Candidate Rainville

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(HOST) Recently Major General Martha Rainville, Commander of the Vermont National Guard, made it clear she’s interested in the House seat currently held by Bernie Sanders. Commentator Philip Baruth thinks she should run but only as Martha Rainville. Here’s Philip.

(BARUTH) The beauty of a radio program like VPR’s Switchboard is that it allows you to feel as though you’ve spent a full hour not just listening to someone special, but actually in the company of someone special. It’s a fantastically intimate experience.

And it was on switchboard that I first heard Major General Martha Rainville, Commander of the Vermont National Guard. I was on my way home from Montpelier, the car was dark, and I heard Rainville fielding calls from listeners worried about Iraq. The callers were worried about everything: why we got into the war, why we couldn’t get out of the war, whether too many Vermonters were being shipped out, or too few.

The questions and the concerns poured in from all over the state, but Rainville never faltered once. She was no dogmatic robot; she seemed herself genuinely concerned about the US involvement, and what it might do to the Vermont National Guard, and the Guard nation-wide. She was tough, but human, and in a word, I was impressed.

But politics has a way of making even smart, good-hearted people seem occasionally tone-deaf, or worse.

In Rainville’s case, she has made it clear that she is “seriously considering” a run for Bernie Sanders’s seat in the U.S. House as a Republican. And since that almost-announcement in the begin- ning of May, she has begun to run what looks very much like a traditional campaign for Congress. On the fourth of July, for instance, she attended the ceremonies at the birthplace of Calvin Coolidge, and when a reporter asked her about the real feelings on the war in Iraq, Rainville maneuvered: “There’s a line today I can’t cross,” she said. It was a beautifully nuanced political statement: supporters of the war could point to her discretion, her tacit support of the Commander in Chief, and opponents of the war could walk away with the impression that Rainville herself opposes the war but can’t say so just yet.

Rainville’s answer to the $64,000 question – should she step down from her post as Adjutant General now that she’s gone public with her political ambitions – was also too clever by half. There is “no legal requirement for me to resign or retire” because “I am an elected, exempt state employee.” Of course, in politics the point is rarely what’s legal. The point is usually deeper, and closer to the heart of democracy: what do voters think is right and wrong. We seem either to be losing the war in Iraq, or coming dangerous- ly close: does the Commander of the Vermont National Guard really have enough play in her schedule to manage Vermont’s contribution, and run a state-wide campaign?

I don’t think so, myself. Last week, I picked up a copy of the Free Press to find that Rainville had traveled to Iraq for a two-day visit. There was a nice picture of her with some Vermont National Guardsmen, smiling over a bottle of water. The article pointed out that it was her first trip to the war-theater since the conflict began, and I couldn’t help but wonder about that.

And ideally I shouldn’t have to wonder about that, Vermonters shouldn’t have to wonder. Soldiers should soldier, and politicians should politic. Mixing the two is never a good idea, technically legal or not.

Philip Baruth is a novelist living in Burlington. He teaches at the University of Vermont. Later this week, we’ll hear another point of view on this topic from Richard Mallary.

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