Lonesome Jim

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(HOST) Last week, Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords announced that he will retire at the end of his current term. Commentator Philip Baruth wasn’t exactly surprised by the move, but he was genuinely moved.

(BARUTH) There’s nothing more heartless on God’s green earth than political rumor. So when somebody told me, about six months ago, in a quiet Vietnamese restaurant in Burlington that Jim Jeffords abso- lutely would not run again for the U. S. Senate, I said the first thing that came to mind: “You bite your tongue!”

Because, first, Jeffords had already explicitly declared that he was running. And second, I love this guy Jim Jeffords, and I didn’t want to even think about him packing up his tent – not yet. But the man with the rumor was a smart guy, well-connected, not one to pass on junk information. And so I’ve had the rumor in my mind ever since that night, in the secure mental box where I put all of the depressing possibilities for which there is suddenly too much evidence, the box full of global warming and war with Syria and Chief Justice Antonin Scalia.

So, when The New York Times reported that Jeffords would announce his retirement later that afternoon from Vermont, I wasn’t entirely surprised, but I was genuinely moved.

In 2001, I was in the Radisson Hotel in Burlington that morning when Jeffords announced he was switching parties. The atmosphere was electric, hundreds of people crowding the lobby, news crews trailing boom mikes and a guy dressed up like Benedict Arnold – really, a guy in a full-on colonial American costume there to denounce Jeffords as a traitor. But mostly that particular morning belonged to the newly Independent Senator and to the almost delirious crowds chanting, “Thank you, Jim.”

Of course, that was then. The Radisson Hotel isn’t even the Radisson hotel anymore – now it’s the Wyndham. Jefford’s move was eventually outflanked by slowly growing Republican majorities in the House and Senate. In short, the passage of time has blunted the national impact of Jeffords’ move.

But I’m here to tell you today, my gratitude is forever, and time can’t rust it. Here are the top three reasons why Jim Jeffords is the man, and always will be:

3) Because he never went Hollywood. I mean, think about those ears, think about that suit. You can’t buy that kind of credibility.

2) For as much mileage as Bob Dole got out of Russell, Kansas, he announced his retirement at the Capitol – which made sense because anyone could see that Washington D. C. had long since become his home. But when Jeffords made his move, and when he announced his retirement, he did both here in Vermont. Enough said.

And reason 1) According to Jeffords, he was on the fence about leaving the Republican Party – until the Bush Administration went back on a promise to fully fund Special Education. That was what really pushed him over the edge: Special Education. I love people who are willing to throw down over Special Education.

So yes, times change, but deep in my scarred political heart, the Wyndham Hotel remains the Radisson, and it’s the 24th of May, the morning that Jim Jeffords struck out on his own, turned Independent. It’s that morning, and it always will be.

Philip Baruth is a novelist living in Burlington. He teaches at the University of Vermont.

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