In which I dip my toe into Jim Douglas’ Well of Lost Dreams

A friend in the media loaned me a review copy of ex-Governor Douglas’ memoir, “The Vermont Way.”  And I’ve started working my way through it.

It’ll definitely be “work,” too. I could tell from the first page that, leaving aside my opinion of Jim Douglas, this book is badly written. It’s flat, wooden, and wordy. This sentence, referring to Springfield, Massachusetts, says it all:

It was the county seat, the city where I was born and a municipality adjacent to the suburb, East Longmeadow, in which my family lived.

Boy howdy. Hemingway couldn’t have said it better.

(Photo by the late great Peter Freyne.)

(Photo by the late great Peter Freyne.)

If that was an outlier, Douglas (and his publisher) could be forgiven for a lapse in copy editing. But there’s more. Oh, so much more. Here’s a passage where he might have offered something fresh about Deane Davis, the Republican Governor when Douglas was launching his political career. Instead, he gives us a dry recitation of Davis’ resume:

He was two days away from turning sixty-eight and had completed a successful career as a lawyer, judge, and chief executive officer of the National Life Insurance Company. He had served as president of the American Morgan Horse Association and led Vermont’s Little Hoover Commission, the group that recommended reorganization of state government in the late ’50s.

Morgan Horse Association? What the frack?

If a high school student had written this, he would have gotten dinged for padding the word count. When it comes from Jim Douglas, not only is it lousy writing, but it fails to deliver the kind of insight I’d expect.

Here’s a dinner winner from what should have been a fraught passage — the announcement of the draft lottery during his college years, which would send some of his classmates off to Vietnam. And instead of some hint of emotion or empathy, we get another sentence unworthy of a high school essay:

These days, of course, military service is voluntary, but there have been times in our nation’s history when compulsory induction has been necessary to adequately staff our armed forces.

And by “adequately staff,” he means “replenish our battle-ravaged troops.”

The sentence adds nothing whatsoever to the narrative. Every page has examples of pointless padding, of layer upon layer of verbiage meant to insulate Jim Douglas from betraying actual human feeling or revealing unique insight into his life and career.

Chapter One ends with a passage concerning Douglas’ alleged curiosity about the world outside Vermont. He had studied Russian at Middlebury College; primarily, he says, because it was “the height of the Cold War,” which he defined in a manner, once again, unworthy of a high school essay:

Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev had proclaimed to the United States and other Western democracies, “We will bury you!” and later, for emphasis, banged his shoe on a desk at the United Nations.

These aren’t the words I’d expect from someone who grew up in the Cold War, with the Cuba missile crisis and air-raid drills and bomb shelters full of rations and bottled water. These are words I’d expect from a youngster who looked up “Cold War” on Wikipedia.

He goes on to talk about this curiosity regarding “other cultures” that “never abated,” and was fulfilled to some degree by his gubernatorial travels. The first “other culture” he mentions is Canada, that strange and distant land and “our largest trading partner.” He then rattles off the other stickers on his gubernatorial steamer trunk: Vietnam (where “the people are very friendly”) and 13 other countries listed in alphabetical order — the most unimaginative rendering possible.

There are no revealing anecdotes, no indication of what he learned or where his alleged curiosity took him. I suspect it mostly took him to official meetings and staged VIP tours. Either way, we get no hint that his journeys gave him any insight. After this perfunctory paragraph, “China,” “Vietnam,” and “Korea” only appear once in the book’s index. All three are mentioned on the same page, in a tossed-off recap of a trip “with business leaders” that “generated a large number of investors and inquiries.”

This is supposedly one area of human experience that really engages Jim Douglas’ intellect, and it’s reduced to a dry, soulless recitation of facts.

I’m only through part of chapter three, but one thing I can tell you:  Whatever you think of Jim Douglas as a politician or leader, this book has to be a disappointment. It is so much less than it could have been.

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