"Regime change" is the name of President George W. Bush's game, and the events of the past week are proof positive that Baghdad is not Dubya's only target. The State of Vermont is also on the White House hit list. Oh, boy!
In the last week, the Texas sabre-rattler occupying the Oval Office has dispatched two "smart" bombs to Burlington: Vice-President Dick Cheney and Housing Secretary Mel Martinez. Their strategic mission is a regime change in Mont-pelier, Vermont. And the Army of Bush certainly appears confident they'll do better against Democrat Doug Racine in the Green Mountains than they did against Osama bin Laden in the mountains of Tora Bora.
In more than 20 years of covering Vermont politics, yours truly has never before seen so much White House firepower descending on little Vermont at election time. Why now?
Just walk in Dubya's cowboy boots for a moment, would ya? You're the President of the United States -- who cares how you got there? You're determined to radically change the course of U.S. history and lock in the power of corporate control by "stupid white men" for decades to come. Screw the environmentalists. This nation was built on fossil fuels, and there's still enough oil under the sands of Arabia to keep Big Oil going for another century. You know what's best for you and yours is what's best for America. No ifs, ands or butts.
But you have an annoying little problem that's coming from a pesky little place.
Everything was sailing along just fine after your inauguration. Your party controlled the House and the Senate. Congress was the biggest rubber stamp on Earth. But four months down the road to glory, a sonofabitch Vermont Yankee named James Jeffords pulled his famous fast one. A nobody named Jeezum Jim pulled the royal carpet right out from under you and handed the keys to the United States Senate to the enemy, i.e., the Democrats. Who the hell does he think he is?
Next, a bald-headed tall drink of water from the same damn state, Patrick J. Leahy, takes over the chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee. What once was a well-oiled machine suddenly grinds to a halt. All your best-laid plans to stack the federal bench with right-wing activist judges who see the world through the eyes of Pat Robertson and Rev. Jerry Falwell falls apart. Patrick Leahy should be crucified. Who the hell does he think he is?
And there's more.
Even though Benedict Jeffords screwed up your Reichstag, the Democratic leadership on the hill is showing little spine since Dick Gephardt in the House and Tom Daschle in the Senate are creaming in their jeans to run for president. No backbone there, folks.
Then, out of nowhere, a little no-name governor from the same damn little New England state as Jeffords and Leahy starts running around the country saying you're practicing "voodoo economics." Howard Dean, M.D., starts carping that your tax cut is a "disaster" for the country. The national press eats it up. Gives the guy credibility.
Then he starts saying he wants to kick your butt in the 2004 election and move you and the wife out of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Who the hell does Howard Dean think he is?
Question: What do you do?
Answer: Go to war!
As in Iraq, the name of the largest city in Vermont begins with the letter "B." And make no mistake, on the map in the White House war room, there are red circles drawn around Baghdad and Burlington.
And while there's nothing Dubya can do this year to take out Jeezum Jim and St. Patrick, Vermont's open governor's seat gives him the opportunity for payback. A chance to start settling a few scores. An opportunity to gather some ammo to use against Dr. Dean when the time comes.
How sweet it'd be if you could remind American voters in 2004 that when Howard Dean left the governor's office in Vermont, the electorate was so sick of him that even the most liberal state in the whole darn country voted in a Republican to straighten things out.
Folks, that's the only explanation for Dick Cheney taking valuable time out of directing the War on Terror last Thursday to fly to Vermont and stump for gubernatorial candidate Slim Jim Douglas. He emphasized the point to Vermont voters that Dubya considers Douglas a governor who thinks like him and would be his partner in moving America forward.
And that's the only explanation for Dubya's Secretary of Housing Mel Martinez taking valuable time out of solving America's housing crisis to fly to Vermont on Monday to do likewise.
And these guys are just the first wave. Can other Cabinet members, like Tommy Thompson (Health and Human Services), Spencer Abraham (Energy), Roderick Paige (Education), Gail Norton (Interior), Elaine Chao (Labor), Ann Veneman (Agriculture) and Attorney General John Ashcroft, be far behind?
The local press did not get the opportunity to ask Dick Cheney even one question last Thursday. The Veep had a tightly controlled itinerary, though there was a startling gap in the Secret Service's security net (more on that later). Meeting $5000 donors like Ritchie Tarrant, Antonio Pomerleau and House Speaker Walter Freed was a much better use of the vice-president of the United States' time. So was getting his picture snapped with 75 bubbling $2000 contributors.
But Secretary Martinez, a Cuban native from the president's favorite state of Florida, did face the local press. And when he was asked why he took time out of his busy schedule to help Jim Douglas beat Doug Racine, he told reporters that Mr. Bush has a "keen interest" in this particular race. In fact, said Martinez, he came to Vermont because the president personally asked him to come.
Pretty flattering that we're in the president's thoughts at this critical juncture in history, eh?
Not-So-Tight Security -- In the year since the 9/11 Al Qaeda strikes on New York and Washington, Americans have experienced stepped-up security like never before. Passengers were patted down before boarding airplanes. Shoes removed. Metal detectors even popped up at Burlington's post office and the Super Bowl. Jet fighters patrolled the skies, prepared, if necessary, to shoot down hijacked airliners. For months, Vice-President Cheney's whereabouts were kept secret. The word from on high has been: Keep alert, America, Osama will strike again.
Welcome to our brave new world. After all, it's not like we have a choice.
So it came as quite the shock last week at the Burlington International Airport when yours truly and about a dozen members of the local Vermont media (including several we've never seen before) were allowed to come within 10 feet of Mr. Cheney without being frisked or asked to walk through a metal detector.
How is that possible in the post-9/11 reality?
The local press were required to check in by 10:15 a.m. at the Vermont Republican Party table in the parking lot outside the hangar, where the fundraiser was going to take place. The entrance to the building was cordoned off and a metal detector was set up in front. Like everyone else, yours truly was asked to present two forms of photo ID to receive a press badge. We were told to wait in the parking lot.
Around 10:30 we learned we were going to be put in two vans for a little trip around the perimeter of the airport to the Vermont Air Guard facilities on the other side. A Secret Service agent told us to line up for inspection with our equipment. When the fellow with the wire in his ear came by, yours truly gladly displayed the tape recorder, Waggy's Deli ham sandwich and long pants (having arrived by bike wearing shorts) that were in my knapsack. The gentleman did not go through my pack, nor did he pat me down or ask that we empty our pockets.
One of us, God forbid, could easily have concealed a weapon in the small of the back. In addition to the ham sandwich, our backpack could have contained a couple hand grenades.
Upon arriving at the entrance to the Air Guard facility, an armed guardsman stopped us. At first, it appeared we'd have to get out to be individually checked. The Secret Service agent in the passenger seat identified himself and informed the guards the passengers in the van had "already been swept." In we went.
The press corps spent an hour confined to a wooden platform waiting for Cheney's plane to land. When it arrived, Air Force Two taxied right up to us. The vice-president got off and gave a short speech to about 250 Air National Guard members. As his speech ended, the Veep's advance woman hustled us up front to get a view of Cheney shaking hands with the troops. As he reached the end of the line, the vice-president looked up and saw us standing behind the rope about 10 feet away. As he looked our way, yours truly heard Cheney say, "That's the press."
We felt the urge to shout out, "Any message for Howard Dean, Mr. Vice-President?" But yours truly was tongue-tied. Cheney quickly executed a sharp right-hand turn and headed for his limousine for the short hop across the tarmac to the Republican fundraiser.
His advance woman quickly herded us back into the vans. We followed the Cheney motorcade as it drove across the runways of the closed airfield. (Yes, it was a thrill.)
When the press vans reached the FOB hangar, we were once again hustled out and told to enter through a small door on the runway side of the hangar. No metal detector in sight.
Once again, the press was consigned to a platform behind the crowd, about 100 feet from the podium.
This week, after two calls to Secret Service headquarters in Washington went unreturned, we contacted resident agent Tim Kirk at the Secret Service's new Vermont field office in downtown Burlington. Agent Kirk was surprised we had been allowed to get so close without getting checked out, or "swept" like everyone else, from the catering staff to the high-roller Republican donors.
"The plan was to sweep you," said Kirk. "We don't take the press for granted."
That's a relief.
Vermont's new Secret Service agent told Seven Days that letting a dozen or so local reporters get as close to Cheney as John Hinckley was to Reagan without some kind of physical check for weapons "was not a gross lapse." He told us that agents "can use their discretion." The fact that they did not perform a "100 percent sweep of the press," was a "situational decision," explained Kirk.
Agent Kirk noted we had been "somewhat cleared" by state Republican Party officials. He politely thanked yours truly for bringing the matter to his attention. He would pass it on up the chain of command.
Let's be perfectly clear. Despite the best intentions of the Secret Service, there have been two successful assassination attempts on a President in our brief lifetime. John F. Kennedy was shot in the head and killed. Ronald Reagan recovered from his chest wound.
Protecting a president or the person who's a heartbeat away surely requires preparing for the unexpected. That means the press should be treated just like everyone else. Yours truly would have gladly strolled through a dozen metal detectors last Thursday if only they'd asked.
The fact that we didn't have to pass through even one does not bolster our faith in Secret Service protection for our president and vice-president.
Dubie Update -- Finally caught up with Lite-Gov candidate Brian Dubie last week at the Essex Rotary. Asked for his take on the Republican Web site posting nasty allegations about the private lives of Democrat candidates, Doobie-Do replied, "I have no knowledge. I have no comment."
Brian did say, however, he regularly visits the site of the Dwinell Political Report.
Mr. Dubie outlined to the Rotary his "comprehensive" plan for permit reform. He emphasized the need to trim the bureacracy.
Afterwards we inquired about his proposal to have a panel of Superior Court judges work full-time on appeals of development permits. Since Superior Court judges are already pretty busy, we wanted to know if Doobie-Do would hire new judges.
"I'm not prepared to answer that," was Brian's first reply.
When we pointed out it was his proposal, he said, "I suspect that we would talk about new judges."
Great. Expand the bureaucracy!