THE GLOBAL CITIZEN: Fred And Pat Have Cookies And Milk
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The famous candidacy of Fred Tuttle for U.S. Senate may have begun as a joke, but it ended as an enlightening contrast to politics as usual.In case you live far from Vermont and never ran into Fred on CSPAN, "Good Morning America," or the "Tonight" show, he is a 79-year-old retired dairy farmer who has survived heart attacks, bum knees, and low milk prices. Hardly anyone outside of Tunbridge, Vermont, ever heard of him, until his neighbor, film producer and sheep-farmer John O'Brien, made him a movie star a few years ago. In the film "Man with a Plan" Fred plays himself (ad-libbing most of his lines) in a fantasy run for Congress. He happily admits to inquiring reporters that he has chased girls and tried marijuana in his day, he spends next to nothing on his campaign, and when he doesn't know the answer to a question, he says so. The voters embrace him literally and electorally.They say it was John O'Brien's idea that Fred should run for real, partly to publicize the film, partly for the fun of it, but also to make a point. Democrat Patrick Leahy was running for a fifth Senate term. His only challenger was Jack McMullen, a lawyer and businessman and newcomer to Vermont. McMullen was just rich and slick enough to be reminiscent of Fred's fictional opponent in the film -- a wealthy, ambitious, not-really-from-here politician who has no clue about how ordinary people live.With O'Brien as campaign manager Tuttle opposed McMullen in the Republican primary. He held nickel-a-plate fundraising dinners and spent somewhere between $13 and $200 (the amount is disputed) on his primary campaign. To make his one point -- that carpetbaggers shouldn't buy Senate seats in places they know nothing about -- Tuttle opened a televised debate by asking McMullen how many teats there are on a cow. McMullen guessed six. Vermonters doubled over with laughter. That pretty much decided the primary.Fred had made it clear all along that he had no intention of actually opposing Patrick Leahy. Pat's a good Senator, said Fred in his thick Vermont accent, he's been good to the farmer, I'm going to vote for him myself.Republicans got mad. A senator doesn't have to know how many teats a cow has, they fumed. They accused Democrats of crossing party lines to vote for Fred, which was partly true. They said they didn't have a real Republican choice, which was true once McMullen was out of the picture. They said the whole thing was undignified and Tuttle was a pitiful puppet of O'Brien, which was untrue. Everyone could look across the New York border to see an undignified slugfest of a senate campaign. And Fred, though he may have had help with his lines from O'Brien (most candidates have much higher-priced help), was clearly having a ball.So between primary day and election day Vermont watched a sweet campaign. Fred and Pat visited schools together, wearing matching blue caps, urging the children to get their parents out to vote. The headlines read "Fred and Pat Have Cookies and Milk." Leahy had plenty of time to discuss his pet positions, from cleaning up Lake Champlain to ridding the world of land mines. Tuttle endorsed them all.Tuttle said he would spend $251 on this campaign, $1 for every town in Vermont. He urged Leahy to match him and donate the rest of his war-chest to preserve open land. Leahy made no such promise. But of course he had no need to saturate the state with ads, least of all attack ads.The silence was amazing. No accusations. No exaggerations. No stupid slogans or nasty innuendoes. Fred told war stories. Pat talked sincerely about national issues. Vermonters probably ended up knowing more about who the candidates were and what they stood for than voters in any state where millions are spent "informing" the public.Imagine a campaign that makes you smile, not cringe. Imagine political talk so civilized you actually want your children to hear it. Imagine candidates who talk about their own ideas and lives, rather than the insidious evil of each other's ideas or the mortal flaws in each other's characters.I don't think Fred or Pat intended by their simple decency to throw a contrasting light on the mean-spirited, campaigns around them. But that's what they did. It was heartbreaking to be reminded that political discussion could actually elevate rather than desecrate the human mind and soul.But it wasn't a REAL campaign.But it had no drama. People like fights, not love-fests.But negative campaigning WORKS.No real candidate could just say what he or she truly thinks, straight out.No ordinary person could run seriously without money. The press only paid attention because it was a joke.How did we ever come to accept such terrible assumptions about ourselves? How did we get so cynical? Do we have to run our politics out of combativeness and spite?Thanks, Fred and Pat, for a demonstration of polite discourse. Thanks for a breath of fresh air.(Donella H. Meadows is the Director of the Sustainability Institute and an adjunct professor of Environmental Studies at Dartmouth College.)