t have to worry about getting money and pleasing people.”

Scott Wheeler of Derby is running for the House seat that covers several towns near the Canadian border, and has the coveted endorsement of Lola Aiken, a rarity among House candidates.

When he met with her, the pair mused about running for office “on the premise of doing what is good for the cross-section of Vermonters without all the rhetoric and the mud-slinging, and just simply listen to people, and make no huge promises except trying to listen and work with people,” Wheeler said.

Wheeler said he doesn’t have an “agenda” and doesn’t believe that his opinions are of any greater value than the people he hopes to represent.

“When I think of a George Aiken Republican, the main thing that comes to my mind is a willingness to cross party lines to do what is good for the state versus what is good for yourself,” said Wheeler. “I think there’s far too many people voting strictly party line. They’ll even vote party line when they know it’s bad for the state and the constituents, and I guess I look at being an Aiken Republican as bringing politics back to a simpler time — it’s just about listening to people.”

Lola Aiken said that might have been her husband’s best quality, both in his public and private life.

“He was sort of quiet, but you always had the feeling that he knew exactly what was going on all the time,” she said. “He didn’t break his neck to get people to know him. He went on the theory that if he wasn’t doing well they’d defeat him.”