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Dateline Chris Graff 

Inside Track

The past year certainly brought its share of surprises. When 2006 began, Associated Press bureau chief Christopher Graff was a Montpelier institution in his third decade of directing the wire service's Vermont operation.

In March, AP fired the veteran journalist (more on that later). As the year ends, Graff is shifting gears - he'll be driving up the hill every day to his new job as vice president for communications at National Life. And, he's the author of a recently released book called Dateline Vermont (Thistle Hill, 240 pages), subtitled Covering and uncovering the newsworthy stories that shaped a state - and influenced a nation. The book recounts the top political news stories of the last 30 years in the Green Mountains, as well as some forgotten details.

Bet you never knew, for example, that when Jim Douglas first won elective office in Vermont, he was packing a Massachusetts driver's license?

The year was 1972. Douglas was a senior at Middlebury College and news director of the college radio station, WRMC-FM, and he was running for the Vermont House. Graff was also a Middlebury College student, and a fledgling reporter for WRMC. He writes about an early journalistic lesson learned:

A few weeks before Election Day, Jim was involved in a minor car accident, which I seem to remember involved a logging truck. The local newspaper, The Addison Independent, ran a short item on the accident, listing the driver as James M. Douglas of East Longmeadow, Massachusetts. Apparently, the person at the paper covering the police log didn't make the connection between the Jim Douglas involved in the fender bender and the Jim Douglas running for the state house - and neither did anyone else at the newspaper or in the campaign of Jim's opponent, Democrat Roy Newton. Jim had established residency in Middlebury and registered to vote in the town, but had not yet switched over his driver's license from the Massachusetts town where he had grown up, a fact that could have hurt his campaign by reminding voters Jim was from out of state. I noticed the item in the paper and joked with Jim about it. That was the last time I buried the news. As my contacts expanded, I was quickly discovering how small a state Vermont is; I was beginning to realize that if I couldn't bring myself to report the news completely because I knew the subject of my story, I wouldn't make it very far as a journalist.

As everybody knows, Graff did make it as a journalist - 34 years later, he's one of the most distinguished journalists Vermonters have ever known. And, yes, folks, Ol' Chris does write about the firing in the book, detailing his dramatic change of life that began at 9:30 a.m. on Monday, March 20, 2006: "Larry Laughlin, the AP's bureau chief for Northern New England, handed me the letter that began, 'This is to inform you that your employment at The Associated Press has been terminated effective immediately.'"

According to Laughlin's letter, Graff was fired for two reasons. One, he ran a "Sunshine Week" column on the Vermont AP wire about "freedom of the press" that was written by Patrick Leahy. The Senator had also written one in 2005 that was published without problem. The AP is a lead partner in "Sunshine Week" - a national initiative stressing the importance of open government - and AP's national editors, writes Chris, "required the editors in each state bureau in 2005 and 2006 to develop a package of material to move on their state wires for newspapers to use during the week."

The second reason Laughlin noted for Graff's dismissal: that he had allowed Dave Gram, one of his distinguished underlings at the Montpelier bureau, to write a chapter in a Howard Dean book the Rutland Herald/Times Argus put out in 2003.

Shocking.

You thinking what we're thinking? That there had to be some other reason Graff was let go?

Chris had landed squarely in the spotlight several months earlier, when he courageously did something reporters rarely do: question the accuracy of another reporter's facts.

In January, Vermont District Court Judge Edward Cashman gave a creep named Mark Hulett 60 days in jail for sexually assaulting a young girl over four years. The judge did so, he said, because it was the only way to get someone the state classified as a "low-risk" offender into treatment. (Incidentally, the corrections department has since changed that policy; some give Cashman credit.)

WCAX-TV's ace crime reporter Brian Joyce jumped all over the sentence, reporting that Ol' Cash had said in court he "did not believe in punishment."

That line made it to Fox TV News and was picked up by a few of their circus barkers, particularly Bill O'Reilly. Yours truly had to watch his damn show for three weeks in January as he declared war on Judge Cashman.

Graff saved the day, and the truth: He hopped in the car, drove to the Burlington courthouse, and picked up a copy of the sentencing transcript to find out for himself what Judge Cashman really said.

Turns out he did not say what WCAX News had repeatedly reported to viewers. The transcript showed Judge Cashman actually said, ". . . and I keep telling prosecutors, and they won't hear me, that punishment is not enough."

Graff boldly put a story out on the AP wire correcting the original inaccurate report on WCAX. That lit O'Reilly's fuse even more, and he went after Graff both on TV and on his radio program.

Was Graff's role in the Cashman controversy a key factor in his March firing? We may never know, but we do know WCAX News never corrected its inaccurate report that Judge Cashman had said "he did not believe in punishment."

Oh, well. Life goes on. And so does Chris Graff's book.

In Dateline Vermont, Graff provides a delightful read for Vermont political junkies and avid news readers. The man can tell a story - and what other small state has had such a rich political history? Chris takes us behind the curtain and beneath the surface.

Yours truly didn't land in Vermont until late 1979. Dick Snelling was governor, elected in 1978, and Graff's AP byline was already a fixture in Vermont's newspapers. In 1980, he became the Montpelier bureau chief, a position he retained for 26 years. Graff writes, "Dick Snelling did not like the press. He felt reporters were lazy and too interested in covering conflict rather than understanding policy."

Snelling used to carry his own tape recorder to press conferences, an intimidating warning to journalists to report what the Guv said accurately. Graff admits that Snelling's "scrutiny made us better reporters" - and that he started packing his own tape recorder to gubernatorial pressers.

Time and again I was glad I had done so because I found in listening to the tape back at the bureau that I had missed a crucial comment in my notebook.

The chapter titled "The Amazing Journey of Madeleine Kunin" captures the gender tension of the women's-liberating 1970s and 1980s.

Kunin "had a difficult relationship with the press," Graff writes:

At the heart of the tension was her belief that journalists did not understand a woman's style of campaigning and governing. Her feeling on the subject was so emphatic that sometimes we in the press were made to feel we were covering a governor not of a different gender but of a different species altogether. She repeatedly accused me of having no idea how to cover a woman.

But things were different 20 years ago, and Graff acknowledges that "Straddlin' Madeleine," as we used to call her, was certainly correct in one respect - that a female governor was a novelty back then. At out-of-state meetings, Gov. Kunin's male state-trooper guard was often mistakenly identified as the governor of Vermont.

Graff has a fine chapter that rekindles memories of some turbulent days, titled "A Changing of the Guard: Snelling and Dean." The "changing" happened on August 14, 1991. King Richard won re-election to the Fifth Floor in 1990, after Queen Madeleine decided three terms were enough. He defeated Democrat Peter Welch. Writes Graff:

At the time of Snelling's death, I likened the day to April 12, 1945, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt's sudden death elevated Harry Truman to the Oval Office. Snelling had been a commanding figure on the state's political landscape. Like Truman, Dean was an unknown. At the time, I grabbed the comparison primarily to evoke an image of dramatic change. Over the years, though, the Truman analogy stuck, and when Dean stepped down as governor, I wrote that the comparison held: Howard Dean was Vermont's Harry Truman.

Indeed.

Despite his admiration for Dean, Graff does mention the incredible "blank" Ho-Ho drew when he was on C-SPAN with Brian Lamb in 1995. The National Governors Association was meeting in Burlington, and Lamb asked Dean the softball question, "What's the state's motto?"

"I don't know," confessed Dean. "I think it's Latin."

Actually, it's English - "Freedom and Unity."

We all know what's happened to Howard Dean since. He turned into a national political "rock star" as a Democratic presidential candidate. Graff covered the early days of that, but when his son Garrett Graff, fresh out of college, went to work at the Dean for America campaign press office in mid-2003, Chris' AP bosses asked him to tell his son not to take the job. Writes the dad:

However, I said that he was an adult and I would not stand in his way. The AP decided that I had a conflict of interest and ordered me to neither write nor edit any stories about the campaign. My decision was both painful and ironic . . . it meant that after spending almost twelve years covering a politician, and becoming, in the process, one of the nation's most experienced analysts of Dean's behavior and policies, I would not be able to cover a presidential campaign that was accelerating and taking exciting, surprising turns.

Yes, it certainly did.

Dateline Vermont's sections on Patrick Leahy, Jim Jeffords and Bernie Sanders provide glorious trips down Vermont's political memory lane. Next month, Ol' Bernardo joins St. Patrick in the United States Senate, replacing the retiring Jeezum Jim. But when Graff first caught Bernie's act, it was the fall of 1974 and Sanders was running as the Liberty Union candidate for U.S. Senate against Leahy and Republican Richard Mallary. As we know, Leahy won.

"All candidates complain about how the press portrays them, but Sanders' criticism was in a whole different league," Graff writes, and he has a story to back that up. In 1988, congressional candidate Bernie Sanders dragged a CBS "60 Minutes" crew to the AP bureau over the Thrush Tavern because the wire service had not sent a reporter to cover his presser on agriculture issues at a central Vermont farm.

Ah, the good old days!

And then there's Graff's fine chapter, "The Tempest Over Civil Unions." Seems like only yesterday.

On December 20, 1999, at 11:04 a.m., Chris pushed the button and moved a "FLASH" bulletin on the AP wire for the first time in his life:

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) - Vermont Supreme Court extends rights and benefits of marriage to same-sex couples.

Seven years later, the issue may seem a bit old-hat - Connecticut and New Jersey have since adopted civil unions, Massachusetts full legal marriage for same-sex couples. But back then, Vermont was on the cutting edge, and Graff doesn't miss a detail.

Dateline Vermont includes two appendices - one on "The Top 20 Stories of the 20th Century," and another listing the century's "10 Most Influential Vermonters."

The book is a masterpiece of modern history telling, and Chris covers the days of many of our lives - the era in which Vermont's image transformed from the land of Calvin Coolidge, Robert Frost and George Aiken to the land of Howard Dean, Madeleine, Ben & Jerry's and Bernie.

Ah, progress!

Happy New Year, everyone!

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About The Author

Peter Freyne

Peter Freyne

Bio:
Peter Freyne, 1949-2009, wrote the weekly political column "Inside Track," which originated in the Vanguard Press in the mid 1980s; he brought it to Seven Days in 1995. He retired it shortly before his death in January, 2009. We all miss him.

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