Moats: In these grim times, Phil Scott offers message of purpose and hope

Gov. Phil Scott delivers his inaugural address in Montpelier on Thursday remotely from the auditorium of the Pavilion building. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

David Moats, winner of a 2001 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing, is a regular columnist for VTDigger.

Gov. Phil Scott’s inaugural address last week came within a double shadow. There was the shadow of the pandemic, which as of Thursday had claimed the lives of 155 Vermonters and more than 350,000 Americans. And there was the shadow of the extremist insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, which occurred the day before Scott’s address.

As Scott noted, a governor’s inaugural address is usually an august, ceremonial occasion. The Vermont House chamber is customarily packed with high dignitaries and ordinary citizens, all gathered in the ornate surroundings of the Statehouse to celebrate our democracy. The newly elected or reelected governor uses the occasion to describe his or her plans and hopes and to mark a new chapter in the state’s history.

This year Scott delivered his address within a small auditorium at the state office building where he has his office. The pandemic has placed the state on something like a war footing — citizens asked to make sacrifices for the common good, and ordinary routines, including the processes of governance, transformed. Scott described these circumstances with determination and pride — determination to see the pandemic through and pride in the way Vermonters have responded so far.

But he could not ignore that other shadow. The previous day, members of Congress had to flee a riotous mob that had stormed into the Capitol. One of the rioters murdered a police officer. They defiled one of the most revered public places in America.

“We’ve seen the worst of our politics,” Scott said, “and from our politicians. There is no greater example than the rioters at the U.S. Capitol yesterday. As I said, it was a shocking attack on our democracy and make no mistake: President Trump is responsible for fanning these flames.”

Scott, a Republican, was one of the first national leaders to call for the resignation or removal of Trump from office for his role in leading the assault on Congress.

It is hard to separate these two catastrophes. The pandemic has metastasized across the nation in part because the nation’s public discourse has been poisoned by lies emanating from the outgoing president. Trump’s failure to take on the public health challenge represented by the pandemic is one of the great political crimes of American history. Health professionals advise that wearing masks in public is the single most important way to curb the pandemic, and Trump’s effort to politicize elementary public health measures such as the wearing of masks has cost thousands of lives. 

The contrast between Trump’s failure of leadership and Scott’s willingness to lead could not be more stark. In his address, Scott saluted what he called the “stubborn sense of duty” that characterizes who Vermonters are, and he pointed to the doctors and child care providers, the grocery store and hardware store clerks, the truckers and farmers, students and teachers who have been willing to carry out their duties while observing the protocols that would keep fellow Vermonters safe.

“It is important to know the actions you took, sacrifices you made, and your decision to listen to the experts and the science, saved lives,” he said. And then in one of the most telling sentences of his address, he declaimed, “You are saving lives!”

A recent article in The New Yorker magazine provided a lengthy and detailed account of how the pandemic unfolded, in all its tragic dimensions. Author Lawrence Wright noted how conscientious leadership has made a difference, and he pointed to Scott’s early decision to close down the economy and to reopen only cautiously. He calculated that, if the national fatality rate were the same as that in Vermont, 250,000 Americans would still be alive. 

He acknowledged that Vermont is a small state, but he said that South Dakota is also small, and there the lack of leadership has led to a grievous result. The economies in both states have largely recovered, but South Dakota has seen 12 times the number of deaths.

In the same way that lies have fueled the pandemic, they have been wielded by the president and the Republican Party to poison our democracy. Those who have been deceived into thinking that the election was stolen are coalescing into a dangerous anti-democratic movement that has turned the Republican Party into a neo-fascist cult.

It is a political pandemic and must be repelled by adherence to the rule of law and to the stubborn sense of duty that calls on us to defend the truth.

The policy discussion in Scott’s address was mostly overshadowed by the twin shadows of disease and demagoguery, but one of the consistent themes was the importance of creating an economy and educational system that serve all 14 of Vermont’s counties. He mentioned Vermont’s 14 counties several times, and the message was that Vermont is more than prosperous Chittenden County. Other counties are suffering and merit attention. 

He was speaking to Bennington, Rutland, Franklin, Caledonia, Orleans and other counties that lack the economic buoyancy of the state’s more prosperous regions. He also made a point of mentioning economic inequality and the crisis of affordability — in that order — which was a significant gesture of political inclusiveness.

A personal note: I have been covering governors’ inaugurations in Vermont since the 1980s. They are usually happy, hopeful events, some of them more memorable than others. One of the most jubilant occurred in 1984 when Madeleine Kunin became the first woman governor in the state’s history. Joy abounded in the House chamber because everyone sensed that Kunin, resplendent in white, was ushering in a new era. 

Govs. Richard Snelling, Howard Dean, Jim Douglas, Peter Shumlin and Phil Scott have followed, and even in a year when the state was facing serious challenges, attitudes of purpose and hope have pervaded the political atmosphere.

This year I listened to Scott’s address as I sat in the dark of evening in the parking lot at Hannaford. It is a grim time, but Scott has summoned that same sense of purpose and hope.

He closed with a historical reference to the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. That’s when Calvin Coolidge, lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, made an urgent request of Vermont Gov. Horace F. Graham, asking him to send doctors and nurses to Boston. But it was too late. The disease had already reached Vermont, and the state couldn’t spare its medical personnel.

On Oct. 4, Gov. Graham issued an order closing churches, schools, theaters and public meeting places and gatherings in Vermont. But the day before, Graham made an appeal to Vermonters, asking them to care for one another and to protect the soldiers called overseas to war and to honor those who would never return. Graham said the crisis was “an opportunity for practical patriotism in our own communities.”

Scott closed by citing “our own opportunity for practical patriotism. To rise above what’s shallow and superficial. To ignore those who seek to divide us. To stand together, to protect Vermonters at the greatest risk and to honor the memory of those we couldn’t.”

Scott’s inauguration in 2021 was also a memorable one. It will be remembered as the year when the governor showed us how practical patriotism could help us stand as a community against disease and against the poisonous lies of an anti-democratic political party, the twin pandemics confronting us all.

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David Moats

About David

David Moats, an author and journalist who lives in Salisbury, is a regular columnist for VTDigger. He is editorial page editor emeritus of the Rutland Herald, where he won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for a series of editorials on Vermont’s civil union law.

Email: [email protected]

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