We may not know a giant among us. I certainly didn't know it when I moved to Vermont just twenty years after Phil Hoff took office as the first Democratic governor in over a century, and I still didn't realize it in the mid-1980's when I was lobbying and he was in the Senate Judiciary Committee, but now, at a remove of half a century, there can be no mistaking the fact that Hoff was a giant of Vermont politics, the most important figure in the second half of the twentieth century.
When Phil Hoff took office Vermont's governorship was a sleepy, caretaker institution, Vermont was the most reliable of Republican states, and the town of Averill, 2000 population 8, had the same one representative in the House of Representatives as Burlington, 2000 population 39,000. By the time he left we had had legislative reapportionment (in response to a mandate from the Supreme Court), Vermont had a modern executive and administration, and the state had irreversibly learned that government can facilitate and advance progressive change.
As the authors note, "No individual deserves more credit (or in the view of political rivals more blame) for the transformation of Vermont than Philip Hoff." Those of us who did not grow up in Vermont can scarcely imagine the changes since his time. I think back to life in northern New Jersey fifty years ago and, while things have changed dramatically, the people, places, and institutions of that time are all recognizable today.
The opposite is true of Vermont. In Philip Hoff, the authors, a history professor and two veteran journalists, vividly portray the Vermont of the 1950's and 60's, illustrating the political life a young, energetic, politically ambitious lawyer found when he arrived, his early life among the "Young Turks" (mostly Republicans) in the Legislature, and the campaign and interpersonal strategies that brought him to the governor's mansion in 1962. (Okay, the truth is we don't have a governor's mansion, but you get the idea.)
Once in office, learning that his tax department couldn't give him a ten-, five-, or even a one-year projection of tax revenues, Hoff took the bold step of asking the legislature to essentially do nothing for the first year of his administration to give him a chance to understand the structure and the problems facing him and come up with a plan to make things work. A less gifted politician could never have pulled it off, but that first year of temporizing and planning was what set him on course to his later successes, accomplished without ever having a Democratic legislative majority to work with.
Phil Hoff really was to Vermont what people think JFK was for the country. The authors of this short biography put his life in perspective and, with their journalistic approach, bring the events to life. Although they clearly admire him they never descend to hagiography, and provide a balanced treatment of his failings as well as his successes.
Philip Hoff is essential reading for anyone interested in how Vermont politics evolved from the conservatism of the 1950's to the dynamism of the present.
Labels: Abby Hoffman, Vermont history, Vermont politics