Traveling north on Route 7, we passed a barn with its side emblazoned with a huge American flag. An adjacent structure displayed an only slightly smaller Sanders-for-president sign. This patriotic farmer is feeling the Bern, I thought to myself.
"What do Vermonters think about Sanders' presidential bid?" asked my customer in the back. His name was Dick Lamm, and he was a hearty-looking older man, perhaps 80. Beside him sat his wife, Dottie. Like her husband, she appeared to embody a vitality that belied the years. Indeed, they had just finished a bicycle tour, a vacation choice that can be physically challenging even for younger folks.
When I'm asked "what Vermonters think," the only modest — not to mention accurate — response would seem to be "I can't really speak for Vermonters." But, of course, I can't help myself, my ego being what it is.
"Well, I think Bernie holds views further to the left than your typical Vermonter. But the reason he keeps getting elected — and by wide margins — is because the public respects his integrity and honesty. He means what he says, and he says what he means. And that's unusual and refreshing in a politician."
"Very astute," Dick said. I watched him nod his head a couple times in the rear-view mirror. "You obviously follow politics."
"Yup, I guess I'm a political junkie, with all the drawbacks implied by the word 'junkie.'" My repartee was in good form, and my customers chuckled along with me. "How about yourself?" I asked. "Do you keep up with such things?"
Dick shifted in his seat. "Actually, I run an institute devoted to health policy. It's connected with the University of Denver."
"That sounds wonky and definitely timely," I said. "Did you come into it from a policy and accounting background, or from the legal side?"
"Both. I trained as an accountant and a lawyer. I've also taught at the university."
"It sounds like you're the kind of person who wasn't content to remain in academia but wanted to have more of an impact in the real world."
"You could say that," Dick replied with a laugh.
His wife turned to him and said, "Dick..."
"I also was governor of Colorado for 12 years," he confessed.
"I was waiting for that to come out," Dottie said, chuckling as she playfully shook her husband's arm.
"Well, knock me over with a feather," I said. "I thought your name rang a bell. When did you serve? Was it the '70s?"
"It was three terms, '75 to '87."
"And you were a Democrat, right? That was a change for Colorado."
"Yes, that's correct. I came into office in the so-called 'Watergate class' — a group of us young Democrat governors and congresspersons who were swept into office in the wake of the Republican scandal. You could also say we were the JFK generation, inspired by his presidency."
"Watergate or not," I said, "how did you manage to get elected in what was still a conservative western state?"
"Well, for one thing, I campaigned on foot, walking about 800 miles across the state. That went over well with the Coloradans."
"It was covered nonstop by the press," Dottie chimed in. "At night, he would mark the spot with his bandana on a fence post, and continue on from there the next day."
I could hear the love and pride in Dottie's voice. I would bet that she'd played a significant role in her husband's political life.
"How about you, Dottie? I asked. "Did being first lady of Colorado fill up your time, or have you pursued an outside career, as well?"
"Well, the kids were young then, too, but I did, for many years, write a political column for the Denver Post. I still do, occasionally."
"Her writing and advocacy on women's issues have made a real difference," the former governor added. It was now his turn to shine the light on his partner. Their mutual respect and affection were palpable. "And she also found time to earn an MSW."
"So, Governor, what about higher office?" I asked. "There isn't a politician alive who hasn't dreamt about the Oval Office."
"I did throw my hat in the ring in '96, running in Ross Perot's Reform Party primary. I thought it was time to get beyond the Republican and Democratic parties that were both controlled, in my view, by special interests. Unfortunately, at the last minute, Perot decided to run again, and I lost to him. It was always his party, it turned out."
"Well, you gave it a shot," I said, turning onto I-89 toward the airport, the highway ablaze with maples. The trees this year — oh, the trees, the annual drama. It took them a while to get going and then, overnight, they seemed to pop. On that first foliage morning, I felt like Dorothy when she stepped out into the Land of Oz. The only thing missing was the Munchkins. Maybe next year.
My thoughts drifted to the Lamms' home state of Colorado, and I wondered about their trees. I tried to picture aspens in the Rockies, but my imagination generated only maples.
"What about writing?" I asked. "Have you done your memoir? You were one of the first politicians focusing on environmental issues, if I recall. There's got to be some great stories."
"Well, I have done some writing," Dick acknowledged. (He was being more than modest. Later that night, I checked his Wikipedia page and saw he'd penned about a dozen books, including at least one novel.) "I recently took an adult education class on memoir writing and have about eight chapters written. It's like pulling teeth for me. I hate to write about myself. The word 'I' makes me physically ill."
"Dick, you can write it any way you want, you know that?" his wife encouraged him. If this was cajoling, it was of the tenderest kind. "It could focus on all the interesting people you've known. People would love the stories about John Denver and Robert Redford."
We reached the airport before I could prod Dick to give up those stories. I guess I'll have to await the memoir.
Unloading their luggage, I said, "Governor, it's been an honor to meet both of you."
"Well, thank you, Jernigan, for the safe ride and good conversation." His smile was warm, and I was struck by the grace with which he and his wife wore their considerable fame and accomplishments. "We love your little state," he added. "We'll be back."