July 30, 2012
MAPLE CORNER, VT – It’d be hard to imagine a greener, more idyllic, or more essentially Vermont place than this unincorporated crossroads village astride the County Road north of Montpelier. Just a few rods west lies Curtis Pond, an old impoundment surrounded by camps and popular with fishermen, canoeists, and kayakers. If you look at it from space, courtesy of GoogleEarth, you can see clearly the influence of a continental ice sheet: Gouged and sculpted valleys and hills run parallel slightly west of south.
Maple Corner became briefly famous in 2002 when, running out of options to raise many thousands of dollars to renovate the Community Center, twelve men of the village, ranged in age from 39 to 78, posed (au natural, but discreetly) for the Men of Maple Corner Calendar, which made enough money to complete the necessary work.
We met this evening in the Community Center, brought up to modern fire-safety and sanitary codes. After lasagna and salad pumped out by the kitchen of what for years was the Grange Hall, we repaired upstairs to the theater/dance hall for speeches by Democratic candidates for state offices and our junior senator, the inimitable Bernie Sanders.
Predictably, the place was packed. Ever since the 180º shift in the United States’ political poles occasioned by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, there’s been no shortage of Democrats in Vermont. I’m not sure that “Democrat” is an accurate label, actually. I sense less party loyalty among Vermont Democrats than I do among Republicans everywhere; it’s more an enthusiasm for liberal and progressive values, environmental protection, sustainable energy sources, sensible shoes (Bernie’s wearing running shoes this evening), buying local, and granola for breakfast. Probably everyone here, however, will be receiving regular messages from Sanders headquarters; as we came in, we were handed sticky badges for our shirts and asked to sign in with our contact information.
Looking around the auditorium, I could see that most faces were excited and expectant. Most of them had read at least part of “The Speech,” and suspected they were in for more of the same. Some held notebooks on their laps and clearly itched for the chance to pop up at the end of Bernie’s remarks to ask important questions or make powerful points. And a few – if I know body language – held their arms crossed on their chests, indicating skepticism.
I’ve been thinking for years of asking some legislator to introduce a bill making it a misdemeanor to abuse an audience; second offense, a felony. Probation available for the first conviction: mandatory attendance at a Dale Carnegie course, where, when you’re given two minutes, that’s what you get. At exactly two minutes, they ring a bell, and you’re done. Great training. You can tell Bernie’s done a lot of these events. He invariably speaks last, after the local and state candidates, who are given, I’m guessing, two minutes each to make their pitches. I noticed that, when a speaker seemed to be about to forget, Bernie rose from his seat nearby on the stage apron and advanced slightly toward the podium, tapping the palm of one hand with his agenda.
Finally it was time for him to remind us again of the amazing (and growing) disparities between the haves and the have-nots in the United States; of the catastrophic consequences of the alternative to the reelection of President Obama; of the possibility of Canadian tar sands oil being piped across part of Vermont; of the legislative impasse in Congress. He wasn’t telling us anything we didn’t know, and he wasn’t giving us much hope of changing it in the current political climate.
But then he shifted gears and began to tell us what we could do. I could see ears prick up all through the house, and was reminded of the line from Ted Kennedy’s eulogy for his brother Bobby, who once said, “Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not.” He invoked the name of Jim Jeffords, and I remembered sitting in my truck in the rain in Middlebury on my 66th birthday, listening to Jeffords leave the Republican party, and repeating the words of his bumper sticker: “Thanks, Jim!” Bernie was using a tried and true technique – paint a seemingly hopeless picture, then show the light at the end of the tunnel.
There is probably little we can do on the national level, he admitted, given the influence of corporations and billionaires on Congressional decisions, but there’s a lot we can do right here in our little blue state up in the northeast corner of the nation, where retail politics is the norm, and we can talk to our governor and senators (and they to us) by first names. With his own reelection pretty well assured, he can spend time and energy in neighboring New Hampshire, where two really good Democrats are running for the House. He suggested we do the same. “Put a Vote Bernie bumper sticker on your car, and when people ask you why, tell ‘em – and describe the alternative!”
He went on to describe the effect of big, multinational banks on the state’s economy: Their profits go to out-of-state shareholders. He suggested a Vermont bank whose funds would be plowed back into the state’s needs. He praised the effort so far to develop a state single-payer health care system. If we can do it, he said, other states have to take a look at it. Let’s not forget we’ve led the nation before, and we can do it again. It sounded like 1777 all over again.
It was the essence of politics on a warm summer evening in our green enclave. It was almost possible to ignore for a moment the millions across the country who disagree with us vociferously, and focus instead on the positive steps we can take to recover our country. Thanks, Bernie!