September 22nd, 2005

I Will Beer No Evil: Karl Rove Does Burlington

by Philip Baruth

In hindsight, I should have gone straight home Saturday after the VPR listener picnic.

But it is American Beer Month, and the 13th annual Brewers Festival was in full swing down on the Burlington waterfront. And the tent village was hopping: people milling everywhere, tasting craft-brewed ales and stouts and pilseners, and the fringe types sipping hard cider or barley wine.

Now, if you’ve never been there before, the brewers serve their stock in these tiny plastic sipping cups, about the size of the plastic cup you rinse with at the dentist. They only hold a few swallows, but my tolerance isn’t what it was before I got married and had kids. So the truth now is I get three or four of these sippy cups in me, and I’m loaded for bear, if you know what I’m saying.

And that’s just where I am when I look up and see this guy leaning against the counter at the Smuttynose Brewing Company. This guy’s face is really familiar, but bad familiar, like the face of some kid who taunted you all through high school: receding hairline, gold rimless glasses, plump well-fed cheeks, pink as a spring pig. He’s drinking a Belgian-style white beer, and he looks as pleased with himself as humanly possible. And then the penny drops: it’s Karl Rove.

I can’t believe it — this guy’s being investigated by a Special Prosecutor for leaking classified information out of the White House. This guy should be cowering in his White House office. Yet here he is, Bush’s brain, living large on the Burlington waterfront.

Part of me knows I shouldn’t but I’m one sippy cup over the line, and I shoulder my way up to the counter beside him. And then I turn and look him dead in the eye and I whisper, “You know you leaked that agent’s name, Rove. And we finally got the goods on you, after all these years.”

He just smirks, and swills a little more of the Belgian white beer. Then, like he’s going to tell me a secret, he leans in to my ear. What he whispers is something that no man can say to another man without a fight: “Nanny-nanny boo-boo — you can’t catch me.”

That tears it. I throw down my sippy cup, and Rove throws down his, and some of Rove’s buddies turn around from the bar and get set: Ken Mehlman, Scooter Libby, the heavy hitters. All around us people scatter. And that fight would have been epic, but suddenly a big guy in a suit comes flying out of nowhere and gets me in a bearhug, holding me back. It’s Senator Pat Leahy.

“It’s not worth it, dude,” Leahy whispers fiercely in my ear.

I struggle in his grip. “You didn’t hear what he said.”

Leahy gives a dry chuckle. “Believe me, they’ve said worse to me. You gotta pick your battles, man.”

I know he’s right. So I nod, and Leahy lets go. But before I leave I turn to where Rove and the rest are yucking it up. “Laugh now, Rove,” I say, “but this isn’t over. You hear me? It’s not over!”

But Rove just gives me this look like I don’t get it, and he says, “Not only is it over, but soon no one will remember that it ever began.”

So here I sit today, with a please-kill-me hangover, those words ringing in my ears. I want to believe that Rove is wrong, and my head tells me that he’ll resign in disgrace. But my heart tells me that he’s going to skate like Michelle Kwan. That’s the thing about the Brewers Festival: it’s fun, but there’s always the chance you leave wearing one wobbly boot, as the Australians say, and the older I get the longer it takes for that to go away.

September 20th, 2005

Vermont: The Shadow Administration

by Philip Baruth

When Jim Jeffords switched his party affiliation in 2001, wresting the US Senate from Republican control, grateful Democrats started buying bumper stickers that read, “Don’t Mess with Texas” — except the word “Texas” had been X-ed out and replaced with the word, “Vermont.”

It was a cheeky bit of word play, and a reminder to Bush that even a pebble can stop a tank, if it gets wedged in there just right.

But if you step back for a moment and look at the last five years as a whole, something becomes pretty clear pretty fast: Vermont’s oppositional role to this administration, and the forces behind it, is far larger and much more enduring than Jefford’s move alone. Here are the highlights: In April of 2000, the Vermont Legislature passes landmark civil unions legislation. In May of 2001, Jeffords makes his move, and the Bush agenda grinds to a halt in the Senate. In 2003 and 2004, Howard Dean rides a wave of anti-war, anti-Bush sentiment to national prominence, and finally in 2005, the Chairmanship of the DNC. And throughout this period, Senator Pat Leahy is using his seniority on the Judiciary Committee to slow, and in more than one case stop, the confirmation of unqualified or ideologically extreme candidates for the Federal Bench.

What this looks like to me, when I put it all of these seemingly unrelated events together, is a shadow administration, contemporaneous with that of George W. Bush but in strong and continuous opposition to it. This shadow administration began as a homegrown phenomenon, but the logic and the courage of its local aspects has led to sustained national backing from a center-left coalition across the United States.

In other words, it is no accident that Howard Dean became the official spokesperson for the Democratic Party establishment. Far from it. Dean’s installation was a logical next step in a process of political clarification, a process underway not just in Burlington and Brattleboro, but in Binghamton and Buloxi and Bakersfield. What is being clarified is a political vision to contest that being offered by the Republican majorities in the House, the Senate, the Supreme Court, and the White House. These majorities preceded George W. Bush, and the vision they represent is larger than Bush the man, although he is their most concentrated expression. Similarly, Dean’s rise is not about Internet fund-raising, or blogging, or greasing the palms of the state Democratic chairman. And it is not about Howard Dean the man. Dean has become the clarified expression of the opposing Vermont vision, and that Vermont vision has been ratified in no small part by the rest of the country. This has become harder to see as Republicans have had more success turning Dean into a one-liner, but it’s still true, all the same.

If you doubt that, consider civil unions. When Dean signed the Civil Union legislation in 2000, his critics predicted the fall of civilization. They predicted it would destroy Dean’s national political career. Four years later, civil unions seemed quaint and old-fashioned compared to same-sex marriage, and both Dick Cheney and George Bush endorsed civil unions prior to the vote last November.

How does that happen in a five-year period? It can only happen in response to a vision of America that strikes a majority of Americans as socially and morally just. It can only happen in response to a vision that is aggressive and unafraid to square off against deeply entrenched power in all three major branches of federal government.

It can only happen, to put it bluntly, in Vermont.