(Host) Longtime U.S. Senator Robert Stafford of Rutland died on Saturday. Stafford was 93. VPR’s Steve Zind has this retrospective on the senator’s long career in Vermont politics.
(Zind) For years Robert Stafford owned a wide double desk, the kind that was designed for two people to sit facing each other. Stafford used the desk in his office when he served as Rutland County State’s Attorney in the late 1940s.
A few years ago, as he reminisced about his political career, Stafford remembered the day a man tried to reach across the desk to punch him. The desk was too wide for him to reach the young lawyer.
(Stafford) “He took a wild swing and all he did was hit air. The sheriff had him in a headlock by the time he finished the swing.”
(Zind) The incident stands out as one of the rare times in his long political career that anyone took a swing at Stafford – verbal or otherwise. Stafford’s dignified demeanor and his refusal to engage in partisan bickering won him wide admiration and many elections.
He served as Vermont’s Attorney General, Lieutenant Governor, Governor, Congressman and, finally, U.S. Senator. He never lost an election, a feat that led his friends to call him the Golden Boy.
Stafford’s term as Governor from 1959 to 1961 was marked by some tough decisions. He inherited the first deficit in state history. Stafford pushed through the first rooms and meals tax along with taxes on liquor and cigarettes. At the time he had no thoughts of a political career beyond governor.
(Stafford) “I really wanted to stay a second term as governor and then go back and practice law.”
(Zind) But opportunity and party loyalty called. Stafford won the first of five elections to Congress in 1960. His campaign style would seem oddly out of place today. He was not a dynamic speaker. He rarely mentioned his opponents and often referred to himself in the third person. Despite his popularity, he seemed somewhat cool and distant. It’s a perception that bothered Neal Houston. Houston working for Stafford throughout his career, beginning when Stafford was governor.
(Houston) “He didn’t like the pat on the back, kissing babies, that type of thing. And of course he always dressed immaculately, he was always overdressed.” (Laughs.)
(Zind) Early in life Stafford discovered the two areas of interests that would distinguish him in his political career: education and the environment. Growing up in Rutland, Stafford said he might not have gained an appreciation of Vermont’s beauty without his father’s insistence that he spend his summers working on a farm.
Stafford wanted to go to West Point but, bowing to his father’s wishes, he attended Middlebury College. It was there he met his wife Helen, a Bellows Falls native. Stafford’s interest in education came early as well. In his high school commencement address as a graduating senior at Rutland High School, Stafford chose as his topic the value of a college education.
Stafford was a Navy lieutenant in the Second World War and was called to duty as a reservist in the Korean War. In his early political campaigns he stressed national security issues. During the 1960s, as a member of the House Armed Services Committee, Stafford traveled twice to Vietnam. He said the human toll and environmental devastation turned him against the war.
On domestic issues he was a supporter of the social programs of the Johnson Administration. Middlebury College history professor Travis Jacobs has studied Stafford’s career.
(Jacobs) “He votes for all the Great Society legislation. He is more liberal on Civil Rights than Senator Aiken is.”
(Zind) When Vermont Senator Winston Prouty died in 1971, Stafford was appointed to fill the vacancy. He saw the move as an opportunity to shift his priorities.
(Stafford) “After ten years on the Armed Services Committee, I was ready to get into what I had really wanted to do in life – environmental matters and educational matters.”
(Zind) Stafford became ardent advocate for the environment. He worked closely with Maine Democrat Edmund Muskie, a key author of the Clean Air Act. In the 1980s, as chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Stafford blocked changes to the act that he felt would weaken it. He was a principal sponsor of the Clean Water Act and he ushered through legislation on acid rain and worked to establish the Super fund cleanup of toxic waste dumps.
In 1987, Stafford asked McDonalds to stop serving it’s fast food in Styrofoam containers, which were made with ozone depleting chemicals. McDonalds agreed. His colleagues in the Senate dubbed Stafford Mr. Environment.
Despite his achievements on environmental issues, Stafford was most proud of his work in education – helping to create the federal college loan program that bears his name. Stafford also championed efforts to win equal educational opportunities for children with disabilities.
In the fall of 1988, as his career in congress came to a close, Stafford did something remarkable. He stood on the floor of the Senate each day for sixteen days and delivered a series of speeches on the environment.
(Speaker) “Senator from Vermont.”
(Stafford) “Mr. President, as I near the end of 28 years of service in the United States Congress…”
(Zind) In those speeches, Stafford warned his colleagues of looming environmental problems and urged them to find solutions.
(Stafford) “Mr. President, we stand literally at a fork in the road. Down one path is a bright new future for ourselves and for our children and their children. Down the other path is a future that this senator would rather not contemplate.”
(Zind) When Stafford retired in 1989 a Washington Post editorial lamented, “the Senate will be both a louder and lesser place for his departure.” Shortly before he stepped down, Stafford was invited to address the Vermont Legislature.
(Governor Howard Dean) “Members of the General Assembly, it’s an honor for me to introduce to you the distinguished Senior Senator from the state of Vermont, the honorable Robert T. Stafford.” (Applause)
(Zind) Stafford exhorted the Vermont lawmakers to work to provide the housing and jobs necessary to keep young people from leaving Vermont. And he stressed the importance of preserving the uniqueness of the state he had served for half a century.
(Stafford) “That’s why it’s nice to come home to Vermont, as Helen and I will do next year. Because there is a Vermont way, there always has been and there always will be. Thank you much and God bless.” (Applause)
(Zind) For the most part, Robert Stafford stayed out of the limelight after retirement. One of the few instances where he spoke out was six years ago when he declared his support for Civil Unions legislation then under consideration in Vermont. Long after retirement, he continued to support the environmental and educational causes to which he had devoted his life, remaining active in the same quiet way that had been the hallmark of his political career.
For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.
(Host) Robert Stafford is survived by his wife, Helen, and their four daughters. Funeral arrangements are pending.