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.
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.”