Editor’s note: Video footage from the presser is at the end of this story.
Gov. Jim Douglas’ relationship with the Vermont press corps was cordial, if a little uneasy. Typically, he would walk in with a story or a message pitch to the assembled group of eight to 15 journalists at a given press conference. The reporters, on the other hand, were there to throw him off topic, rattle his assumptions and get answers to their burning questions. It rarely worked. But then, reporters didn’t take the story bait very often, either, so maybe we were even.
I was a little late to the game, as I didn’t start covering the governor until the last year of his eight-year tenure in office, but I came to relish the opportunity to hear the governor speak, in part, because he was so rarely ruffled by our incessant questions. He gamely quipped his way through the 45-minute minefield of relentless queries, almost always with his even-keeled temperament intact. (His infamous blow-up with Peter Freyne of Seven Days was before my time.)
By Vermont Public Radio reporter Bob Kinzel’s count, Douglas held 300 press conferences over the last eight years. (That’s a whopping 225 hours of time he’ll never get back — nor will we.)
Douglas has made a point of being accessible to reporters, and when a governor is there for the press, as he has been (whether he answers our questions satisfactorily or not), that’s the most important signal the leader of our state can make to the public. Reporters are stand-ins for ordinary citizens who can’t make the trip to Montpelier every day to evaluate whether state government is acting in their best interests.
The relationship between politicians and people who cover them is necessarily fractious. Journalists are by nature an unruly group. Our job is to question the governor’s ideas, tactics and political motives; his job is to tell us what he wants us to hear, which can sometimes mean as little as possible. Tension, frustration and mutual respect characterize the interpersonal rapport between a reporter and his or her subject.
At the last press conference, however, Douglas begged us to let go of our journalistic antagonisms. He enjoined: “Drink the Kool-Aid, just this once.” And when his staff brought the punch bowl out with the sticky red liquid and poured it into plastic cups, well, naturally, we complied before we turned the tables on him — one last time.
What choice did we have? After all, we were thirsty after the governor’s real live dog-and-pony show (see video at the end). Not to mention the fact that Douglas had insisted that we, a bunch of out-of-shape typists and talking heads, march up all five flights of steps to his conference room in the Pavilion State Office Building. I think he had that punch bowl in mind all along. Who wouldn’t drink the Kool-Aid? In typical fashion, Douglas masterfully pulled the rug from under us with prankster moves and digs at the press.
As we gathered outside the loading dock behind the Pavilion building, where the dog and pony lay in wait, hidden in a side garage, Douglas smoothly regaled us with the set-up: “Over the past eight years, you the press corps have listened as I have unveiled new initiatives, honored worthy Vermonters or highlighted some action or deed that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. During these dog and pony shows, you’ve listened patiently, asked probing questions and occasionally done a story.”
He then walked over to the garage where he unveiled the beasts: “We’ll end this tenure with a literal dog and pony show.”
He waited for the crowd of journalists and hangers-on to titter and then roar with laughter as he calmly held the leads for the docile beasts at his beck and call: a blonde pony and a yellow Labrador. Then Douglas let go of one of his legendary, tweaky asides: “They’re certainly better behaved than the Legislature.”
When asked the names of the two animals, Douglas rejoined: “I have an exaggerated reputation for remembering everybody’s names, and it doesn’t only apply to humans.”
The dog and pony show was only the beginning. From there we trudged up the five flights of steps to the governor’s conference room. After we caught our breath, we listened to the governor say uncharacteristically nice things about us.
“You’ve held my feet to the fire at these press conferences, and I’ve appreciated that opportunity because the press plays a vital role in our democracy, and I really do respect all of the work each of you does to inform Vermonters about what goes on in Montpelier and how it affects their daily lives.
“You’ve certainly kept me on my toes, and made sure that my staff and I are aware of all the important issues. I’ve tried to answer all of your questions fully, except for the ones I didn’t want to. I never got mad, except once, but I want to thank you and your predecessors for your dedication to your profession and to the people of our state. I can’t say I’m going to miss this periodic encounter, but I do appreciate the important role you play.”
Which was followed by an injunction: “I’d be grateful if you’d indulge me this one time, after eight years, and (let me) ask you to drink the Kool-Aid.”
Plastic cupfuls of the sticky red drink were duly doled out and proffered to the reporters. As we sipped, Bob Kinzel presented the governor with a Wal-Mart t-shirt – the new uniform for greeters. When reporters asked Douglas about what he’d do once he left office, he often joked he was so good at meeting and greeting Vermonters around the state that the perfect job for him would be welcoming customers to the discount retailer.
“We want you to know your dream is going to come true,” Kinzel said. “We’ve signed you up so you can say ‘Welcome to Wal-Mart, hi I’m Jim.’”
Kinzel also gave him a copy of the book, “101 Best Ways to Land a Job in Troubled Times.”
“I might need this,” Douglas said. “I’m told by the Department of Labor that I’m the only employee leaving state government who is not eligible for unemployment benefits.”
The last gift was a commemorative set of child- safe scissors, a not-so-subtle reference to the late Seven Days’ columnist Peter Freyne’s handle for Douglas – Governor Scissorhands – in honor of his frequent
appearances at ribbon-cuttings and golden shovel ground-breaking ceremonies at businesses and schools across the state.
Kinzel then held forth: “You talked with us about any subject – Afghanistan, what’s happening in Washington; I think there was even a comment about Sarah Palin’s wardrobe at one point,” Kinzel said. “You’ve never ducked us on any issue, you’ve always been accessible. At the statehouse we can knock on the door, we can call you. We’d like to thank you for being the most accessible governor in the U.S. because it makes our job easier, but it also makes our job a whole lot more fun because we get to talk to the person who’s making the policies.”
There was applause, and reporters don’t usually clap for anyone, least of all politicians.
Merry Christmas, governor.