Vermont's original wild-haired political icon: US Sen. George Aiken of Putney

A new biography chronicles the late, legendary U.S. Sen. George Aiken of Putney

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PUTNEY — The wild-haired Vermont political icon, needing no introduction, seized the microphone to broadcast yet another communique on behalf of the common man.

"To represent the people one must follow them," he began. "Lincoln did. The Republican national leadership today does not."

Sounds like vintage Bernie Sanders, right?

Middlebury writer Steve Terry knows it actually came from another U.S. senator famous for cultivating the grassroots, championing the working class and challenging party machinery: the late, legendary Sen. George Aiken of Putney.

Terry was a fledgling reporter 55 years ago when, dialing up the one-time Dean of the Senate, he discovered Aiken was willing to talk any time from early morning to late at night.

"I was learning on the job," the 1964 University of Vermont graduate recalled, "but he was never in a hurry to get off the phone."

Joining Aiken's Washington, D.C., staff in 1969, Terry gained even greater access until the senator's departure from the Senate in 1975 and death in 1984.

"I often took notes on the events I witnessed," Terry said. "I had always aspired to do a book."

A half-century later, Terry finally has.

"Say We Won and Get Out: George D. Aiken and the Vietnam War" is the first biography to recount not only the history of the politician's headline-grabbing 1966 call for withdrawal from Vietnam, but also a career that spanned five decades from the Great Depression to Watergate.

Older Vermonters know Aiken as the man who chose green for the color of the state's license plates, coined the term "Northeast Kingdom" and spent $17.09 on his last re-election campaign in 1968. Aiken first won the election as a state legislator in 1930 and then as speaker of the state House in 1933. He became lieutenant governor in 1934, governor in 1936 and U.S. senator in 1940.

Young Vermonters may recognize his name only for inspiring UVM's annual George D. Aiken Lecture Series, which Terry now chairs.

"A whole generation has no idea who this person is or was," Terry said.

So Terry began to write the book.

'Vermont goes radical'

Born in 1892 on a farm since supplanted by Interstate 91, Aiken was a Brattleboro High School senior in the class of 1909 when he first stepped foot in the nation's capital and shook hands with then-President William Howard Taft.

Aiken initially was more interested in plants than politics. He worked as a horticulturist, penning books on wildflowers, fruits and berries, before his 1920 election to the town school board sparked a half-century career in public service.

Back before the Interstate and the internet brought Ben & Jerry's and berniesanders.com, Vermont was one of the most rock-ribbed Republican strongholds in the nation. Aiken was a lifelong member of the Grand Old Party, although that didn't mean he was a stereotypical one.

In 1938, for example, Aiken addressed the National Republican Club's Lincoln Day Dinner as such media heavyweights as The New York Times were proposing him as a candidate for president.

"If an orthodox Republican speech on Lincoln Day consists of reciting history which everybody knows, giving Lincoln a great deal of praise which he does not need, justifying all the Republican Party has been doing and excusing everything it is not doing by that all-embracing phrase, `Lincoln would have had it that way,' then I am afraid you will not hear a very orthodox speech from me tonight," Aiken began.

The Vermonter wasn't interested in his party's 1940 White House nomination, just the public platform it provided.

By 1946, Aiken and newly elected Gov. Ernest Gibson, frustrated with the conservative "old guard" of their state's Republican Party, encouraged more moderate candidates to run for the Legislature and other state offices. The group soon grew into the Gibson-Aiken wing of the GOP, prompting the national magazine Collier's to announce "Vermont Goes Radical."

A turning point

In Congress, Aiken raised a few eyebrows by eating breakfast every morning with then Democratic Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield of Montana. But he remains best known for a single paraphrased quote from a 12-minute speech — formally titled "Vietnam Analysis: Present and Future" — which he gave in 1966.

"The United States could well declare unilaterally that this stage of the Vietnam War is over," Aiken said, "that we have `won' in the sense that our armed forces are in control of most of the field and no potential enemy is in a position to establish its authority over South Vietnam."

Continuing on, Aiken explained how such an assertion could allow the nation to start to withdraw troops and seek a political solution to end the fighting. But the press, fellow politicians and the public soon summed up the speech as "declare victory and get out."

Some historians have questioned whether that synopsis, mistaken by many as Aiken's actual statement, is, in the words of one, "a gross distortion of the facts." Terry uses his book to set the record straight.

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"As a former reporter and editor and a person who had worked for six years as an aide to Senator Aiken, I never heard him once claim that he had been misquoted on his famous speech," Terry wrote. "In fact, as his Senate term came to an end in 1975 and until his death in 1984, Aiken was quick to say that the popular version was the correct interpretation."

Aiken even seemed to echo it when speaking of a 1973 investigation of the Watergate scandal involving President Richard Nixon: "Either impeach him," he said, "or get off his back."

Aiken's reputation would only grow. In his last re-election campaign in 1968, he faced a primary challenge from a conservative who charged the senator had the support of "communists, radicals and other left-wing extremists." Aiken went on to win with almost 75 percent of the vote. Ten days later, he filed a campaign finance report showing he had spent $17.09 — mostly for postage to put his name on the ballot.

Aiken was 80 and contemplating retirement when a freelancer convinced Vermont Life magazine to pay him 10 cents a word to interview the elder statesman.

The aspiring scribe's name: Bernie Sanders.

"My job as Aiken's aide," Terry recalled, "was to take the very long-haired Bernie to lunch in the ornate U.S. Senate dining room."

The contrast between Sanders and Aiken couldn't be more striking: A young Brooklyn-born revolutionary conversing with the small-town Republican tagged by his congressional colleagues as "the wise old owl."

"Bernie was Bernie," Terry said of the meeting.

But the resulting story that ran in Vermont Life's spring 1973 issue, and is reprinted in the book, shows a surprising degree of consensus between the two men.

Wrote Sanders: "There's been some discussion lately about the state of Vermont being, in a sense, dominated or over-run by out of state interests. For example, a lot of the large Vermont industries are selling out to out of state corporations."

And Aiken: "When you can't stop it — you've got to guide it. I used to say that if you stand on the track and see a train coming down you can do one of two things. You can stand still and get run over, or you can hop on it and try to control it."

Aiken retired from politics at age 82 in 1975 and lived another decade before his death at age 92, in 1984.

What would he do now?

Terry, now of Middlebury, would join the late UVM historian Sam Hand in compiling the senator's most important speeches in 2004's "The Essential Aiken: A Life in Public Service." He then reunited with Hand and fellow longtime journalist Anthony Marro to write 2011's "Philip Hoff: How Red Turned Blue in the Green Mountain State."

For his Aiken biography, Terry researched UVM's George D. Aiken papers with the help of student assistant Louis Augeri before moving on to the Library of Congress and U.S. Senate Historical Office in Washington and the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas.

The book includes many personal memories, starting with confirmation of a story asserted by other historians that President John F. Kennedy was secretly planning — before his assassination in 1963 — to withdraw from Vietnam after his anticipated re-election campaign in 1964.

"Aiken told me when I was on his staff that it was told to him in confidence," Terry said.

Such revelations often came after-hours.

"While awaiting session responsibilities in the evening, I would mix Aiken a Brandy Alexander, while I had a Scotch or bourbon with water," Terry wrote. "About 6 p.m., Aiken and I would leave his small Capitol office and walk one floor down to the senators' dining room, where he would order a cheeseburger and a dish of chocolate ice cream."

Terry capped his book with a chapter titled "What Would George Aiken Do Today?"

The short answer: Continue to rebel against the establishment.

"Granted, the world of George Aiken was well before the advent of the 24-hour news cycle, social media platforms or a time when constant news was either generated or re-circulated by millions of Americans using Twitter, Facebook and many other forms of digital communications," Terry wrote.

That said, "If Aiken were in the Senate today," Terry wrote, "I believe he would surely be among the few Republicans challenging President (Donald) Trump."

People can learn more about Terry's book, published by UVM's Center for Research on Vermont, on the website senatoraiken.com.

"Aiken was not a perfect human being," Terry wrote. "He often said that any person in political life is as `honest as any person you might find listed in the telephone book.' In short, all humans have their strengths and weaknesses. He would ascribe that description to himself, too."

But Terry believes that only elevates Aiken.

"He was a man of honesty, decency and independence of thought and action," the author concluded. "Aiken knew how to listen and how to talk with people. He was never a `high-hat' nor a stuffed shirt. Aiken was a common man with a common touch."


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