February 1st, 2006

US House Race 2006: Media Bogarts Rainville Kool-Aid

by Philip Baruth

Politics VT reports that Martha Rainville, to no one’s great surprise, has met her “fundraising goal,” pulling in just over $100,000 this reporting period.

Which is interesting, given that she’s not supposed to have fundraising goals of that sort while in exploratory mode.

But not real interesting, at least to most media outlets. There’s been a cute sort of wink-wink nudge-nudge going on for about a year now, with every journalist in Vermont methodically positioning Rainville as the Republican candidate — in spite of constant denials on her part.

With the exception of a single, perceptive editorial in the Rutland Herald, almost every journalist in Vermont has ignored the ethical problems involved with campaigning while pretending to explore, and campaigning while pretending to explore in uniform — and campaigning while pretending to explore in uniform with a war raging overseas.

Why? Because that’s the treatment Generals get. Ask Colin Powell. And clearly a race between a female GOP General and a hard-charging Democrat would be the sort of marquee contest that wins reporters plaques and trips to Las Vegas.

And so they’ve allowed Rainville — or rather, her spokesperson — to garner free media on a near daily basis even as she states, again and again, that she is not a candidate.

It’s become a tongue-in-cheek little rhumba that reporters and Rainville’s people execute together — and at this point it’s fantastically smooth.

The Vermont Guardian ran one of these cutesy cut-aways this past week:

“Rainville is not expected to announce a final decision on her candidacy for several weeks, according to Nathan Rice, her campaign spokesman.

“’Her top priority has always been the National Guard,’ said Rice, ‘and with the tragic loss of another Green Mountain Boy last week, her time right now is taken up as adjutant general. She will make an announcement when the time is right for the National Guard and herself.’”

Look at that response again. Notice the way the “tragic loss of another Green Mountain Boy” becomes the spin doctor’s shield? Personally, I found it a bit tough to stomach.

That’s what happens the second you let politics into the military sphere: duty becomes mingled with self-interest, how best to shut down a reporter’s question, how best to continue the non-campaign campaign.

And conversely, when you let the military into the political sphere, you get something equally unsettling: a major party candidate who can’t speak out on the issues of the day — torture, wireless wiretapping, permanent detention without due process, hasta la vista habeus corpus — because she’s in uniform.

This co-dependent relationship between Rainville and Vermont’s mainstream media reflects well on none of us. This is a race for Bernie Sanders’s seat in Congress, a seat synonymous with speaking truth to power. This is not just a Vermont, but a national point of pride.

Greenlighting a candidate who can’t and won’t speak out — can’t even tell potential donors why they should donate — is a little bit of cowardice, and a little bit of medal-worship, and the media badly needs to redeem itself in the coverage from this point forward.

For what it’s worth, here’s a piece I wrote about Rainville campaigning in uniform back in August. Change a few details, and it could apply to the media coverage right up to today, the first week of February.

And that’s just sad.

Notes from the New Vermont
Commentary #172: Generals Should Fight, Not Run

The beauty of a radio program like VPR’s Switchboard is that it allows you to feel as though you’ve spent a full hour not just listening to someone special, but actually in the company of someone special. It’s a fantastically intimate experience.

And it was on Switchboard that I first heard Major General Martha Rainville, Commander of the Vermont National Guard. I was on my way home from Montpelier, the car was dark, and I heard Rainville fielding calls from listeners worried about Iraq.

The callers were worried about everything: why we got into the war, why we couldn’t get out of the war, whether too many Vermonters were being shipped out, or too few.

The questions and the concerns poured in from all over the state, but Rainville never faltered once. She was no dogmatic robot; she seemed herself genuinely concerned about the US involvement, and what it might do to the Vermont National Guard, and the Guard nation-wide. She was tough, but human.

But politics has a way of making even smart, good-hearted people seem occasionally tone-deaf, or worse.

In Rainville’s case, she has made it clear that she is “seriously considering” a run for Bernie Sanders’s Seat in the U.S. House as a Republican. And since that almost-announcement in the beginning of May, she has begun to run what looks very much like a traditional campaign for Congress.

On the fourth of July, for instance, she attended the ceremonies at the birthplace of Calvin Coolidge, and when a reporter asked her about her real feelings on the war in Iraq, Rainville maneuvered: “There’s a line today that I can’t cross,” she said.

It was a beautifully nuanced statement: supporters of the war could point to her tacit support of the Commander in Chief, and opponents could walk away with the impression that Rainville herself opposes the war — but can’t say so just yet.

Rainville’s answer to the 64,000$ question — should she step down from her post as Adjutant General now that she’s gone public with her political ambitions — was also too clever by half. There is “no legal requirement for me to resign or retire” because “I am an elected, exempt state employee.”

Of course, in politics the point is rarely what’s legal. The point is usually deeper, and closer to the heart of democracy: what do voters think is right and wrong. We seem either to be losing the war in Iraq, or coming dangerously close: does the Commander of the Vermont National Guard really have enough play in her schedule to manage Vermont’s contribution to that effort, and run a state-wide campaign?

And even if she does, should she?

I don’t think so, myself. Last week, I picked up a copy of the Free Press to find that Rainville had traveled to Iraq for a two-day visit. There was a nice picture of her with some Vermont National Guardsmen, smiling over a bottle of water. The article pointed out that it was her first trip to the war-theater since the conflict began, and I couldn’t help but wonder about that.

And ideally I shouldn’t have to wonder about that, Vermonters shouldn’t have to wonder. Soldiers should soldier, and politicians should politic. Mixing the two is never a good idea, technically legal or not.

[This piece aired previously on Vermont Public Radio.]

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  1. Vermont Daily Briefing » MyDD Seconds VDB Emotion said,

    on February 2nd, 2006 at 10:00 pm

    […] MyDD — one of the sharpest political blogs out there — ran with yesterday’s US House post, taking the Rainville Kool-Aid story nationwide. […]

  2. Vermont Daily Briefing » said,

    on July 1st, 2006 at 3:28 am

    […] But for months, that information remained in the hands of journalists and campaign watchers. VDB tried to get the story out, as did other bloggers. […]