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The Darkness of Spring 

Inside Track

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy laid it on the line Friday about the dark cloud hanging menacingly over the nation's present and future. Few political leaders have dared speak so frankly about the depth of the mess George W. Bush has got us into.

Leahy was addressing folks from around the world gathered at the School for International Training in Brattleboro. And St. Patrick delivered quite the stirring patriotic address, one that took on all the dark demons our deceitful president has unleashed.

"President Bush, just two nights ago," said Sen.Leahy, "made clear that he plans to 'stay the course,' without explaining why he continues to believe this course will succeed.

"Staying the course is not a viable strategy," said St. Patrick, "Simply using more force, or sending more troops, will not solve the problem."

No kidding. 

Sen. Leahy's bold remarks, available in full on his website -- should be read carefully by one and all. No one on Capitol Hill has said it better.

"Last week," noted Leahy, "we heard yet again from the Secretary of Defense, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Secretary of State that despite the increasing number of American casualties and their own analysts who say that anti-Americanism is spreading, they each expressed unwavering confidence in the President's policy.

"It's as if they want the public to believe that this is what they had expected all along -- they just forgot to tell us."

St. Patrick is the ranking member on the Foreign Operations subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Except for military deployments, the committee appropriates all the funds that back up U.S. foreign policy, including the reconstruction of Iraq.

Leahy's Brattleboro speech was delivered to a standing-room audience of about 200. Over two dozen countries were represented in the audience. It's because of that international audience, we're told, that Vermont's leading voice on foreign affairs chose it as the setting to deliver his stinging indictment of the Bush administration's reckless foreign policy. Word is an updated version will soon be delivered by St. Pat on the Senate floor.

"It is tragic," said Leahy, "that 30 years after Vietnam, the same arrogance, the same distortions of the truth, the same simplistic notions of 'good versus evil,' the same rudimentary understanding of the people, the culture, their faith and traditions, and the same rosy assertions that things are getting better, have gotten us into what is increasingly looking like a deadly quagmire that may not only bog us down for years, but create more terrorists."

And, Leahy noted, many who warned us ahead of time of trouble, including some in the government, "were ridiculed and dismissed as unpatriotic."

Can you say "Vietnam flashback"? Remember when the thousands of anti-Vietnam War demonstrators turned into millions? When returning troops joined the marches? When almost every college campus in America had antiwar protests? 

"Dissent," said Thomas Jefferson, "is the highest form of patriotism." Mark Twain allegedly defined patriotism as "standing up for your country all of the time, and standing up for the government only when it deserves it."

Has a ring to it, eh?

Right now, however, the scary part isn't the mounting body count in Iraq, the energizing of a worldwide anti-American political movement, or the fact that Congress allowed this president to single-handedly hijack democracy for his personal self-interests.

The scary part is the fact that college campuses are so quiet and the streets of America's cities are protest-free.  


Last Friday around 5 p.m., the usual handful of suspects gathered with their signs in front of the Unitarian Church at the top of Church Street in Burlington. The posters bore handwritten slogans like: "War Without End," "No More Vietnams Anywhere," and "Quagmire." None mentioned Bush or his regime.

Across the street stood a lone counter-demonstrator holding his own sign and clutching a small American flag. His read: "Soldiers Die So Commie Socialists Can Stay Soft and Smug."

The poor gentleman just doesn't get it, does he?

But the question remains: Where are the protesters? Where are the antiwar marches? The campus unrest? Democracy requires dissent and democracy appears in desperate need of a Viagra injection.

Instead, we're living in a universe where garbage like billionaire casino-owner Donald Trump's "Apprentice" TV show captivates the nation's attention. Meanwhile, the killing and maiming in Iraq sits on a back burner in the nation's psyche.

Kim Ead at Burlington's Peace & Justice Center told Seven Days, "The antiwar community is trying to figure out what to do that would be most effective."

We suggested many antiwar people may be counting on the November election to save the country and end the war. But Ead noted the sad fact that John Kerry voted for the war and now says we need even more troops in the country.

Meanwhile, an April 18 Washington Post-ABC poll shows America's current King George has a 51 percent approval rating. What possibly is there to approve of?

David Sirota, former press aide to Rep. Bernie Sanders, and now the new kid on the national political media block, offered solace.

Mr. Sirota is the lead watchdog for the new liberal think tank, The Center for American Progress. He's also a regular guest on Al Franken's new Air America radio program.

Sirota told Seven Days that from his vantage point, Bush doesn't look so strong in the polls.

"A sitting President at 51 percent approval rating this close to the election means he's in big trouble," Sirota told Seven Days. "I truly don't think he's that strong in the polls."

A poll taken last week, he noted, "showed more than 60 percent of Americans think Bush is hiding something about 9/11." The revelations in Bob Woodward's new book, he predicted, will "chip away" at Bush's approval rating.

"I think [Bush] still has support out there of about half of the country," said Sirota, "but I think the support itself is weakening in intensity. It's like having a well-built house of oak. The house looks real strong, looks real stable, but if there are termites in there eating away at the wood, you might not see how close to collapse the house is until it's way too late."

Ah, yes, the old Termite Theory.

Let's hope the little buggers are real hungry.

Church & State -- The lines blurred recently when Gov. Jim Douglas spoke on behalf of Most Rev. Kenneth Angell, Roman Catholic Bishop of Vermont. Despite child-abuse scandals, pedophile priests and declining vocations, the Catholic Church remains Vermont's largest with about 150,000 members.

As we reported two weeks ago, Bishop Angell has taken a position in favor of the medical marijuana legislation pending in the legislature.

But at his weekly press conference the following day, Gov. Jimmy Scissorhands said that following our report he personally telephoned Bishop Angell to discuss the matter. Douglas told reporters, "The Bishop said he doesn't support the Senate bill."

That would be S.76, the bill that passed the Senate last year on a bipartisan 22-7 vote. It's currently before the Republican-controlled House Health and Welfare Committee.

It's always risky territory when a political leader tries to speak for someone other than him or herself. He or she always runs the risk of twisting what the other person said.

In the wake of the Gov's statement about Bishop Angell's changed position, we contacted the diocese once again.  In response, Communications Director Gloria Gibson sent along the following statement:

"Bishop Angell DOES support S.76 as he indicated on the original postcard. But in his related conversation with Governor Douglas, the Bishop also shared the Governor's concern that the enactment of S.76 should not in any way lead to the legalization of marijuana.

"The Bishop is NOT in support of the general legalization of marijuana.  He also would not want to send an inappropriate message to our youth, that marijuana is acceptable for non-medicinal purposes. Bishop Angell feels medical marijuana should be reserved for only the most serious, painful medical conditions and for end-of-life care."

Looks like Gov. Douglas misspoke, eh?

In a related matter, Seven Days learned last week that our anti-medical marijuana governor once voted for a bill that would have decriminalized marijuana possession in Vermont!

On March 17, 1978, State Rep. Jim Douglas was one of 75 House members who supported a marijuana decriminalization bill. According to the Journal of the House, Douglas himself called for a rules suspension in order to message the bill to the Senate as quickly as possible!

Last week, the Gov tried to brush off his earlier vote on pot by claiming the bill did not decriminalize marijuana possession. It merely reduced the penalties, he said.

Once again, Gov. Douglas misspoke.

According to the House Journal, H.669 made the maximum penalty for possession of less than an ounce of grass a $100 fine. It also stipulated there would be no criminal record kept of the offense. Unfortunately, the bill died in the Vermont Senate.

The 1978 pot decriminalization bill also had the backing of Democratic State Rep. Madeleine Kunin, who was elected governor in 1984, and a young state rep Tom Koch of Barre.

Amazingly, Koch is the current chairman of the House Health and Welfare Committee!

Just as amusing is the fact that a young Democratic state rep named Michael Obuchowski voted against the decriminalization bill back in 1978. Today Obie fully supports it.

Talk about flip-flop flashbacks, eh?

Gambling Update -- Vermont gave in to the national wave of gambling legalization in 1978. Richard Snelling, a Republican, was governor. Megabucks arrived in the Green Mountains in 1985.

Of course, there's always been gambling from the days of "Betcha two skunk tails you can't hit that bird with a rock" to "I got 20 bucks says the Red Sox beat the Yankees."

Vermont may have led the nation into The Age of Same-Sex Marriage, but neighboring New Hampshire led America into the Lottery Age. In 1963, on his fifth try, State Rep. Larry Pickett of Keene got the New Hampshire Legislature to pass a lottery bill. God-fearing Vermont did not follow until 1978. The Tri-State Megabucks arrived in 1985.

Arguments against gambling based on moral and religious grounds have long since died out. Today 37 states and the District of Columbia have legal lotteries and scratch tickets. Last summer, Vermont turned up the glitz by joining the multi-state Powerball game with its enormous jackpots. This Wednesday's jackpot is a measly $90 million.

Your odds of buying the winning ticket are only 120 million to 1.

Your odds of being struck by lighting are 700 thousand to 1.

Only fools gamble, present company included.

As anticipated, the introduction of Powerball last summer has taken a big bite out of Vermont's Megabucks sales. The odds of winning the top Megabucks jackpot, incidentally, are only 5.2 million to 1.

For the first nine months of Powerball, said Vermont Lottery Director Alan Yandow, Megabucks sales are down 27.6 percent. Big Al, who stars in the witty Vermont Lottery TV commercials, said a 25 percent drop was expected.

In July, Maine will join the Powerball pool. Seeing the effect there, said Yandow, "will tell us what changes need to be made" in the Megabucks game.

In the last nine months, Vermonters have purchased $10.7 million in Powerball tickets. Meanwhile, $4.4 million in Megabucks tickets were sold.

But the cash cow of the Vermont Lottery is scratch-off tickets. People just love them. And their sale outpaces Powerball and Megabucks by a mile: $53.2 million since July 1. That's about $87 spent by every man, woman and child in the state.

Scratch tickets keep people coming back because the odds of winning something -- even a free ticket -- are less than 5 to 1.

Year to date, said Yandow, Vermont lottery sales are up 18.3 percent. Big Al told Seven Days that could mean an additional $3 million for the state education fund.

Gambling's come a long way in America and in Vermont. The government decided it was better to join the "criminals" rather than fight them. Too many people have a taste for gambling and will break the law to quench it. Regulating it, taxing it and controlling its "quality" became the right-thinking public policy.

You don't think a similar approach to society's unwinnable War on Drugs might work, do you?


Taxi News -- Of all the questions yours truly gets about this newspaper, one of the most common has got to be, "Is Jernigan Pontiac real?"

Mr. Pontiac writes the "Hackie" column that appears biweekly --each column a priceless jewel of a story about a passenger in his taxi. The reader is along for the ride.

Yes, Jernigan Pontiac is a real person, but that's not his real name. He really is a Burlington cabbie and he's been at it a long time. However, writing is his real love, as if that doesn't show.

The good news is Jernigan's got a book coming out soon -- a collection of 50 of his best Seven Days columns called Hackie: Cab Driving and Life. There'll be a big opening at Barnes & Noble in mid-May, and Mr. Pontiac, the real Mr. Pontiac, will be there in person to autograph copies and meet his fans and passengers. 

Stay tuned for details.

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About The Author

Peter Freyne

Peter Freyne

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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