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April 04, 2013

John McClaughry: Free-Market Conservative and…Champion of Frogs?

FrogsJohn McClaughry has never been shy about offering his opinions on just about anything done by the state or federal government. An ex-state senator, former speechwriter and senior policy advisor to President Reagan, and founder of the free-market think tank, Ethan Allen Institute, McClaughry made a career out of wading hip-deep into the weeds of public policy matters. 

Perhaps all that time spent in bureaucratic swamps explains McClaughry's personal fondness for frogs.

Evidently, though, McClaughry is shy about admitting to his secret, 50-year side gig as champion of croaking amphibians. Beginning in 1961, McClaughry, under the pseudonym Nestle J. Frobish, dubbed himself "Chair-Creature of the Worldwide Fair Play for Frogs Committee." In that role, he launched a campaign to skewer the political aspirations of a then-California state assemblyman, then later U.S. congressman, named Jerome R. Waldie.

Waldie's damnable offense? As a freshman Democratic lawmaker from Antioch, Calif., he introduced a one-line bill in the California State Assembly that read, "Frogs may be taken using slingshot." At the time, McClaughry was a college student at UC Berkeley — another difficult concept to wrap one's head around. McClaughry describes his alter-ego Frobish as "an outraged liberal who thought this invasion of the rights of the frog was wholly unconscionable and embarked on a crusade that eventually came to victory 44 years later."

Local-mclaughry

Waldie's six-word bill died in committee faster than a gigged frog. But his "frog murder bill," as Frobish often called it, would haunt him for decades.

In 1974, Waldie, now congressman from California's 14th congressional district, decided to make a run for governor to replace the outgoing governor, Ronald Reagan. According to McClaughry, when Waldie showed up at a Democratic fundraiser, about 15 people were picketing outside the hotel with signs that read, "Waldie unfair to frogs!" and "Stop the frog murderer!" Waldie was later defeated in the Democratic primary by then-Secretary of State Jerry Brown, who went on to win the office. The frog lobby's role in Waldie's defeat remains undetermined.

For years, Frobish and Waldie engaged in a spirited correspondence — this in the days before email — which was later compiled and published in a 1977 tongue-in-cheek political satire book titled Fair Play for Frogs: The Waldie-Frobish Papers. 

Fair Play for Frogs never actually outs McClaughry as Waldie's political nemesis, though author Bill Kauffman did make the connection in his 1995 book, America First! Its History, Culture and Politics. A May 2007 radio interview with Frobish, who sounds an awful lot like McClaughry, can be heard on Radio Curious by Barry Vogel from Ukiah, Calif. Again, McClaughry's name doesn't come up.

To date, McClaughry, who has since retired from his leadership position at the Ethan Allen Institute, has never actually confessed to being Frobish, despite the passage of time and the death of Waldie in April 2009.

So, where is Mr. Frobish now?

"That’s hard to say. He’s a little bit secretive,” says McClaughry, evasively. "He has this idea that the slingshot lobby has never forgiven him for his successful crusade and harbors ill-design on his person." 

When asked point-blank if he and Frobish are, in fact, one and the same man, McClaughry demurred.

"Nestle J. Frobish has been an active member of the frog cause for some 50 years and is a close and dear friend," he added. "I wouldn’t want to diminish the lustre of Frobish’s accomplishments by crowding in on his persona."

Frog photo by Dreamstime. John McClaughry file photo by Jeb Wallace-Brodeur.

Correction: The original version of this post incorrectly described McClaughry as a Vermont secessionist.

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