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Chris Graff

12/04/06 12:00AM By David Moats
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(HOST) Much has already been said about Chris Graff, his years as a Vermont journalist, and the book he's just written - but commentator David Moats has a few observations of his own to add, about both the book and the man.

(MOATS) Chris Graff was there for the death of Richard Snelling and the rise of Howard Dean, for the titanic battles over Act 60 and Civil Unions, for murders, floods and droughts. He's been a reporter in Vermont for thirty-five years, most of that time as Bureau Chief for the Associated Press. Then, earlier this year, the AP fired him. With only the lamest excuse.

Graff has responded by writing a book called "Dateline Vermont," which provides a brisk and affecting account of the history he has reported. But it offers more than that.

It also describes Graff's personal journey. He arrived as a boy in North Pomfret after the death of his father and remarriage of his mother. At first he thought he had come to the end of the earth, but his story was just beginning.

It has an interesting symmetry. In 1971, as a student at Middlebury College, he received his first news assignment from the student who was news director of the college radio station. The student's name was Jim Douglas. Years later Graff closes his book with an eloquent quote from Douglas's second inaugural address about the heaven on earth that is Vermont.

During the decades in between Graff encountered a fascinating cast of characters - Dick Snelling, Madeleine Kunin, Ralph Wright, Patrick Leahy, Jim Jeffords, Howard Dean, Bernie Sanders.

Graff has the storyteller's gift of choosing the right details and shaping his story in a dramatic fashion. But there is something more. Graff's book, like his work as a reporter, is characterized by an unusual generosity of spirit. He never succumbs to the cynicism that might cause him to dismiss the people he covered as mere politicians. Whether it's the demanding and volatile Dick Snelling or the crafty and irascible Ralph Wright, Graff sees through to someone who is trying to do the right thing.

He appreciates the quirkiness and humor, the ambitions and failures of these flawed and honorable people. And the whole story is told within the framework of his own career - which ended with his notorious firing. In retrospect, AP's excuse for letting Graff go seems even more lame than it seemed at the time - they said it had to do with his decision to move on the AP wire a column by Patrick Leahy.

In his final chapter, Graff describes the controversy earlier in the year about Judge Cashman and the campaign by Bill O'Reilly of Fox News - whom Graff refers to as a "mountebank" - to condemn Cashman and the Vermont press. Graff will never say so because he doesn't know. But it's not implausible that AP allowed the O'Reilly controversy to warp its judgment, leading to its decision to fire him.

Graff has answered AP with a book showing what is honorable in Vermont politics. It's a different place than when he arrived as an eleven-year-old boy and the Interstate highways were still under construction. But it's still a place, as Jim Douglas said in his second inaugural, where the cycles of life and the joys of the changing seasons have instilled in the people a cherished spirit of freedom and unity.

David Moats is the editorial page editor for the Rutland Herald and winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. He spoke from studios at Middlebury College.

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