Even on the west coast of Vermont, in beautiful Burlington, one can feel the chill this week blowing across the mountains from St. Johnsbury. And we're not talking about the arch-conservative editorial page of the Caledonian Record.
No, we're talking about the scheduled visit to St. Johnsbury on Monday by the man many consider the blackest "black hat" to serve in what is euphemistically called the U.S. "intelligence" community in the last 25 years.
You may recall that the 1979 Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua was followed closely in the politically conscious Green Mountains. Dictator Anastasio Somoza had few friends around here. Many Vermonters supported the Sandinistas.
In the early 1980s, then-Burlington Mayor Bernie Sanders was even an invited guest of honor at ceremonies in Managua marking one of the revolution's anniversaries.
At the time, John Negroponte was the U.S. ambassador to Nicaragua's northern neighbor, Honduras. Honduras was the home base and staging area for the Contras, a secret, U.S.-financed army that waged a guerrilla war against liberated Nicaragua. Thousands of civilians were slaughtered. with President Ronald Reagan's blessing. A very dark time it was.
Today, after serving under Dubya as ambassador to both Iraq and the U.N., Negroponte sits at the very top of the mad, mad world of U.S. government-sanctioned spying. He is the first person to hold the title "United States Director of National Intelligence." He is cited as the man responsible for the recent resignation of CIA Director Porter Goss.
Next Monday, Negroponte will be the graduation speaker at St. Johnsbury Academy. His son is graduating.
SJA is a prestigious day and boarding school that also accepts local kids. It's known for offering a very good education -- a good, conservative one. A visit to SJA's website, in fact, reminds yours truly of our high school. Educational rigor and discipline appear to count big at SJA.
At http://www.stjohnsburyacademy.org we learned that among the items posted Tuesday in the high school's online Daily Bulletin are a directive to next year's calculus students to pick up the summer assignment and a notice that "There will be detention after Last Chapel on Wednesday at 3:15 in C308."
As we dug a little deeper, we discovered many of the locals are afraid of their own detention if they publicly speak out against the graduation speaker.
No members of the North Country Coalition for Justice and Peace would talk with us for attribution. We sensed an octave of fear in their voices we haven't heard recently. This despite the fact that the group of aging World War II veterans and former Vietnam-era hippies put an ad in the Caledonian Record last week calling SJA's choice for graduation speaker "shameful."
"Inside Track" has learned that members of the loose-knit peace group split over whether to distribute a letter to the cap-and-gown crowd at Monday's event. So the letter will be handed out under the new name of "Vermont Citizens for a Free and Representative Democracy." Obtained by "Inside Track," the letter recounts Negroponte's record in Honduras and elsewhere. It states:
"We urge you to lend a critical ear to your speaker and the advice he may offer. Mr. Negroponte may glorify the U.S. policies that he was instrumental in creating and imposing, but it is your generation that will live with the results of these policies and will need to create solutions."
SJA Headmaster Tom Lovett told "Inside Track" that he does not expect a political speech on Monday from the United States' Grand Guru of Spying.
"Certainly," said Lovett, "St. Johnsbury Academy is not making any kind of political statement" by having Negroponte as graduation speaker. He told us that the ambassador had first been invited to speak at the school way back when his kid enrolled.
Previous graduation speakers, he said, include former Red Sox pitcher Bill Lee, Allan Gilmour, former vice-chairman of Ford Motor Company, and Gov. Jim Douglas. Lovett conceded the school has never before had a speaker with Negroponte's international and political celebrity.
As for protests at the campus, located in downtown St. Johnsbury, Headmaster Lovett noted the academy "takes itself seriously as a place to prepare people to participate in a democracy." He emphasized that "free speech" and "protest" are part of democracy. However, protesters "will not be allowed on school property" during Monday's graduation.
Getting to Know You -- . . . getting to know all about you! And the person everybody's getting to know is the new Progressive mayor of Vermont's largest city, Bob Kiss.
Mayor Kiss certainly has a different style, not only from his predecessors, but from people we've become accustomed to knowing as "politicians."
He opened his Friday presser on the city's financial woes by distributing a Burlington Police Department press release on Thursday night's Old North End shooting. When asked why, he suddenly blurted out his desire to take a close look at handgun control in Burlington.
We've got one of Candidate Kiss' campaign handouts in our hands, one that lists his top issues. Kiss wanted "to look at alternatives to the property tax," supports public participation in future waterfront development, and "is committed to helping small businesses grow and thrive."
Not a word about gun control.
OK. So he wanted to surprise everyone, eh?
Getting to know Mayor Bob the Prog is going to be a lot more exciting than anyone imagined.
Memorial Day -- For a change in routine, we hit the Middlebury parade Monday morning instead of the Vergennes Parade. Vergennes gets the bigger crowd and more fire trucks, tractors and politicians, but there was something really sweet about Middlebury when cars are banned on Main Street.
The Montpelier-based Catamount Pipe Band played the tunes and Gov. Douglas and his lovely wife led the march, along with U.S. Rep. Bernie Sanders, the featured speaker at the post-parade ceremony on the town square.
In his brief remarks, Vermont's Independent discarded the usual political rhetoric to honor the "more than 2400 Americans killed in Iraq" -- 24 from Vermont -- and "the more than 18,000 wounded."
"We live in a democracy and we are proud of that," said Sanders. "And in a democracy, honest people, honest members of Congress, disagree on where we should be going as a nation."
There are "differences of opinion," said Ol' Bernardo, over our invasion of Iraq and what we do now.
"That's what happens in a democracy," he said, "and we should not demean that process. We should be proud of those differences of opinion."
Sanders struck the right chord, and the crowd outside Middlebury's Town Hall Theater acknowledged its approval with applause.
"While we differ on the war in Iraq, I would hope very much that there are no differences of opinion about the respect that we owe to the men and women who are fighting, and the fact that we cannot turn our back on our soldiers, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, World War II or Korea, when they come home."
Ol' Bernardo ended his remarks with something different -- a kind of Bernie prayer. It was a prayer that reflected one constant in the lifetime of this 64-year-old political warrior.
"When we talk about the sacrifices made by so many for our country," said Sanders, "I hope that we also remember and pray that the day will come, sooner rather than later, when we will turn our swords into ploughshares, and the day will come when peace will finally arrive on our planet."
Fat chance of that, eh?
His main rival in the November U.S. Senate race, Republican Richard Tarrant, marched behind a campaign banner; his campaign aides, decked out in Tarrant ware, distributed candidate stickies and free American flags to those lining the parade route. Campaign Manager Tim Lennon drove the SUV, which was packed with more flags.
Hey, man, if you've got it, spend it!
Giving out flags on Memorial Day is a nice gesture. We noticed over at the city cemetery they had left out a supply of free flags, in case they'd missed a veteran's grave by mistake. That's what the day is about, and we all know someone who didn't come home.
Richie Tarrant, however, went one step further in his first Memorial Day parade as a political candidate. Attached to the flag sticks was an ingenious, index-card-sized document with Tarrant's campaign logo and the legally required "Paid for by Tarrant for Senate, Inc."
There was also a statement thanking people "for joining us" in honoring our veterans "and celebrating Memorial Day by proudly displaying the American flag."
Then the document states that Tarrant is "the candidate for U.S. Senate who will vote to protect the flag."
Whew, what a relief!
"Inside Track" later asked Campaign Manager Lennon if that statement reflects Tarrant's support for any particular piece of pending congressional legislation regarding a constitutional amendment?
Mr. Lennon replied that it merely reflected that Tarrant "is against flag-burning." He was not aware that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist has promised to make banning gay marriage and flag-burning top Senate issues in the coming month.
And though the free Tarrant flags did not indicate where the flags were manufactured, Mr. Lennon assured us they were "made in America."
Heck, there are 50 states to choose from.
Health Care Reform? -- Despite the songs of praise being sung by GOP Gov. Jim Douglas and Democratic legislative leaders such as Speaker Gaye Symington and Senate Prez Peter Welch, the Vermont Progressive Party has not jumped on the back-slapping victory bandwagon.
In fact, we haven't noticed any regular folks expressing their joy or relief that Montpelier made significant strides this session to improve their health or their budgets. Haven't heard anyone cheering that the Democrats delivered on their number-one 2004 campaign promise, either.
Maybe that's because they didn't?
According to a statement from the HQ of Vermont's third "major" political party, "This year's conversation about health care began with a handicap. The governor defined the goal as 'access to insurance' rather than access to equitable, affordable care for all. And somehow the legislature fell into his trap. Important policy alternatives were 'off the table' from the start of the discussion."
Rather than a move towards simplification, the Prog Party missive suggests the Symington-Welch-Douglas Team has produced "a new program requiring separate, complicated rules. And we have the perpetuation of an us-them system that we have already seen up close in the various teacher strikes throughout the state."
And more and more Vermont property-tax payers will see it up close again in the contact negotiations and strikes of the future, eh?
But the Progressive Party makes the case that "the most distressing piece of this bill" is, this health-care-reform legislation merely creates another new insurance product that the Progressives say "will be marketed like Coca-Cola and Barbie dolls."
"Blue Cross/Blue Shield continues to pay for television commercials hawking their wares. Their business is selling insurance, and the state has just increased their product line."
Enviro Peace -- Last week, the environmental group Gov. Jim Douglas hates -- the Conser-vation Law Foundation -- along with the nation's second-largest Big Box chain, surprised everyone as they announced an agreement to build the proposed Lowe's Home Center in South Burlington. They're not only going to protect but but improve the local environment.
Amazing! We thought big box chains and tree huggers were incapable of getting on the same page.
We thought wrong.
And in this business vs. environment dispute, who comes off looking as useful and effective as the proverbial tit on a bull?
Jim Douglas, that's who.
Gov. Scissorhands, who suffers stomach upset at the mere mention of the Conservation Law Foundation, did not have a seat at the negotiating table on this baby. But you can bet he'll make the grand opening ribbon-cutting.
Tarrant Faces Media -- When your opponent, front-runner Bernie Sanders, is at 61 percent in the latest statewide poll and you're at 24 percent, something's got to change. And things did change for Senate hopeful Rich Tarrant last week. Mr. Press-Shy suddenly convened an open-ended, hour-long press conference at his Colchester HQ. It was the new, smiling, friendly Rich Tarrant -- the wealthy political newcomer sat there prepared and determined to take every incoming missile until the Fourth Estate ran out.
The first question was about his new policy position on Iraq, and that's what caught the biggest headline.
As reported here last week, Ol' 24 Percent Tarrant now thinks it's obvious to everyone that the U.S. invasion of Iraq was, in hindsight, a mistake.
Distancing himself from the Bush war policy may have seemed a shockeroo to some, but let's face it, folks, it was absolutely necessary. He is running, after all, in Vermont.
And it was a little like old times, too. Seated in the back taking notes was a veteran Vermont political operative who for more than a decade was Gov. Howard Dean's right hand: Kate O'Connor. Ms. O'Connor is now marketing the skills she honed with Ho-Ho to a rookie Republican with very deep pockets.
Lucky Kate, eh?