In This State: A thing or two you might not know about John McClaughry

John McClaughry with his dog Lassie on the porch of his log home in Kirby. Photo by Dirk Van Susteren

John McClaughry with his dog Lassie on the porch of his log home in Kirby. Photo by Dirk Van Susteren

Editor’s note: In This State is a syndicated weekly column about Vermont’s innovators, people, ideas and places. Dirk Van Susteren is a Calais freelance reporter and editor.

Ask John McClaughry to define himself politically, and you’d expect a response like “Republican” or “conservative” or “libertarian.”

But the founder of the Ethan Allen Institute, the Vermont think-tank that promotes free-market values, will just as likely give you the long answer, one leaving you guessing or begging for explanation.

“I am an old Whig, small ‘r’ Republican, Locofoco, Western progressive, Country Party, decentralist, Distributist, Jeffersonian, Reaganite,” he says on a recent afternoon, sitting in a leather chair near the stone fireplace in his log cabin house in Kirby.

McClaughry, 76, has just arrived home after lunch
and his noon pick-up game at St. Johnsbury Academy, where he won one game with an 18-foot jumper. So, go ahead, add “aging athlete” to the list, though it has nothing to do with politics.

And afterwards, during a $7 lunch at McDonald’s, one is tempted to add “penny-pincher.” Between bites, he confirms, “I am frugal,” then mentions he has never drunk wine or beer or even coffee, which he figures has saved him tens of thousands of dollars. That abstemious behavior, back in the ‘60s, once prompted a co-worker in a U.S. Senate campaign in Illinois to ask: “Are you a Mormon?”

He is not. But he is Vermont’s most prominent, longtime reliable scourge of all things liberal, especially when it comes to spending and regulation.

This subject of money prompts discussion of his presidential hero, Thomas Jefferson, who considered the thrifty small-scale farmer to be the supreme model for the new nation and who scorned costly foreign entanglements and public debt. McClaughry, however, concedes, Jefferson did have a big home, Monticello, and a yen for fancy French wines, and books, though a library among the educated of the 18th century would be considered more a necessity than a luxury.

But now on with McClaughry’s attempts at self-definition:
Why, Old Whigs? Why not just Whigs? Did you mean America’s 19th century Whigs, who supported public spending on roads and canals? Certainly not! McClaughry’s are the Whigs of 17th century England, who opposed the monarchy, aristocratic privileges, and the powers of the church.

And Locofoco? Well, they were the faction of the Democratic Party that in the 1840s fought New York’s corrupt Tammany Hall and promoted laissez-faire economics. The name was coined after the party stalwarts, in a fit of retaliation, turned out the gaslights at the dissident’s organizational meeting, forcing them to strike matches (locofocos) to light candles to see.
Distributists? They were adherents to a late 19th century Roman Catholic social principle that all people have property rights and property should not be controlled by the state.

That was a little poke in the eye to early socialism.

John McClaughry at the White House with President Ronald Reagan. Supplied photo

John McClaughry at the White House with President Ronald Reagan. Supplied photo

McClaughry, blending humor, introspection, and, yes, pedantry, is in his zone now. The words flow. A one-time senior policy adviser in the Reagan White House; a one-time aide to Vermont’s U.S. Sen. Winston Prouty; a former state representative and state senator; a gubernatorial candidate, he is now, and seemingly forever has been, a policy wonk and indefatigable commentator.

Over 20 years with the Ethan Allen Institute, for a while not much more than a one-man operation, he has used pen and tongue to tweak mostly Democrats but sometimes Republicans (capital R). His columns run in most of the state’s newspapers. He delivers commentary over radio. He usually whacks one government program or another, often calling them wasteful or unnecessary roadblocks to free enterprise.

His detractors call him a broken record, but he keeps up the volume, and these days you’re likely to hear about Obamacare and Gov. Peter Shumlin’s single-payer health-care plan.

How did McClaughry arrive where he is? What’s his view of his contribution to the political discourse?

He was born in Paris, Ill., population 9,000, and raised by grandparents after his mother, a month after his birth, died of an embolism, and after his father, a few years later, entered the Army in World War II to pen news releases from the China-Burma-India Theater.

A top student and Eagle Scout, at age 16 he hitchhiked to Miami University of Ohio, where he majored in physics and mathematics, but became interested in history and politics after hearing a professor deliver what he describes as a particularly mushy defense of socialism. “I wondered: ‘Where is the incentive when the government runs everything?’”

His next stop on the academic trail was Columbia University, for a master’s degree in nuclear engineering, where he signed a petition asking Adlai Stevenson to run again for president and where he joined in boycotting Woolworths for not serving blacks at its lunch counters in the South.

In the early 1960s he was at Berkeley working toward another master’s degree, this in political science, when by one semester he missed the university’s historic “Free Speech Movement,” a touchstone of early ‘60s political protest.

(When asked, McClaughry today blames the university administration for cravenly caving to complaints about socialist and communist influence on campus and bringing in the cops to squelch free dialogue.)

He voted for John Kennedy in ‘60, none of the above in ’64 and then Richard Nixon in ’68 even though he “despised” the man.

He also despised cities, and, in 1965 bought his 206 acres in Kirby for $2,500 and built a cabin, not the one he and his wife Anne live in now, but the one still up in the woods.
McClaughry, an enthusiastic host, offers a visitor a tour of his office, a jumble of books, memorabilia and portraits. There, above the wide wooden desk, is a color portrait of Ronald Reagan, splitting wood.

“He lifted America’s morale at a time of huge despondency,” says McClaughry. “He had an economic program that led to nine years of prosperity.”

And there are portraits of King Alfred the Great; Cowboy Copas, who sang with Patsy Cline; Sen. Robert Taft of Ohio, the intellectual voice of conservatism in the 1950s; plus a photo of a Burger King Whopper and one of him as a tyke holding a baseball bat.

And there in the bookcase with volumes on Jefferson is a surprise: the autobiography, and other volumes about Robert “Fighting Bob” LaFollette, the Wisconsin governor and U.S. senator, the father of American Progressivism – which helps explain McClaughry’s Western Progressivism leanings, and which McClaughry emphasizes is not to be confused with the Eastern Progressivism of Teddy Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson.

The Eastern brand “was less grass-roots. … It was imposed by an elite. … It was (Alexander) Hamiltonian big-government, run by the ‘best and the brightest’ from the top down,” McClaughry says, though he admits all this may seem like hair-splitting.

“He fought the (Wisconsin) banks, the timber interests and the railroads,” says McClaughry of LaFollette, who pushed for election reform but also for child labor laws, workers compensation, minimum wage, and progressive taxation.
McClaughry’s legacy will be the Ethan Allen Institute. He has no expectations Vermont will become a red state, but the institute, with 300 members and a $200,000 budget, can at least contribute to any dialogue. He says the institute’s goal is to “educate Vermonters on the fundamentals of a free society.”

What makes him most proud?

His 47 years of service as moderator on Kirby’s Town Meeting Day. “We don’t have a school, but we have to pay bills and plow roads,” says McClaughry.

Town business is handled efficiently, he says. “I have a generous amount of faith in town democracy.”

Dirk Van Susteren

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  • Eddie Cutler

    Hats off to my friend John. On of the last free thinkers in this state.

    • Scott Stevenson

      Very proud to call myself a distant (McLaury) relative of John (who lives in Iowa) – and in sync with the majority of his values.

  • Gleb Glinka

    A disastrous politician but a most wonderful human being whom I shall long remember, admire, and respect!

    • John was just too smart and witty to be grasped by a small state full of invading NY lawyers, antiquers, and bovine excrement. He is having a superb political career. If he had stayed in Ohio, he would probably have succeeded Reagan in the White House.


      • Bob Stannard

        Please. Really? The great John McClaughry is just too smart; too aloof for Vermonters? I don’t think so.

        Yes, he’s articulate and reasonably smart, but it’s been pretty clear that over the years what he’s really about is getting noticed.

        I would see him more like Vermont’s Newt Gingrich; another person who’s never really amounted to much, but is committed to getting noticed so he thinks he can remain relevant.

  • A Vermont treasure for sure!

    • Jed Guertin

      Hopefully one we can bury.

  • Don Coates

    A long, sloppy wet kiss from the godson of Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy. Go figure.

  • A warm handshake and great admiration from Maine to two of Vermont’s brightest and best, Anne and John.

  • Wendy Wilton

    John is a pretty remarkable person. Thanks, VT Digger for a great interview which told us even more about his unique perspective and accomplishments than we already knew.

    One thing I have come to know about him is that he truly cares about people and doing the right thing; all of his opinion pieces are grounded in that premise.

    He and his lovely spouse Anne are true gems shining up there in Kirby!

  • “[Reagan] lifted America’s morale at a time of huge despondency,” says McClaughry. “He had an economic program that led to nine years of prosperity.”

    The national debt just about tripled under the Reagan/McClaughry years. Funny how one man’s borrow and spend record can become another man’s prosperity.

    Per the US Treasury Dept (
    National debt in 1982 (when Reagan’s policies would have started to show up) – $1.142 trillion; 1990 (8 years later) – 3.233 trillion

    • george kuusela

      have known john for many a year and have admired, respected and learned from this great man. john has a great sense of humor which always makes his speeches interesting. he does not need a teleprompter as his vast knowledge of whaatever subject he will be disscusing is always evident. stay on it john you are the greatest.

    • That’s irrelevant to McClaughry’s claim to fame. Maybe we can have this conversation another time.

    • Janice Prindle

      Thanks for pointing this out, Rama. And let’s not forget that Reagan began the restructuring of our federal tax code to transfer money to the wealthy and the corporations. It was predicted then that the great divide of the one percent and the rest of us would come about, and so it has. We have Reagan to thank for 30 years of decline in real wages. This is the result of a government policy, not a natural “free market.” So charming as John McClaughry may be, there are some deep inconsistencies in his thinking.

  • Bob Stannard

    Interesting read. I had hoped that Dirk might have asked John if he had ever applied for, and received, any federal grant money to do research.

  • Michael O’Brien

    I got to see John in action in a climate change debate with Bill McKibben a couple of years ago. John was severely outmatched and it was sad watching him provide responses that were clearly based on his political beliefs only. He seem to enjoy being the contrarian, but his performance only diminished him in my eyes. I was hoping and expecting something more than just his political slogans. We need rigorous discourse about all matters that face us, I saw a side of John that lacked that depth.

  • Renée Carpenter

    This is a fine, well-written piece–thank you vtdigger. But it leaves out so much!

    One thing in particular that came to mind in trying to appreciate the man although I disagree with his politics and the outcome of his thinking, was how we did agree back in the late 80s-early 90s when John was on the Senate Education Committee poised to change laws for then-considered “Private schools” and further constrict freedoms for home schooled families. To me, it is fairly significant, the time McClaughry spent in Vermont’s legislature and what his impact was. I was glad to have one strong issue of agreement back then, and can certainly agree that he’s “a nice guy,” “a good-hearted fellow,” and all those important positive qualities of his humanity.

    This article points out how, “He says the institute’s goal is to ‘educate Vermonters on the fundamentals of a free society.’”

    This so-called education promoted by the Ethan Allen Institute ignores that our “free society” is not free for the increasing majority of people and families who are bound into unbelievably desperate choices by increasing poverty and the skewed economy that truly limits free choices of the majority. Actual freedom in these times seems to be for those who have the means, the money, the (too-often) male white skin, and a heterogenous nature towards certain skills and tendencies (like math, science, technology, financial manipulations, etc) or have inherited wealth from generations before. What about the rest of us!

    The actual policies promoted–and those others taken apart–by the Ethan Allen Institute are skewed in favor of people of means; reflect economic and social policy of those who have fewer needs and so can be more independent of government programs (although they use publicly-funded services–infrastructure, health systems, emergency services, etc.) It fully disregards basic tenets of democratic governance, that with one person, one vote we should all be equal. (In fact, it also disregards the concept of “Public,” of “The Commons, and other basic concepts of our earliest founding fathers…” )

    For a capitalist society that equates money with free speech to be truly democratic, that money would have to be distributed more equally among all people. Or, in a truly democratic society with wealth increasingly collecting among fewer people and corporations, there needs to be a determination that corporations aren’t people and money isn’t speech. You can’t have it both ways and still call it a democracy or free. It just isn’t.

    It’s great that McClaughry can identify with such a wide variety of labels and political groups (movements) throughout history, but what about developing an attitude of listening to and learning from open process dialogues with those who don’t share his perspective. Ethan Allen Institute & McClaughry’s daily rants are one way. He’s given more than a “fair share” of public (media) space for rather limited perspectives.

    It’s great (for him) that the current economic structure works for him and his cronies, but I think Jefferson would agree that we need to figure out a way to shift economic and social policy–especially in little Vermont–so that the economic structure and social policies make life more fair and bearable for the most vulnerable among us. Isn’t that the true measure f a so-called civilized society? Isn’t that really supposed to be the role of government?

    Although I seem to recall talking with John McC. about the precepts of John Dewey (Democracy & Education) when it was relevant to his role on the VT Senate Education Committee, I notice that reference missing here. Dewey said much about the need for broad education for all citizens to develop what we now call “critical thinking skills” because Democracy demands the kind of fair debate and dialogue required for well-informed citizens to face challenging problems that arise. With all due respect to John McCLaughry and the Ethan Allen Institute, I’d love a few of these ideas to be considered. In a real democracy people need to speak for themselves–one person, one voice, one vote. The “security” guaranteed by both state and national Constitutions includes basic securities as defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: security of food, home, health care, transportation, education, housing. Let’s talk about these things more broadly, and actively listen: We may–as John & I did back a few decades ago–be surprised by the areas of broad agreement that we might share.

    • Kathy Leonard

      I enjoyed your comment, Renee.

      Being a contrarian is interesting and John certainly has had an interesting life — but what I see of John McClaughry has been consistently rigid and resistant to any revision of his strongly-held opinions. I know of no one can claim to be so right 100% of the time. As my husband said in response to this article: He’s just stiffer than two boards!

    • Dave Dempsey

      You are right that John gets more of his “fair share” of media exposure. I think Vermonts junior senator from New York City should be given more time to tell us why corporations are the root of all evil in this country, as surely some are, and then say that unemployment is a major problem in this country. No kidding Bernie, you are so perceptive. How do you propose we get rid of the loathsome big corporations and then replace those lost jobs and create more jobs to get people back to work. Here is a suggestion, push the EB-5 program and start a new degree program at UVM where graduates can get a BS in basic services for the wealthy flatlanders. Graduates will be qualified to for positions in maintenance, groundskeeping, housekeeping, and ski area operations. Most of these jobs will be seasonal, so employees will have plenty of time off.

      • Janice Prindle

        Bernie and serious economists have given you the answer to your question. Corporations are not inherently good or evil; and they do not, in fact, compete with each other in a free market, there’s no such thing. Governments always make decisions about taxes, tariffs, currency, regulations, etc. that impact that competition and the distribution of wealth. In our country, notably for the past 30 years, the government has made those decisions in favor of the largest corporations– just to take the tax code alone, not to mention all of the deregulation that has gone on in, financial services, for but one example. If you are angry about wealthy flatlanders, follow the source of their money. Do you realize that the more money you make, the lower your tax rate? Do you realize that a worker at McDonald’s pays proportionately more in taxes than its CEO? You are absolutely right to be embittered about the quality of employment: seasonal, low-paying jobs, not just here but increasingly, all over the country. Again, as Bernie has pointed out over and over, these are because we do not require corporations to pay a living minimum wage, and we do not require them to pay their fair share of taxes even when they ship their jobs overseas and when they take their record profits and use them to buy up foreign companies that operate overseas, instead of investing in job-creating enterprises in the U.S., again simply to avoid taxes. We cut the income rate in half for their CEOs, slashed capital gains and inheritance taxes, while penalizing productive small companies and their workers by increasing payroll taxes. Check it all out:

        I don’t understand how anyone like McClaughry who supposedly wants minimal government can sit back and applaud this process, which is the opposite of minimal government: it is a very activist government on behalf on the plutocrats. The solution to the problem is not “less government.” It’s DIFFERENT government.

  • Terrific profile of an intelligent Vermont commentator. Hat’s off. There is no debate without a multiplicity of opinion.

  • Barry Kade

    I stopped reading after mention of the $7 MacDonalds lunch. Neither thrigty nor ethical.

    • Barry Kade

      should be “thrifty.”

  • Don Peterson

    How does Mr. McClaughry reconcile heroes who keep their childrens mother in slavery (Jefferson) or run up huge federal deficits by saddling the poor with the bill (Reagan) with his misty eyed view of a free nation comprised of equals?

    Hypocricy is always disappointing; Mr. McClaughry and his views on the world are just more Republican (Whig) fantasies.

    Whats good for white guys who own property is good for everybody.

  • Jack Rosenthal

    One notable omission in a nicely done piece: no mention of an unforgettable work of political science that John co-authored with Jerome Waldie: Fair Play for Frogs.

  • Having had the pleasure of knowing Mr. McClaughry since my days at Vermont Law School it always facinates me to fill in another gap in understanding who this most interesting of political intellects is and how he came to arrive there. We don’t always agree, but he always makes me think as he has done challanging Republicans, Democrats and “Othercrats” for over fifty years – for this I am grateful. The story left out one of my favorite side notes as John once road the rails and took the hobo name of “Feather River John”, likely the only rail rider to serve at the White House as Senior Policy Advisor. They just don’t make ’em like that anymore – nope!

  • Ralph Colin

    When one is fortunate enough to be in John’s company, a privilege which I have thoroughly enjoyed on numerous occasions, one may simultaneously be educated and entertained by a scholar, a humanist , a philosopher, a humorist and by one of the best damn story-tellers I know in Vermont or anywhere else.

    What Mr. Van Susteren failed to include in his masterful portrait of John is that he is also a Marine which I, as a former Air Force officer, take pride in adding to John’s bio.

    He and Anne are among the most delightful duos I know and I take great pleasure in being honored by their friendship.

  • Bob Stannard

    Has anyone found out whether or not Mr. McClaughry ever sought, and/or receive federal funds for doing research?

  • Jed Guertin

    John McClaughry, is nothing more than an opportunist. The Ethan Allen Institute now gets a majority of its funding from the Koch Brothers and friends.

    • Bob Stannard

      Yes, I do suspect that this is the case, although he will not say where his funding comes from. I seem to recall hearing some years ago that when he started EAI that he sought, and received, some federal funding to do “research”.

      It would seem more than a little hypocritical for one who has railed against gov’t spending, blah, blah, to have ever accepted a dime from the federal gov’t. But, hey, you never know.

      • Lance Hagen

        Bob, nice slam!

        “I seem to recall hearing some years ago”, or maybe you read it on the wall of a bathroom stall, but since you differ in political views from John McClaughry, it is quite alright to ‘hit him with a dig’ based on this creditable information.

        Then again you are a lobbyist (or ex-lobbyist) .

  • Josh Fitzhugh

    Nice profile (and picture!) of a wonderful, opinionated man who has adopted Vermont as his physical and spiritual home. While I disagree with John as much as I agree with him, his voice is a refreshing, intellectual antidote to an all too monolithic, blue state. Now Dirk should follow it up with a profile of Anne, whom I am sure John would agree is “the better half.”

  • Bill Olenick

    Having known John since the mid 80s, I can truly say,whether one agrees with him or not,that he is a lighting rod for debate and without debate we have no democracy.
    He is also a very honorable man whose intentions are always geared to lifting his fellow man up to higher inspirations.
    I am a better man for knowing him and, agree with him or not, his commentary is a must read/listen to for any Vermonter who cares about his or her state.

  • Frank Bryan

    Thanks for that profile. Dead on … and only limited by its length. I would only respond to one of his critics who claimed John “seeks recognition” or something like that. Nothing could be further from the truth. (He lives on a hillside in the Northeast Kingdom ferchristsake!) One of his books, The Vermont Papers was positively reviewed in the Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times (hardly conservative newspapers) and The New Republic AND National Review! (one to the left, the other to the right.) He is a man for all seasons — one hell of a man; from the glint in his eye, to his quick mind and intellectual training and (most of all) to his commitment to humanity. Bottom line: whether in a fox hole, on a debating team or down and out on your luck in a soup kitchen, John is the kind of person to have at your side.

  • Jim McIntosh

    One of the few men in Vermont who understand cricket, play ball with Bill Lee, and … never mind. If you don’t know John as a friend, he’s a difficult person to understand. To me, he has been generous with vehicles, meals and places to sleep, which were offered as naturally as sharing a MacDonald’s meal. That may be stretching things. John likes his burgers.

  • Fred Hill

    Conservative or liberal or however labelled, anyone so articulate, rational, thoughtful, humane, and with subtle humor besides, and who writes so clearly, is worth having around. So we’re all stiff and pompous sometimes.

    Frank Bryan didn’t mention that he co-authored Vermont Papers, a book that I’m still waiting to see taken seriously, sensible and anything but ideological.

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