Fred Tuttle for Senate: Why Not?
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 4, 1998; Page D1
BURLINGTON, Vt.It would be tough to create an effective television advertisement for Fred Tuttle's U.S. Senate campaign, and not just because of his self-imposed spending cap of $16.
Such an ad would have to begin with Fred, wearing his standard uniform of blue overalls, thick glasses and blue baseball cap emblazoned with his first name, nuzzling against a Jersey cow. (Fred, 79, may lack any relevant political experience and possess only a 10th-grade education, but he was a dairy farmer for decades.) In the commercial, he'd be leaning on a walker, since he just had his knees replaced. He's also weathered three heart attacks, four cataract operations, diabetes and prostate cancer.
Maybe he could introduce himself, except that with his thick Vermont accent and the absence of several key teeth (lost in a bar fight years ago) his name sounds like "Furry Turtle."
Fred on fellow Republican Jack McMullen, his opponent in Tuesday's primary: "He's a good, friendly man. I like him. Bought me a big bouquet of flowers."
Fred on the Democratic incumbent, Sen. Patrick Leahy, whom he will face if he defeats McMullen: "Patrick Leahy is a pretty smart man. He been down in Washington a long time, and he's done a lot for Vermont."
Fred on the First Amendment: "What's the First Amendment?"
And Fred's wife, Dottie, on Fred: "I hope people have a little more sense than to think that Fred could do anything down in Washington. He doesn't know one thing about politics. He can't even get around the house he expects me to wait on him hand and foot."
It wouldn't be the most persuasive ad, even for a protest candidate who doesn't really want to be senator. But there's something about Fred. He's a movie star and Vermont icon. He's the focus of a publicity stunt for a satirical film, he's added a humorous jolt to Vermont politics, and along the way he's managed to become a symbol of old-fashioned values.
In a culture in which irony has become the signature element of entertainment, Fred Tuttle personifies a new level of irony in politics: Vote for him because he's uniquely unqualified.
No one will plausibly suggest that Fred could defeat Leahy in November and become Vermont's next senator. Voters here are not stupid. But ask around organized opinion polls being prohibitively expensive and people will tell you he has the edge in the primary on Tuesday, an open primary in which Democrats can cross over and vote on the Republican ticket, if they're so moved by a particular candidate or moved against one. In a liberal state like Vermont, that can make a big difference.
"It's the most bizarre primary season I've ever seen in Vermont," says Peter Freyne, the political columnist for Seven Days, Burlington's alternative weekly.
As Fred walks hobbles is more accurate around town, he's interrupted by well-wishers and autograph-seekers. "Fred, you're so cute," girls tell him. His folksy charisma appeals to everyone, from elderly small-towners to dreadlocked stoners to drag queens. He's like the incoherent Grampa from "The Simpsons," except people actually want to be near him. He's a doddering codger, a forgetful, helpless old man who happens to be having the time of his life and basking in his surprising stardom.
How do you campaign against such a man? If you're Jack McMullen, Massachusetts management consultant, multimillionaire and recent Vermont transplant, first you challenge him, then you befriend him, then you play along with him, all the while trying to deflect criticism that you're a carpetbagger. You debate Fred, even though such an event can only produce surreal comedy. ("Fred, do you think people should take you seriously in your bid to go to Washington?" "I suppose so. I think so, yeah.")
And how do you campaign for him? If you're John O'Brien, campaign director, filmmaker, political gadfly (a Democrat, for Heaven's sake) and Fred's longtime neighbor "I jokingly say Fred's been like a father to me, a brother, a son and a significant other all in one" you have some fun and let Fred be Fred. "I learned making the film that Fred can't memorize a compound sentence, so I don't even try," O'Brien says. "In the debates, I just nod and give him a thumbs-up."
And is Sen. Leahy getting nervous?
"I may have to start wearing a blue cap with 'Pat' on it," he says.
Time of His Life
Fred Tuttle and John O'Brien are Vermont's version of Scorsese and De Niro, each responsible for the other's success. Without one, there would not be the other.
The two live on neighboring farms in remote Tunbridge, two miles apart, and often get together to play an old Vermont card game called 88. O'Brien is the physical antithesis of Fred thin and fresh-faced, where Fred is compact and toughened. He cast Fred in his 1992 film, "Vermont Is for Lovers," the first of his "community cinema" trilogy, in which his friends and neighbors play themselves in fictional stories. Fred proved so captivating that O'Brien gave him the title role in his 1996 epic, "Man With a Plan."
The film played briefly in Washington, among other cities, at the now-defunct Key Theatre, but it earned back most of its $100,000 budget through video sales in Vermont. Everyone in Vermont, it seems, has seen the movie, which is why Fred now rivals Ben, Jerry and the rock group Phish for the title of "Vermont's Finest."
In the gentle, folksy satire, Fred Tuttle, a dairy farmer in need of some cash flow, decides to run for Congress. His platform is summarized by "FRED": Friendly, Renewable, Extraterrestrial, Dinky. He suggests launching our excess garbage into space.
"It was around the same time Ross Perot was running for president, so I thought, 'If this guy can be taken seriously, why not Fred Tuttle?'‚" says O'Brien over home-cooked miso soup at his Tunbridge spread. His 40 sheep bleat outside. "Sort of like Ross Perot with no money."
O'Brien, 35, grew up in a political family; his father was a Democratic state senator, and O'Brien remembers throwing snowballs at Ronald Reagan when Reagan visited the state in the 1970s. He is a justice of the peace, though the thought that he has the power to unite people in marriage makes him anxious. He once aspired to be a Vermont politician, but now he considers himself disillusioned with both parties he voted for Ralph Nader in the last presidential election.
Once the film came out, O'Brien noticed that Fred attracted a following. In elections, Vermonters gave Fred write-in votes for everything from president to state treasurer to bailiff. Through a Harvard connection, O'Brien nabbed a guest spot on "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" for Fred. (The two O'Briens reside next to each other in the 1985 Harvard yearbook.)
Fred's wife didn't like the new attention. "I really wish John hadn't gotten us into it," says Dottie Tuttle two years later. "There is no privacy anymore. We even went to a funeral yesterday and he had to sign autographs."
Those who've watched Fred's ascent from a distance might believe he's being taken advantage of. Not so, says O'Brien. "People think any time a young guy like me is hanging out with an old guy like Fred, he must be manipulating him."
Ask Fred if he's being used, and he replies, "I'm enjoying myself." He likes getting kissed by random women on the street. It's the most exciting time of his life, next to the liberation of Paris when he was a soldier in World War II.
Once O'Brien had persuaded PBS to air "Man With a Plan" next month, he began thinking of ways to publicize the broadcast. A real political campaign seemed ideal: life imitating art imitating life, far more literally than any "Wag the Dog" scenario. And with McMullen in the race, a man whom many Vermonters perceive as an outsider trying to buy an election (he's personally lent his campaign $227,000, according to the Burlington Free Press), O'Brien could send a message. If this joke has a punch line, O'Brien says, it's on the Republican Party, "for not cultivating young, qualified Vermonters."
(For the record, Fred's $16 spending limit is not quite accurate, because most of O'Brien's expenditures are considered movie promotion, not campaign spending. Tomorrow the Tuttle farm will host "Fredfest," a nickel-a-plate fund-raising dinner.)
In July, O'Brien collected the 500 required signatures to qualify for candidacy, but the state Republican Party challenged them and found that signatures from unregistered voters had left Fred 23 short. O'Brien and Fred came back the next week with 2,300 signatures, and the "campaign" began Fred spent the first few weeks in the hospital for knee surgery.
McMullen, a slight man with a voice like a smooth-jazz deejay, visited Fred there. McMullen, 56, likes Fred, and during a debate Monday he displayed genuine affection toward him. Their debates, he says, "are more like Vermont kitchen-table conversations."
"I still think it's a shame to take the core democratic process and make a joke out of it and worse yet, use it for commercial purposes," he says. "But even though it's an announced non-serious candidacy, I'm going to treat him as a fellow Republican candidate and we're going to have some fun together."
Ruth Stokes, the executive director of the Vermont Republican Party, is in an awkward position, having to publicly back such an unlikely candidate because he might actually win. "We welcome him aboard," she says. Still, her bias is obvious. "I hope people won't treat this process as a joke."
In his defense, Fred's supporters like to point to the kernels of truth embedded in his often rambling statements. They make him out to be a Forrest Gump, or a Chance, the slow-witted gardener played by Peter Sellers in "Being There," whose simple pronouncements were mistaken for profundity. In the 1979 film, which influenced O'Brien when making "Man With a Plan," Chance eventually becomes an adviser to the president.
Fred is not mentally challenged like these characters he's just a simple man, and what he has to say about Vermont life is valid. The dairy farms are disappearing; rich transplants are crowding out the poor. The communities of Fred's youth, in which neighbors looked after one another, are disappearing as Vermont gives itself over to Silicon Valley companies and Wal-Marts. "Fred embodies a passing way of life," says Pamela Polston, the editor of Seven Days.
But Fred is less of a simpleton savant than he is a parody of a politician. He wants to like everyone and be liked by everyone; he makes vapid promises and recites cliches; he has ideas but no suggestions on how to implement them. He is a Man With No Plan. Listen to his opening statement at Monday's debate against McMullen:
"I think Vermont needs a lot of changes. The farms are going and we need to do something to bring the farms back. Do something for education so poor people, it wouldn't have to cost quite so much money for the education. Highways are going and bridges are all falling in. If we get down to Washington maybe we can do something down there. I don't know what."
With his frequent urges to do something, anything, Fred represents all the powerless would-be politicians who run on a vacant platform of "change" and empty rhetoric without offering specifics.
After Fred debated McMullen, O'Brien remarked: "They sound similar at times. Here's one guy, who's completely serious and who's done his research and says, 'I want some changes in Vermont,' whereas Fred just off the top of his head says, 'I want some changes.' Neither one's ever held public office, so looking at the record, you'd be like, 'These guys are both jokes.'‚"
A vote for Fred, you see, is a vote against politics.
McMullen does not believe enough Democrats will cross over Tuesday to make Fred a serious threat. "The primary is the day after Labor Day, and you have to be a really mean-spirited, motivated person of the opposite party to ask for a ballot of the party of your nonbeliefs and file just to mess up the other guy."
He acknowledges, though, that Fred, whose great-grandfather moved to Vermont in 1832, represents a tradition that he does not. McMullen's a "flatlander," someone who's not originally from Vermont. He's owned a vacation home in Vermont for 15 years, but became a legal resident less than 15 months ago, renting an apartment in Burlington.
He has degrees from Columbia and Harvard and sits on the boards of seven companies, but according to many Vermonters, what matters is not job experience, but Vermont experience.
"The issue is, Jack McMullen has to be beat on primary day to send a message to every other multimillionaire in New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts shopping around for a cheap Senate seat in the future," says Freyne.
"Before our candidates tell us how to live our lives in Vermont, we want them to live there for a while," says Leahy, who, McMullen points out, has lived in the Washington area for much of the past 24 years.
The villain in "Man With a Plan" is a Rep. Blachly, an out-of-touch incumbent who's lived in McLean for 12 years. "If people go out and rent the movie, they're going to think a lot more readily of Senator Leahy than they are of me," says McMullen.
McMullen believes that Leahy, who hosted a reception for Fred when the movie screened for Congress (and can do a passable imitation of Fred's twangy Yankee patois), is partly responsible for Fred's campaign, in an attempt to meddle with the Republican primary. "I can't prove it, but I strongly believe Pat Leahy is an active participant in this joke," he says.
Leahy vehemently denies the allegation, and says he first heard of Fred's candidacy from Freyne's column, and that his chief of staff even advised O'Brien not to go through with it.
If Fred Tuttle wins Tuesday, O'Brien plans to continue to "spread Fred," as his bumper stickers say. "We'll run a fun and informative campaign against Leahy, make him sweat a little," O'Brien says, naming campaign finance reform and voter turnout as two issues to address.
Fred, though, has indicated that he might bow out of the race. Such a move would deny us a conclusion like the one in "Man With a Plan," both fantastic and nightmarish: Fred, settling down to a picnic lunch at the Tidal Basin, quizzically perusing a copy of the U.S. budget.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company