The legacy of Dick Snelling, free spirit of politics On Politics Today

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

August 15, 1991|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

Washington -- ONE OF THE joys of covering American politics is the opportunity to deal with that occasional politician who breaks the mold. One of the regrets is that so few of them ever reach the heights.

Richard Snelling, the governor of Vermont who died they at any level of American politics. But within the Republican Party he was always viewed as perhaps too much a maverick, too politically unreliable to be considered for a place on a national ticket.

The Republican Party in particular has always been a difficult institution for politicians who display a pronounced independence. There have been many Republican governors over the years -- among them Tom McCall in Oregon, David Cargo in New Mexico, Bob Ray in Iowa, Frank Sargent in Massachusetts and perhaps William Milliken in Michigan -- who XTC displayed remarkable leadership qualities in their own states that somehow never translated into national prominence.

Dick Snelling's irreverent independence was conspicuous. During the early years of the Reagan administration, he was a voice crying in a Republican wilderness with the doubts he raised about the dangers of huge federal deficits that Reaganomics was producing. At the conferences of the National Governors' Association, Snelling was taken very seriously indeed when, as chairman one year, he warned that the Reagan fiscal policy was moving the country "perilously close to disaster."

In the Reagan White House Snelling was viewed, unsurprisingly, as a politician "with his own agenda," an unforgivable sin to the tunnel-vision minds of the White House staff. And in a Republican Party dominated by orthodox thinking he was written off, despite his strongly conservative views on most issues, as another of those few surviving eastern moderates who had to be tolerated but didn't have to be welcomed.

To some degree, of course, Snelling's lack of national prominence could be traced to the fact he represented such a tiny state -- Vermont casts only three electoral votes -- so far from the focus of the national news media. But his brusque competence never projected an image of him as a politician with national potential, a disturbing commentary when you consider the qualifications of a Spiro Agnew or Dan Quayle.

Snelling was not without ambition. After a long career in the legislature, he served four two-year terms as governor from 1976 through 1984, when he stepped aside and allowed the election of Democrat Madeleine Kunin, whom he had defeated in 1982. Two years later Snelling ran for the Senate with the blessings of Republican national hierarchy. Despite his prickly independence on issues, he was seen as one of only two or three Republicans who might unseat a Democrat and help protect Republican control of the Senate. But the campaign never got off the ground and the incumbent Democrat, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, was reelected by 20 points as the Democrats reclaimed the Senate.

The campaign was revealing, however, in what it said about the voters' ability to make distinctions when they are truly familiar with candidates as they can become in a small state. Snelling, who had been in business since leaving the governorship, lost because he simply could not make a compelling case for replacing Leahy. But what was also apparent, as Snelling himself recognized at the time, is that the voters in Vermont -- who gave both candidates high approval ratings in opinion polls -- had trouble seeing him in a legislative rather than executive role. He was too much the no-nonsense, take-charge governor, many felt, to be able to get along in the Senate. That judgment was probably correct, which tells you more about the Senate than anything else.

Four years later, when Kunin stepped down, Snelling ran for governor again and won a record fifth term. He was once again seen as the right man for the right place that he occupied until his death.

The Republicans have some other governors these days with some long-range political potential. Pete Wilson of California is the most obvious, but the same could be said of Carroll Campbell of South Carolina and one or two others. But Dick Snelling displayed political integrity and personal force that is all too rare in American politics. He was a free spirit who made politics far more interesting than it otherwise would be.

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