Two lobbyists, a utility honcho, and a newspaper colleague sat a corner table in the State House cafeteria. It was the first day of the legislative session, and the cafeteria was full of legislators, lobbyists, and journalists.
I took a place at the corner table. There was talk about who was up and who was down. The whole scene reminded me a little of high school. Everybody in the room was aware of who was sitting with whom, of how people were dressed and who was part of the in crowd. The sense of self-importance that people felt had a simple cause: It was an important day. It’s just a part-time Legislature in a tiny state, but the politics are for real.
Newcomers to the scene might be thrilled by the sense of moment. Old-timers might see through the pretensions and posturing. Cynics might take a jaundiced view of the power games that go on. But any time people strive to achieve something, they have to exercise the power needed to make it happen. Power games are not something to be cynical about. Any time two people disagree – which is a lot of the time – there is a sort of power struggle, polite or impolite. Power games go inside a monastery.
Montpelier is no monastery, but the level of intrigue is relatively modest. The interesting thing is that, for four or five months while the Legislature is in session, the intrigue and struggle are more less out in the open. People scorn politics because of the games politicians play. But who doesn’t play games? Ever been to a faculty meeting at a school? And what about the business meetings that occur every day in board rooms across America? Who’s up? Who’s down? The struggle for power extends far beyond the cafeteria in Montpelier.
The drama in Montpelier has added significance because the players function as stand-ins for us. We have a stake in the struggle and an interest in the characters.
Those characters include the old guys with their out-of-date sport jackets and their crew cuts who sit in the back of the House chamber. They bring a certain shrewdness and no-nonsense attitude to the proceedings. There are the younger guys with the nice silk ties and the nicely coiffed women who are concerned about the impression they make. There are those who feel at home among their fellow legislators, playing the game with relish, and those who feel like outriders on a special mission.
On opening day Governor Dean showed up to give his speech, bursting with self-confidence and uncomfortable with the demands of the formal setting. There was also a moment of real emotion when the assembled legislators gave a heart-felt and prolonged ovation to Barbara Snelling, who is resigning from the Senate because of poor health. It was a way of saying thank-you for her dignity and dedication.
Take half a million people and ask them to govern themselves and they could come up with arrangements far worse than what we’ve come up with in Montpelier. The simplicity of the place doesn’t lend itself to delusions of grandeur. The people of Vermont are never far removed from the deliberations. They can walk in and buttonhole pretty much whomever they want.
As we ate our Swedish meatballs that day in the cafeteria, it seemed most people were there for the right reasons and wanted to do the right thing. Everybody may have had a different opinion about what the right thing was, but as Milton said, “Opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making.”
This is David Moats from Middlebury.
–David Moats is the Editorial Page Editor for the Rutland Herald and winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing.