Money shouldn’t beat charm in election
Published: Thursday, November 1, 2012
Updated: Thursday, November 1, 2012 23:11
Linda McMahon, the Connecticut Republican nominee for the US Senate, will have spent approximately $80 million over three years trying to convince the voters of Connecticut to support her on Election Day by the time her second campaign for Senate ends next week. In her loss to Richard Blumenthal two years ago, she spent over $100 for every vote that she received. It is a ludicrous display of financial excess, but it is hardly a new development in American politics. Even before the Supreme Court’s decision was handed down in the Citizens United case, the Constitution was interpreted to permit individuals to spend limitlessly on their own campaigns. Coupled with the newly derived ability of so-called “super-PACs” to exercise First Amendment rights in this way, political campaigns now seem more like auctions than meaningful clashes of personalities and ideologies. If it is possible to transform one’s image as quickly and effectively as McMahon has, then there is no personal flaw or indiscretion which a candidate cannot suppress and a candidate may effectively recreate himself to meet the demand of the electorate.
But we need not bemoan this perceived decline in our political culture. It is possible to defeat financially well-endowed candidates not by joining the fight with an equally large campaign war-chest, but indeed by an excess of frugality, charm and self-deprecation. After I wrote last week’s column – a cautionary tale of demagoguery, with British politician George Galloway as its principal villain – I felt that I wasn’t telling a complete truth in my analysis. That is why I wish to turn now to the remarkable example of Fred Tuttle as a humble and unpretentious political hero to show that virtue and earnestness need not always go unrewarded in politics.
Frederick Herman Tuttle was a World War II veteran, high school dropout, Vermont dairy farmer and octogenarian candidate for the US Senate. He was the star of a local independent film, “Man with a Plan,” which depicted the hapless and innocent Tuttle seeking election to Congress to pay off outstanding debts and save his failing dairy farm by way of the office’s six-figure salary, navigating a turbulent campaign replete with unscrupulous, muckraking reporters and voice coaches attempting in vain to soften Fred’s impenetrable New England accent. The film’s producer and director, John O’Brien, who also was Fred’s neighbor in the small Vermont town of Tunbridge, devised an ingenious publicity campaign: make Fred into a real-life candidate for the US Senate in 1998.
But Fred’s campaign for Senate was more than a mere publicity stunt: it was a protest campaign against the coronation of the presumptive Republican nominee, Jack McMullen. In the political parlance of Vermont, McMullen was a “flatlander,” a recent transplant to Vermont’s affluent resort town of Warren looking to “buy up a cheap Senate seat,” in O’Brien’s words. When the two of them met for the one debate of the primary campaign in September 1998, Tuttle, the fourth-generation Vermonter and hardy dairy farmer, seized the opportunity to ask of his effete rival, “How many teats has a Jersey cow got?” In incorrectly answering “six” instead of “four,” McMullen indicated that he had grossly underestimated the agrarian and traditional culture of the state he was running to represent.
If a voter desired to choose the candidate in the 1998 Republican Primary with the vision for the future needed to enable Vermont’s economy and government to benefit from revolutions in communication and the globalization of markets, unquestionably he would have chosen McMullen. It was not hard for McMullen to deliver a far more effective statement than Tuttle on defense or foreign policy, especially when the latter’s knowledge of world events was essentially limited to experiential knowledge of the events of World War II, gathered at that point over 50 years in the past. To be a senator, undoubtedly, it is not enough to say on these matters, “we should do something, I don’t know what,” as Fred did. Fred Tuttle had no specific policy proposals, no strong stances on issues and no real understanding of the workings of modern politics. But Tuttle soundly defeated McMullen in the Republican primary because of his quirky style, his utterly unpretentious manner and his quiet heroism in unwittingly defending a way of life under threat from social transformation.
Tuttle was, of course, defeated by the popular Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy in November 1998. On his campaign, he spent $251 – one dollar for each of Vermont’s towns – which he largely raised through a nickel-a-plate fried chicken dinner. Tuttle marginalized his own campaign, even when charming the audience of the Tonight Show, urging voters to support his opponent and emphasizing his hatred of Washington DC. And yet, despite his countless quirks and idiosyncrasies, Tuttle represented – and likely still represents, even after his death in 2003 – something larger to residents of Vermont. The Vermont he represented valued practical, pastoral living, tradition and grassroots and personable politics, and his presence on the political scene was a form of staunch opposition to the development, tourism and foreign-ness that McMullen represented to so many. Tuttle was the ever-unwilling Cincinnatus of Tunbridge, Vt., called from his farm to serve his state as a political candidate at the request of the people. The decency and honesty of this common man made of him a political hero of uncommon stature.