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February 27, 2008

Thinking of Moonie

One would think that after 11 years I'd have the column writing down pat. But I don't. What follows is a recently composed would-be story. I realized, after the fact, that it didn't pass muster as a "Hackie" column. Not that it wasn't good enough, but it fell outside of the "Hackie" brand that I have established:  it's insufficiently tied to the taxi biz and it's too much my musing about life. (A little of my thoughts per story go a long way.) Read it and I bet you'll understand what I mean.

In any event, I hope it will make a dandy weblog post.

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“What's the good word, Jernigan?”

Thus spoke Mayor Clavelle. It was 1999. Bill was in the White House; “W” merely the 23rd letter of the alphabet. Sigh . . .

“I don't know, Mayor,” I replied. “But you must be doing something right. Everyone's walking around town in great spirits.”

“I don't think that's me,” he said, his wide round face lit up with a smile. “I think it's the beautiful weather.”

That's one for the books, I thought. How often does a politician decline credit for good news?

The city dedicates a parking space on Main Street for the mayor of Burlington, a modest job perk on what can sometimes be a thankless job. The mayor's spot is directly behind the taxi stand so I would often run into Peter and we’d chat some. Our Past Distinguished Mayor – for those who don't remember – was one of the all-time champion schmoozers. I'm no slouch in that department myself so – what's new?

At times a mayor perfectly reflects the temperament of the city he or she governs. Ed Koch – Da Mayor – was New York City: brash, cocky and perpetually slightly irritated. How'm I doin'? was his mantra, and New Yorkers let him know in no uncertain terms. (The denizens of the Big Apple exhibit a subway car of colorful traits, but “uncertainty” they don't know from.) Similarly, from 1996-2004 in San Francisco, Willie Brown was the embodiment of the City by the Bay: flashy, outrageous, cutting edge in his ideas, but down-to-earth just the same.

In Burlington, I think we definitely had that type of match in Mayor Clavelle. Bernie Sanders, as mayor, was a firebrand, a passionate ideologue who nonetheless delivered on an agenda of progressive modernization. But as much as there was to admire about Bernie’s municipal reign, he was not by any stretch your prototypical Burlingtonian.

Does anyone still remember Peter Brownell? For one lone term, 1993-95, this other Peter temporarily interrupted Clavelle’s long-time mayoralty. I recall Brownell as the “reluctant” mayor: if nominated, I will not run; if elected, I will not serve. An eminently decent guy and competent administrator during his brief ascendancy, he clearly had some problem with the “vision thing,” as Bush the Elder once dubbed it. Also, let's just say, he was perhaps a tad charismatically challenged.

Peter Clavelle, on the other hand, was born to be Mayor of Burlington. He grew up in the Onion City, part of a large and close-knit family at the center of the larger tight community that was Winooski in the 1950’s and ’60’s. First, as one of Bernie’s right-hand people and, then, as his mayoral successor, Peter brought to public life all those qualities so endearing to Vermonters: self-effacement, practicality, a genuine affinity for the common man and a passionate desire to do the right thing. This appeal didn’t quite translate to his 2004 gubernatorial bid, but didn’t the man known with affection around town as “Moonie” embody the best of the Queen City spirit?

Huey Lewis once described the stark choice facing every rock star: you can either goad the kids to run with the devil or you can sing about the power of love. I always believed the same dialectic applies to political leaders. They can either call forth the best impulses in the electorate – the yearning for justice, compassion and decency – or they can evoke and stoke the public's fears, prejudice and selfishness.

In my lifetime, the national political figure that most inspired me was Bobby Kennedy. After his brother's death in Dallas, he drew into himself like a wounded animal for almost a year during which he read widely and soul-searched his destiny. He emerged with a commitment to serve, to do all within his power to bring forth the highest ideals for which our country stands.

After winning a senatorial race in New York State, Bobby ran for the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination. By all accounts he was a phenomenon on the stump. Among national politicians, only he and he alone could speak to the aspirations of the disaffected young, the increasingly angry black population – Dr. King had been assassinated earlier in February of that year – and the hopes of the broad middle-class. Plus, on the most pressing and divisive issue of the day, he had come out decisively for ending the Vietnam War.

On June 4th, he won the California and South Dakota primaries. The Democratic nomination was becoming a real possibility, and who doubts that he could have handily defeated a washed-up Republican nominee, Richard Nixon?

On the night he was shot – just after midnight on June 5 – I was all of 14 years old. When I woke up to the news, I took off on my bicycle riding aimlessly through the streets of Brooklyn, tears streaming down my face, repeating over and over in my thoughts, C'mon Bobby, hang in there. I didn't know at the time, but I was praying, me and millions of others. But his time was up; the following day he died.

I’ve mentioned this before, but it keeps coming back to me: I don't know if Barack Obama has what it takes to effectuate the hopes and dreams he so magnificently inspires. But – my God – isn’t it worth the chance?

February 27, 2008 at 06:14 AM in A Cabdriver's World | Permalink


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June 5 1968 I had just graduated and was on a plane home for VT from FL - then came the convention, and the blood and the trials. Dave Dellinger, choose VT to live - he & his wife Elizabeth. Beautiful people. Thanks again Jernigan.

Posted by: montpelier28 | Mar 2, 2008 12:57:31 AM

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