Douglas book reveals Obama job offer
By Kevin O’Connor
Staff Writer | September 03,2014
The cover of former Gov. James Douglas’ new memoir features his State House portrait.
For nearly four decades, James Douglas eagerly climbed a political ladder that reached from Vermont’s House of Representatives to its offices of secretary of state, treasurer and governor. So why didn’t he accept President Barack Obama’s surprising offer to serve as a U.S. ambassador or world health aide?
That’s just one of several revelations set to make news today as Douglas officially unveils his new autobiography, “The Vermont Way: A Republican Governor Leads America’s Most Liberal State.”
Before this week, the only buzz about the book surrounded the fact the Republican — out of the spotlight since retiring as chief state executive in 2011 — had teamed with a Democrat — Addison County state Sen. Christopher Bray — to release the 376-page hardcover through Common Ground Communications.
But the conversation will expand when Douglas reads from his memoir — which features candid, often eyebrow-raising comments about state officials and organizations past and present — at a 2 p.m. event at the University of Vermont in Burlington.
Perhaps the biggest talking point will be how a 2009 visit by Douglas, then vice chairman of the National Governors’ Association, to the White House just two weeks after Obama’s inauguration snowballed into the president issuing an even grander invitation less than six months later.
“I received an inquiry from a high-ranking official in the Obama administration asking if I might be interested in a presidential appointment,” Douglas writes in his book. “I had a basic question: what might this job be? ‘Well,’ came the reply, ‘filling ambassadorships is a slow process, and there are a number of them still open.’”
If that didn’t interest Douglas, Obama offered an alternative: “The president needed someone to lead America’s effort in combating disease around the world,” the author writes, “and he’d like me to assume the task of carrying on this important work.”
Douglas was “flattered”: “An ambassadorship was nothing to sneeze at, considering that many of them are given to those who raised a lot of money for the president; not only did I not qualify on that score, but I hadn’t even supported him!”
But already leaning toward not running for reelection and instead retiring, he declined.
“We’ll never know what motivated the president’s team to provide me with such an opportunity,” Douglas writes. “I choose to believe that it was for virtuous reasons: an effort to be inclusive, to continue to try to reach across the aisle, to be a president of all the people.”
Douglas’ memoir spans from his boyhood in Massachusetts — where, at age 13, he stuffed envelopes for 1964 presidential candidate Barry Goldwater — to his election as a Vermont legislator in 1972, secretary of state in 1980, treasurer in 1994 and governor in 2002, as well as his sole campaign defeat, against incumbent U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy in 1992.
The autobiography promises a larger message of how people of different philosophies can work together. But its 63-year-old author doesn’t shy away from defending his political positions.
The former governor reveals he doesn’t object to same-sex couples forming relationships but was acting on conscience when he vetoed a gay marriage law ultimately adopted by the Legislature in 2009.
“I believe,” he writes, “that the institution of marriage is worth preserving in its traditional form.”
Douglas notes the two Democratic Senate presidents pro tem he worked with to be “quite different.”
He writes of Peter Welch, now the state’s lone congressman: “He had strong views, but, at the end of the day, he wanted to accomplish something.”
And his successor, current Gov. Peter Shumlin: “He was very public about his dyslexia, and he once suggested it explained his inconsistencies. No matter what he said, it was likely to change in the next conversation. I have no clue what really motivates him.”
Douglas writes of his bewilderment that Bernard Sanders showed up at many of his campaign stops during the latter’s first run for U.S. Senate in 2006.
“One of my staff began to refer to him as ‘the Stalker.’ His staff members apparently weren’t energetic enough to arrange sufficient public appearances for their boss, so they decided to follow the guy with the best schedule, me!”
Also, Douglas wasn’t happy with former Vermont House Speaker Gaye Symington — in her case, for missing his third inauguration in 2007 to instead travel to Washington, D.C.
“She explained that she wanted to attend the historic first of a woman speaker of the U.S. House (Nancy Pelosi) taking the gavel,” he writes. “Call me old-fashioned, but I really think her responsibility was in Montpelier, rather than celebrating a partisan victory in Washington, and I expressed that to her.”
But Douglas saves his most pointed words for the press, reporting he no longer reads his hometown Addison County Independent after disagreeing with one too many of its opinions.
The Rutland Herald and Barre-Montpelier Times Argus, for their part, receive three full pages of critique. The former governor says the family owners are “community minded and supportive, but they give their editors free rein, and the staff wrote a number of outrageous editorials.”
And at least one story allowing him the last word.