Maverick Chronicles: In a time of democratic distemper

Editor’s note: This essay is part of a series excerpted from “Maverick Chronicles,” a memoir-in-progress by Greg Guma, a longtime Vermont journalist. This is the eighth installment. All of the essays in the series can be found here.

In January 1976, I caught a glimpse of where the nation was headed – toward a temporary transfer of authority from Republicans to Democrats with Jimmy Carter as the well-vetted figurehead. The realization came shortly before the New Hampshire primary while attending a huge Democratic rally at a snow-covered southern Vermont estate called The Plantation.

Jimmy Carter and David Rockefeller

After his election President Jimmy Carter conferred with the three Trilateral Commission chairs, including David Rockefeller, right.

Carter was only one of several candidates at the time. Yet he was already surrounded by more than a dozen Secret Service agents and a large entourage. No primary votes had been cast but he acted, and was being treated, like a nominee.

After his election that November the country gradually learned that he had been auditioned early by the Trilateral Commission, a transnational think tank funded by David Rockefeller and managed by Zbigniew Brzezinski that brought together leaders from North America, Western Europe and Japan.

Carter started out an obscure but charming agri-businessman, and became Georgia’s governor in 1970 with the support of an Atlanta establishment in need of someone able to talk populism while remaining in tune with business interests. Barack Obama emerged in much the same way – as an “anti-establishment” politician who learned to play ball with the Illinois establishment – and even relied on some of the same advisers, including Brzezinski.

Despite Ronald Reagan’s insurgent campaign, in 1976 the GOP stuck with the colorless, compromised, accident-prone Gerald Ford. But Time magazine foreshadowed the future in a glowing story on the governor, complete with cover rendering that made Carter look remarkably like JFK. The rest of the mainstream media soon joined the chorus.

The Trilateral moment

Jimmy Carter was already a darling of Eastern opinion-makers, lauded as a leader of the “New South,” when he was recommended in 1973 for membership in the newly formed Trilateral Commission. Members of the North American section included Rockefeller, Time magazine editor Hedley Donovan, corporate lawyers Cyrus Vance and Warren Christopher, Bendix Corp. chairman W. Michael Blumenthal, IBM director Harold Brown, UAW president Leonard Woodcock, and other business, union and political figures.

Brzezinski became the group’s founding director. Carter subsequently tapped Trilateral members for much of his presidential campaign strategy team.

Why did it happen? As Brzezinski noted in a 2008 interview, there is no need to believe in hidden conspiracies. Groups like the Trilateral Commission and Council on Foreign Relations do not conceal their intentions, he pointed out. You can easily find out what they want to accomplish. In the 1970s, you could even subscribe to a commission newsletter, Trialogue. I certainly enjoyed reading it.

Time visualized Jimmy Carter as another JFK.

Trialogue offered turgid, yet revealing reports about “avenues for trilateral-communist collaboration” and the international alliance’s take on macro-economic coordination, nuclear security and industrial relations. Concerted attempts to change national policies, in the U.S. as well as Japan and Europe, frequently followed the release of a commission study.

A key document during this period was The Crisis of Democracy, a Trilateral special report co-authored by Brzezinski associate Samuel Huntington, who advised Carter during the campaign and subsequently coordinated security planning for his National Security Council. Brzezinski became Carter’s national security adviser.

Huntington explained, in advance of the election, that a successful Democratic candidate for president would have to emphasize energy, decisiveness and sincerity while coming across as an outsider. But the real lesson of the 1960s, he wrote, was that political parties “could be easily penetrated, and even captured, by highly motivated and well-organized groups with a cause and a candidate.”

The appeal of Carter was a combination of charm, an “interesting” family narrative, traditional values and an outsider image. But Trilateralists also understood that he was a moderate eager to be all things to all people, as Laurence Shoup explained in “The Carter Presidency and Beyond.”

Carter went from local curiosity to national phenomenon in less than four years,during a period when the public lost faith in the presidency and other national institutions. By 1975 The New York Times was regularly publishing pro-Carter editorials, articles and columns. Time was even more enthusiastic, in one feature describing him as looking “eerily like John Kennedy from certain angles.” They hammered the point home with that remarkable cover rendering.

The drumbeat continued right through primary season with coverage that belittled competitors like Fred Harris, a true populist, with headlines like “Radicalism in a Camper.” Carter received cover hypes like “Taking Jimmy Seriously.”

An excess of democracy?

Trilateral influence intensified after Carter’s election. In addition to Brzezinski and Huntington, at least 27 high-level Carter administration officials were members of the commission or Council on Foreign Relations, including Vice President Walter Mondale, Secretary of State Vance and Deputy Secretary Christopher, Treasury Secretary Blumenthal, and Defense Secretary Brown.

President Gerald Ford heard from the Trilateral Executive Committee, but he wasn't their choice. From left, Elliot Richardson, former Norwegian Defense Minister Otto Tidemand, former UK Foreign Secretary Gordon Walker, Ford, David Rockefeller, and Zbigniew Brzezinski.

At a commission meeting in 1978 a long-term energy transition plan was reviewed with the president. An article in Trialogue summarized the group’s proposal:

“Bringing energy prices up to world market levels throughout the trilateral countries – the centerpiece of an adequate trilateral strategy – is, in their (the report’s authors) words, ‘the only way to encourage new production and moderate the growth of energy demand’; accordingly, they called, in the United States, for instance, for the deregulation of the price of new natural gas, and for the elimination of price controls on crude oil …”

Huntington’s general diagnosis and prescriptions were blunt, and remain relevant. The authority of government depends on confidence and trust, he explained, and when these decline both participation and polarization increase. “If the institutional balance is to be redressed between government and opposition, the decline in presidential power has to be reversed …”

Describing the surge in democratic aspirations as a form of “distemper,” Huntington advised that some of the problems “stem from an excess of democracy.” It is just one way to exert authority, he argued, and sometimes should be overridden by “expertise, seniority, experience and special talents.” He also explained that “the effective operation of a democratic political system usually requires some measure of apathy and noninvolvement on the part of some individuals and groups.”

People can make too many demands, thus making democracy a threat to itself, Huntington argued. The basic prescription was to restore respect for authority, particularly in the presidency as an institution, and lower the general level of expectations about what government can do.

Snelling and the near horizon

The Vermont Democratic Party had fractured into factions by 1976, unable to ride the post-Watergate wave despite two recent Democratic governors, Phil Hoff in the 1960s and Tom Salmon in the early 1970s. Republicans continued to dominate state government after more than a century. And now they had Richard Snelling, a successful businessman who had paid his dues and was determined to become the state’s next CEO.

Richard Snelling, 1978

Snelling considered a run for lieutenant governor as early as 1960. In 1966 he made his first application to the top job, a losing battle in the era of Phil Hoff. But there were consolations, particularly business gains and the choice that secured his fortune – purchasing Barrecrafter and Barreca Products, which had a line of ski racks, poles and boot-trees. By the end of the 1960s Snelling’s enterprises employed about 400 people.

Turning over management to a trusted associate, he returned to the Legislature while sitting on the Shelburne Industries board with his wife Barbara, Vermont’s leading commercial developer Antonio Pomerleau, and retired executive C. Herbert Ridgely. As SI stepped up export marketing and bike product sales, its founder set out to lead the state.

One of the first steps was to launch a new group, the Vermont Council for Effective Government, which argued that $10 million could be cut from the state budget. His GOP opponent for governor was the soft-spoken ex-chancellor of the Vermont State Colleges, William Craig. But the real fight came after his primary victory, when he faced Democrat Stella Hackel.

A former state treasurer and commissioner of employment security, Hackel opted to hang her race on a staggering reorganization plan that involved breaking up “super agencies” while strengthening the governor’s cabinet and Agency of Administration. If the Legislature would not approve her plans, Hackel threatened to implement them anyway.

“One of the first things any governor must realize,” Snelling scolded, “is that he or she must be able to work with the legislative branch.” The race was essentially over after that put-down.

In Burlington, the Democrats had been in charge for decades. But the local party was a private club dominated by French Canadian, Irish and other family clans, a largely ossified political machine that was openly hostile to young newcomers and other “outsiders.” Burlington Republicans, many of whom lived “up the hill” or out in the suburban New North End, held few City Council seats.

The Democrats had City Hall, a super-majority on the Board of Aldermen, and city commissions and jobs packed with the party loyalists. But election turnout was embarrassing low, about 30 percent of registered voters, and candidates, including Mayor Paquette, frequently ran unopposed.

Vermont’s largest city was approaching a cultural and demographic tipping point. Change was coming. But Paquette and his crew ignored the warning signs, instead plowing ahead with traditional, “business-friendly” development schemes and – since “keep the taxes down” was Paquette’s campaign mantra – cuts in city services.

A few of us saw something different, a social, economic and cultural tsunami on the horizon, and with that perfect storm an opening for local regime change.

Next: Teachers and a school without walls

Greg Guma

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