Magazine article The American Conservative

Vermont's Republican Radical

Magazine article The American Conservative

Vermont's Republican Radical

Article excerpt

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 Gunight 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. …

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