George Aiken turns 90 today, and from his home on Putney Mountain he looks out onto the land he has loved, tilled and governed. From his porch, he surveys his farm, rows of wild carrot, cabbage and pumpkin, bushes fat with blueberries and raspberries, patches of jack-in-the-pulpit, Bowmansroot and Dutchman's-breeches. A strong morning sun has burned away a curtain of fog over the Green Mountains and the Connecticut River beyond to reveal hills covered with verdant sugar maple, hemlock, white pine and white birch.
"All the young woods you see here, lots of it was farming land, sheep pasture when I was a boy," says Aiken, former dean of the Senate Republicans. "That all took a long time. It's in a different cycle now."
In the cycles of Aiken's own life, it's been 16 years since he told an outraged Lyndon Johnson "to declare victory and come home" from Vietnam and eight years since he himself came home, retiring after first "coming down to the Senate" in 1941.
He was born less than a mile down the road from his present home. His birthplace is now covered over by Interstate 91. "A beautiful monument," he says. "Cost $7 million."
Some reminders of Aiken's birth have survived intact. Above his bed is a framed front page of the Windham County Reformer dated Aug. 20, 1892, advertising Dana's Sarsaparilla as cure for "Cases of Insanity From the Affects of 'La Grippe.' " A framed front page of The New York Times from the same day details the "Effects of the Buffalo Strike" and the adventures of the Bidwell Gang.
Aiken retired in 1974, and unlike Senate colleagues such as Hugh Scott, J. William Fulbright, Gaylord Nelson and John Sherman Cooper, he left Washington for good and came home. "I'm a Vermonter," he says. "I was in prison for 34 years and it was time to go free." Ethel Page, who is two months older than Aiken and was his classmate at the little red schoolhouse that still stands on West Hill, says, "George is one of us. Always has been one of us."
Aiken is older than the look of his land. Many of the old, great trees of southern Vermont were lost to the lumber industry, and the abundance of saplings have crowded out pasture and wildflowers. And yet Aiken expresses no sense of loss.
"Here," he says, rising from his chair, "you can see all of Mount Monadnock now." Every morning Aiken can see the sun rising over New Hampshire and Monadnock. Though none of it is permanent, not the day, not the man, not even the mountain, the long, clear view here allows George Aiken the time to reflect on his long, rich life. The Washington whirl is unending, but it is out of sight. This is a landscape that awes and stills the mind. Galway Kinnell writes in "Flower Herding on Mount Monadnock": It is nearly the dawn. The song of the whippoorwill stops And the dimension of depth seizes everything.
"Hell, I'm not religious," says Aiken as he sprays 6-12 bug repellent on his forehead and arms. He picks up his white spruce walking stick and a couple of quart baskets and heads for the blueberry bushes. "My mother was raised by the Congregationalists and my father by the Baptists. My religion is sitting out in the woods on a stump. You can learn a lot there."
He gestures toward the road and down the hill. "I go down to Putney Village now and I don't know one person in ten. There's so much goddamn intellects coming in from outside, I can't keep track. I never even knew that fella who wrote that bestselling book. Name's Irving." Aiken may not know John Irving, author of "The World According to Garp," but he is fluent in Putney's history and familiar with many more of its residents than he admits.
"Putney was granted to a man named Willard in 1756," he says. "During the Revolutionary War, Brattleboro was a Tory town, but Putney was a radical, rebel town. I was a radical, I guess. My grandfather supported Teddy Roosevelt and I would've voted for him too if I'd been old enough."
One blueberry after another plunks into Aiken's basket. At 90, his hair is a shock of white, his walk is stooped, his handwriting is sketchy and strained. Nevertheless, Aiken's mind is keen. He can pick fruit more quickly than guests a quarter his age. And his voice has lost little of its power. "He's a typical Vermonter," says economist and Ambassador to West Germany Arthur F. Burns, a frequent visitor to the Aiken home. "He doesn't talk too much, but what he says counts."
Whether he is talking about Putney or politics, Aiken sounds a good deal like recordings of Robert Frost reading from his poems -- his speech is measured and spare, with an accent made to order for New England narratives and sagacity.
"I had to help Truman more than anyone else," Aiken says with delight. "He shed tears when he became president. The day it happened he and I had a breakfast date, and I was going to tell him about the shortcomings of the Maritime Commission. He was vice president and he had to meet with the leadership of the Congress, of which I was not one, didn't want to be. Well, he came over and hung on to me, tears running down his cheeks. He kept saying, 'I'm not big enough for the job, I'm not big enough.' And most people believed him. I don't care how high the job, they've all got to have someone to talk to.
"I once gave Lyndon Johnson a little advice on Vietnam that we should say we won and get out of there. Leonard Marks had been his legal authority for 20 years or more. Leonard went into the president's room one day and he got his courage up and said, 'Why don't you consider the proposal Senator Aiken made the other day?' Lyndon said, 'Leonard, you get out of here!' Threw him right out of the office.
"So Leonard went. He didn't get invited back to the president's office for two, three weeks. He got a phone call one night, and the president said could he come over and eat with Lady Bird and me tonight. Well, of course, he went, but he didn't mention my suggestion again until Lyndon retired to his ranch. Leonard rode down there one day and called on him. The president was feeling very affable. Leonard got his courage up and said, 'Mr. President, could you tell me why you got so mad at me when I asked you to consider Senator Aiken's proposal?'
"Lyndon leaned back and smiled a little bit and said, 'Because I knew goddamn well you were both right.' He didn't, though. He took the word of his military."
Aiken tends to leave present politics to present politicians, but Fulbright says, "George would be a burr under the Reagan administration's saddle. He wouldn't be swayed by the Great Communicator. Double-talk wasn't one of his pastimes."
Candor is the privilege of age and of being a senator from a relatively small, homogeneous state like Vermont. It is a privilege that Aiken has always enjoyed and exercised. He says, "Ted Kennedy is always looking over his shoulder," and in Aiken's book, "Senate Diary," Henry Kissinger "oozed conceit from every pore" and George McGovern "actually acts as if he does not want the Vietnam war to end while Nixon is president, or else he wants it to end in humiliation for the U.S.A."
But Aiken is no curmudgeon--in Washington, a town known for the acerbity of its gossip, Aiken left with a reputation for gentleness as well as independence. His praise crosses party lines; he has nothing but kind words for Robert Kennedy, Dwight Eisenhower and Aiken's Senate breakfast companion for 21 years, Mike Mansfield. He says he admired foreign leaders such as King Faisal, Nikita Khrushchev ("We didn't treat him decent when he first came to this country") and Pakistani leader Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was executed for treason. "Trouble is," says Aiken, "most of the ones I knew were deposed or hanged by the neck."
Aiken plays down his long career in Washington, preferring instead to be known for his years as a farmer and as governor of Vermont--everyone calls him "Governor," never "Senator." He seems relieved to wear cardigans and string ties rather than a three piece-suit. Aiken makes an effort to put his years on Capitol Hill into perspective, if not the background.
"I miss it in a way. But there's so damn much to think about and know that I don't think I could take it anymore," he says. "There is just too much to remember. That's why I married Lola. She remembers everything."
In June 1967, a little more than a year after his first wife died, Aiken left his daily breakfast meeting with Mike Mansfield and went to a Fort Myer chapel with his administrative assistant, Lola Pierotti. Without telling a soul, they were married. A typically low-key wedding for a senator who fed pigeons and squirrels outside his $156-per-month Capitol Hill apartment. When the couple returned to the office, Aiken retained his new wife as his assistant but took her off the payroll (reducing his staff to nine).
"I think the Governor said something about we ought to get married, and since I didn't have anything to do at the time, I said 'fine,' " says Lola Aiken. Although she will not reveal her age ("Anyone who tells you that will tell you anything"), she is perhaps 25 years younger than her husband. Lola Aiken is a vibrant woman, and with the facility of an efficient Senate aide and the felicity of a devoted partner, she is the curator of her husband's past.
When George Aiken tells a story his wife silently guides him through the details. They stare at one another, ignoring their guest, not out of rudeness (they are nothing if not courteous) but out of a desire to get it right. Aiken can tell when he has faltered just by the way his wife smiles or raises an eyebrow.
The visitors, the phone calls, the three children and 11 grandchildren, the mail, the requests, the houses in Putney and Montpelier, the two "truckloads" of Senate papers, the medications--Lola Aiken is somehow able to care for her husband's needs without ever making him feel feeble.
"I really do spoil him. I do everything for him," she says, sitting on a stone wall surrounding a little garden of geraniums and marigolds. "A lot of people still remember him and will write and say, 'We miss you,' or ask him to autograph a picture or a book. You'd be amazed at how many people write for help, asking for jobs. We even heard from a Lebanese doctor who wanted to stay in this country. Of course, we're in no position to help."
Aiken's wife is the one person who has been by his side in both the Senate and retirement and she admits her husband has not accepted age and retirement as gracefully as he says.
"He hates growing old. He hates funerals," she says. "He told me once, 'I'm so old. I'm useless. I'm not contributing anything to anyone anymore.'
"He really hates retirement. He'd rather go to the office at 10 minutes to seven like we used to. He's bored."
The Aikens rise at about 7:30 a.m. Lola works on the mail and other matters at her desk while "Guv" (Lola's pet name for him) works in the garden. About noon, they go into town for lunch, maybe to meet friends like former ambassador Ellsworth Bunker or the Ziter family, the owners of the Putney Inn. In the afternoon and evening, the Aikens relax or have guests. "You'd be surprised," says Lola Aiken. "The day goes quickly. All of a sudden I look at the clock and I say to myself, 'Is it 4 o'clock already?' "
Though they admit to occasional boredom, Lola Aiken says she is glad they retired to Vermont instead of Washington. "If you've been important, I don't care whether it's with a corporation or in politics, it's almost better if you move away from it," she says.
This afternoon the breeze is cool and washes over the treetops. George Aiken is in the house taking a nap. Lola Aiken is going for a walk in the woods.
The Aikens' simple clapboard house contains a catalogue of political memorabilia:
On the wall are a mounted Indian headdress from the Assiniboine tribe and several lines from Frost's "Birches" printed on birch bark.
On the bookshelf are hippos, owls, turtles, bunnies, cats, cows, bears and, of course, elephants--mementos of political events from Moscow to Montana. Next to Aiken's books on wildflowers, berries and politics are signed memoirs by Robert Kennedy, Mike Mansfield and other colleagues. "I never do get to read them," Aiken says as flips through the pages of Kennedy's "Just Friends and Brave Enemies."
The mantel is hung with shovels used for land breakings.
Lola Aiken pulls out a tiny plastic bag holding the "George Aiken Fly," a custom-made fly for salmon fishing made by L.L. Bean. In the closet is an unused fly rod, a gift from Ted Williams.
She opens a three-inch-thick file of personal and political statistics (shoe size: 9 1/2D; hat size: 7 5/8 oval; belt size: 40; pastimes: fishing and pitching horseshoes). "We had constituents calling up for all sorts of information," she says with a shrug.
George Aiken pulls out a file drawer filled with glossy photographs. Aiken with Johnson. Aiken with Sihanouk. Aiken with the Chamber of Commerce. He flips a file stuffed with glossies onto his bed.
"I've got 3,000 of these damn pictures and I don't know what to do with them," he says.
All the memorabilia, however, has not consumed Aiken's life and thoughts. Though he is retired from public life, he lives in the land of his childhood, a land whose volatile seasons and cycles of growth cannot help but make George Aiken feel part of something vital.
"Look out there at him and at all the blueberry bushes he's got ready for next year," says Lola Aiken. "You look at that and you know he's planning for the future."