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Douglas's virtue

01/21/03 12:00AM By David Moats
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(Host) Commentator David Moats says Jim Douglas has set a tone of earnest modesty in the governor's office.

(Moats) There's something old-fashioned about Jim Douglas. We got a taste of it in his inaugural address. He had been governor for all of 20 minutes and right off the bat he began to talk about civic virtue. Virtue. Nobody talks about virtue anymore. But it's something we can use more of, civic or otherwise.

Nowadays everyone wants to be clever and ironic. That goes for editorial writers and radio commentators. People like to keep a humorous distance from things that really matter. If we talk about virtue we put it in quotation marks, as if we really don't mean it, or we don't want to let on that we do mean it.

But our new governor really means it, and it's kind of refreshing. It's like the 1950s. Eisenhower is president. Perry Como is on TV. Rocky Marciano is the heavyweight champ and Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle are the two great ballplayers of the time. No one is ironic. People are for real about what they are doing. When politicians like Eisenhower talk about democracy and civic duty, we know what they're talking about.

Jim Douglas can get away with being an old-fashioned sort of guy because he has a good sense of humor. And he's not pretentious about his idea of virtue. Nor is he a fake. The '50s, after all, gave us, not only Eisenhower, but Richard Nixon, who took every corny virtue he could lay his hands on and warped it into something else. Jim Douglas came through the 60s and the various disasters created by lying politicians relatively unscathed. As a student at Middlebury College, he was a young Republican, which was not so common at the time.

Back then it was easy to scoff at the young Republicans. We were rebels. We were nonconformists. In fact, noncomformity became such an in-thing that everybody was doing it. I remember thinking the anti-war movement had finally gone mainstream when marching in a moratorium became a good excuse for a date. Looking back, you realize that standing up against the prevailing tide of our youth culture might not have been so easy.

Now that Jim Douglas is governor, he has a role to match both his seriousness and his humor. It's not as if his predecessor was some kind of post-modern punk ironist. Howard Dean is a serious guy, too, and now he's running for the most serious job of all - successor to Eisenhower and all the rest.

But Jim Douglas has a unique sort of modesty and earnestness that seems to be a throwback to an era before everyone was a fanatical self-promoter. His earnestness won't protect him from criticism. He'll be in hot water as soon as he starts making decisions. But the good feeling he engendered by his inauguration had to do in part with the feeling people have that he's for real. And that's a good way to start.

This is David Moats from Middlebury.

David Moats is the editorial page editor for the Rutland Herald and winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing.
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