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John McClaughry: Underappreciated Man

Bill Kauffman at The American Conservative

Vermont. Photo by Amit Gupta / Unsplash
The Decentralist Files
I grow more tired of online reading every day. It is by nature hard (something about the pixels and how our eyes work), but then the publications need to generate revenue, so they gum up access with pop-up screens and username requests, then gum up the prose with more pop-up

The two most desirable qualities in a politician—wit and an aversion to wielding power—are, to the media and the deciders, the most disabling. Wit, whether folksy (Morris Udall) or caustic (Bob Dole), is no aid to presidential ambitions, and Ron Paul’s admirable renunciation of the sword caused the press to regard him as a loon. The witless (Nikki Haley, Gavin Newsom) and power-crazed (Hillary Clinton, John McCain) get much better press.

There hasn’t been a politico in our lifetimes who has combined wit with an inappetence for controlling others quite as potently as Vermont’s John McClaughry. I checked in with John, still irrepressible at 86 years of age, upon the recent online publication of The Decentralism File, a rich lectionary appearing courtesy of the E.F. Schumacher Center and accessible at

Eagle Scout, hobo (as “Feather River John” he rode boxcars for 5,000 miles), Steve McQueen lookalike, Vermont state representative and senator, speechwriter for the pre-presidential Ronald Reagan, agrarian-libertarian-populist idea man, a Jeffersonian in the best sense of that honorable and now nearly extinct adjective—John McClaughry is the most underappreciated and unheeded man in modern American politics. 

As a politico, he was…offbeat. Combing through my thick McClaughry file I find this reply form for those who donated to his 1992 campaign for Governor of Vermont: 

Dear John: I am enthusiastically enclosing the proceeds of my invalid mother’s pension account, or equivalent thereof, to support your campaign for Governor. I certify that I am not under indictment or otherwise in a position to cause you more embarrassment than this contribution will cause me.

Republican McClaughry ran and lost that race to Democratic incumbent Howard Dean, just as he ran and lost a 1982 primary race for U.S. Senate to incumbent Robert Stafford: by offering a vison of “a land where power, like the ownership of property, is not concentrated in the hands of the few, but distributed widely among the many.”

The many, alas, did not pull his lever. John’s friend Frank Bryan, the University of Vermont professor who wrote the standard academic work on town meeting governance (Real Democracy), explained McClaughry’s political dilemma: “How, with limited funds, to articulate his views to an electorate that does not possess the necessary concepts or language?”

Read the rest

Small Is Bountiful
Eagle Scout, hobo, Reagan speechwriter—John McClaughry is the most underappreciated man in American politics.