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Taken with Aiken

Searching for the legacy of a Vermont statesman


Published November 3, 2004 at 5:00 a.m.

The term "progressive Republican" doesn't have much political currency anymore -- like the Susan B. Anthony dollar, it's all but disappeared from general circulation. Political observers who readily accept the concept of a "conservative Democrat" would balk at the suggestion that a Republican could champion causes such as worker rights, a livable wage or the antiwar movement, especially in the era of George W. Bush.

But Vermonters have always prided themselves on their politically iconoclastic thinking, and no one more so than former Governor and U.S. Senator George D. Aiken, a progressive Republican in the tradition of Abraham Lincoln. Aiken's impressive political career spanned nearly 45 years, from his election to the Vermont House of Representatives in 1931 to his retirement from the U.S. Senate in January 1975. Throughout that time, Aiken was a fierce advocate for farmers and blue-collar workers, pushing for rural electrification, social welfare programs and tougher environmental protections. In Congress, Aiken was widely respected and admired on both sides of the aisle as a lawmaker who never allowed partisan politics to get in the way of supporting legislation that was in the best interest of his country and the people of Vermont. And when it came to committing U.S. troops overseas -- both in Europe and later Vietnam -- it was Aiken who always reminded his colleagues that it's the common folks of America who pay for war, and do most of the dying.

Now, nearly 20 years after Aiken's death on November 19, 1984, comes the publication of The Essential Aiken: A Life in Public Service, a compilation of the former senator's speeches, letters, press releases and other writings. The book was compiled and edited by Samuel Hand, professor emeritus of history at the University of Vermont, and Stephen Terry, a veteran observer of Vermont politics and former reporter and editor at the Rutland Herald and Montpelier Times-Argus. The Essential Aiken, released in conjunction with the 30th anniversary of UVM's Aiken Lecture Series, focuses on the statesman's primary areas of interest: agriculture, foreign policy, energy and the environment. The ideas and reflections it encompasses are as timely today as they were a half-century ago. Perhaps that's why, after all this time, Aiken's name is still invoked more often than that of any other Vermont politician. Apparently, every party wants to claim a piece of him.

Aiken has name recognition even among Vermonters who are too young to have known him. While walking out of a store a few weeks ago, Hand overheard some young people, perhaps in their early twenties at most, discussing politics. A woman commented to her friends that she couldn't vote for Governor Jim Douglas because of his support for President Bush.

"I don't know what got into me, but I said to her, 'Would you have voted against George Aiken because he was against Roosevelt?'" Hand recalls. "I expected her to say, 'Who's Roosevelt? Who's George Aiken?' But she looked at me and said, 'Well, I might have voted for Aiken. But Jim Douglas is no George Aiken.'"

Certainly, today's Vermont Republican Party is nothing like the one that dominated Green Mountain politics for more than a century. From 1854 to 1958, no Democrat was ever elected to Congress or the governor's office -- the state's first Democratic senator, Patrick Leahy, didn't get in until 1974. And while Douglas is more of a centrist than his Republican counterparts in the red states -- he's pro-choice, strong on the environment and not anti-labor -- it's unlikely anyone would describe him as a progressive.

Hand, former head of the Vermont Historical Society, the Oral History Association and the Center for Research on Vermont, suggests that Senator Jim Jeffords may come closer. Like Jeffords, Aiken was a maverick who wasn't afraid to challenge his party's leadership when it shifted too far to the right. Case in point: In a December 4, 1937, letter to the Republican National Committee, Aiken bemoaned the fact that the Republican Party had "fallen under the baneful influence of Southern committeemen" who were too beholden to large corporate interests, and recommended that the party purge itself of its "reactionary and unfair elements."

"We have become a party of old men," Aiken wrote. "Unless we can become also a party of and for young men and young women, the party will die -- and the process of dissolution has already begun."

Similarly, in 1964, when the Republican National Committee backed arch-conservative Barry Goldwater to run for the presidency against Lyndon Johnson, Aiken nominated his friend and colleague in the U.S. Senate, Margaret Chase Smith of Maine. Although Aiken did fall in line to support Goldwater once he became the party's nominee, Hand notes, he never really campaigned on Goldwater's behalf.

Like Jeffords, Aiken also wasn't shy about criticizing his own party publicly. During a nationally broadcast Lincoln Day speech to the National Republican Club of New York in 1938, Aiken said that the highest praise he could give Lincoln was that "he would be ashamed of his party's leadership today." Unlike Jeffords, however, Aiken remained a lifelong Republican and never would have abandoned his own party. Instead, Hand notes, through much of Aiken's career, he tried to reform the Republican Party from within and worked to make it more friendly to Labor and FDR's social-welfare programs.

Co-author Stephen Terry is a Democrat who worked in Aiken's Washington, D.C. office from 1969 to 1975. Back then, he says, it wasn't unusual for a staffer from one party to work for a member of the opposing party. Terry, who is now a senior vice president at Green Mountain Power, says he sees aspects of Aiken's legacy in several of Vermont's political leaders. On the foreign-policy front, he can see Aiken in Pat Leahy; when it comes to putting Vermont first at the national level, Douglas is Aikenesque.

But on the issue of opposing war, Terry sees the closest parallels between Aiken and former Governor Howard Dean. In Congress, Aiken positioned himself between the hawks and doves, earning himself the moniker, "wise old owl of the U.S. Senate." Interestingly, his words about the perils of war seem as applicable in a post-9/11 world as they were in pre-World War II America.

Consider, for example, Aiken's speech in opposition to the lend-lease bill of 1941, the legislation that would allow the United States to lend material support to its European allies in the war against Germany. Though Aiken would later become the first U.S. senator to vote for the declaration of war after Pearl Harbor -- the Senate votes alphabetically -- his reservations about the justification for U.S. military intervention sound strikingly familiar:

"Mr. President, the foremost influence in the United States today is fear. I am not proud of this. Wherever we turn, whatever we hear, it is fear, fear, fear. We are the greatest nation in the most protected position, and we are crying 'fear.' This cry of fear did not originate with the common folk of the country. It has been put upon them by those who really do fear, not for their country, not for the lives of our people, but for their dollars. Unless they can arouse our people to a fighting pitch, unless they can mislead and fool them into a declaration of war, or a war without a declaration, they are going to lose money.

"They want the American flag to float triumphantly in battle around the world. But as they envision their flag waving in glory over the oil fields of Asia Minor and the plantations of the East Indies they see on its field of blue not stars but dollar signs. The part being played by some American industrialists and corporate interests in world affairs today should fill our hearts with shame."

Years later, during the buildup to the Vietnam War, Aiken proposed what would later become known as the "Aiken Formula." He recommended to Lyndon Johnson that the United States re-deploy its military forces around strategic centers in South Vietnam, "declare a victory and withdraw." Aiken's speech, which was delivered on the floor of the U.S. Senate on October 19, 1966, came at a time when the U.S. presence in Vietnam was just under 150,000 troops -- roughly the same number of U.S. military personnel as are in Iraq today. Again, Aiken's words are eerily prophetic:

"Considering the fact that as every day goes by, the integrity and invincibility of the U.S. Armed Forces is further placed in question because there is no military objective, the United States faces only two choices: Either we attempt to escape our predicament by escalating the war into a new dimension, where a new aggressor is brought into play, or we de-escalate the war...in order to avoid any danger of placing U.S. Armed Forces in a position of compromise."

On the domestic front, Terry and Hand agree that the Vermont politician who most closely carries on the Aiken legacy of fighting for family farmers and blue-collar workers is Bernie Sanders. Like Sanders, Aiken was always "Labor's candidate" and warned against the growing imbalance of power between labor and management. Aiken was the first Vermont governor not to send troops to protect private property during union strikes. In addition, he backed the unionization of the woolen mills and supported a higher minimum wage for federal war contracts.

Aiken also opposed the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which restored to management some of the bargaining powers it had lost to unions. His pro-labor stance probably cost him the chairmanship of the Senate Education Labor Committee in 1946, Hand says. "Aiken was always his own man, but he was a wise man and a man of great influence," says Hand. "They say he was no power but had great influence."

And like Sanders, Aiken had a deep distrust of big business and its corrupting influence in Washington. "That was always the thing about Aiken," says Terry. "He would never take campaign contributions and he never liked the influence of money in politics. But most importantly, he was never comfortable in allowing others to tell him what to do."

In today's hyper-politicized Congress, it's hard to imagine two U.S. senators from opposing parties eating breakfast together every morning for years, the way Aiken did with his longtime friend, Mike Mansfield, the Democratic senator from Montana. Even harder to picture is a U.S. senator running on both the Democratic and Republican ticket -- as Aiken did in 1968 -- and winning the race after spending just $17.09. Nearly all of that money was spent on postage to thank voters for their support.

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