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Vermont's three electoral votes may not bear a heavy impact on the national election, but a great many congressmen and citizens are looking to the state to see if it is fatal for a public official to take an outspoken position on issues that make him politically vulnerable. The focus is on the re-election campaign of Rep. William H. Meyer, whose championing of the peace issue has left him open for a smear-job along all too familiar lines. Another victory for him this year in conservative Vermont would be the peak in a series of surprises on which Meyer has built his short political career.
When a forester from West Rupert, Vt. wrote a letter to the major state newspapers announcing his candidacy for the Democratic Senatorial nomination early in 1958, party leaders were, to say the least, taken aback. When election returns subsequently showed that on $2,000 and the disarmament issue William Meyer had broken the 104-year Republican hold on Vermont's Congressional seat, there was a good deal of incredulous blinking. And when Meyer loomed up in the House calling for a profound re-examination of the government's Cold War efforts, the Congress and the whole country began stirring in response to his new and disturbing ideas. Some of these are now widely held, and the Congressman wryly observes that no one will now condemn his opposition to nuclear testing, although this stand was considered unsound in 1958.
"If this election were being held two years from now, I don't think they could give us much trouble," Rep. Meyer explained this weekend, in illustrating how the times were catching up with concepts which only recently were considered "ahead of the times." His opponent, Vermont's Governor Stafford, who had ceased criticizing Meyer's stand on atomic-testing, has now found it expedient to slacken his attack on the Congressman's position on China. Before large crowds who have grown increasingly curious over just what the fate of the world does hinge on, Meyer has explained, "Our real problem is living with the Chinese. If they were under United Nations surveillance, they could not commit such aggressive acts as moving into Tibet, with the impunity of the 'formal' outlaw."
With raised eyebrows and an ironic laugh, Meyer recalls that for his willingness to stand his ground on his demands that the country re-evaluate its draft, China, and defense policies, he has been called a "native forester."
Even his opponents seem awed by his integrity, and are thus forced to pursue the point that Meyer's very honesty and foresight make him unqualified, on the grounds that a man who essentially speaks his own mind does not speak as a true representative. This allegation causes a smile to work itself slowly across Meyer's strong face, finally curling his thin mustache: "I've taken more polls, done more listening, and solicited more mail than any of my predecessors: I've gone up and down the state and I think I know a great deal about what Vermonters want. I aim at articulating their fundamental aspirations. And I think that if a referendum were taken tomorrow and the people were given half a page of facts about the draft, they would vote to abolish it. And on second thought, you can forget about that half-page of facts."
Meyer speaks slowly, seeming to deliberate over the specific word that will best express each thought. His wry optimism and homey mannerisms have led some to compare him with Lincoln, and his own special synthesis of principle and realism strengthens this impression. "They may call me naive, but I have my streaks of skepticism and bitterness, you know. Life demands that everybody work out his own compromises and settlements."
One of the compromises Meyer made was with state Democratic leaders, who urged him to run for Congress in '58, instead of the Senate as he had originally intended. Meyer had been sitting in his living room one evening in the Spring of that year, with his family, when someone mused that he should run for the Senate. He arose, went into his study, and emerged with a copy of the letter which he sent to the newspapers, announcing his plans to seek the nomination. The Democrats, however, had already announced their support for another man, and feared a primary fight would weaken their chances beyond repair. They offered Meyer the rather dubious privilege of running for Congress on the Democratic ticket, and he accepted.
The Congressman is careful to distinguish between campaigning and serving: "There is a mood in Washington, a certain pre-occupation with getting re-elected. I've said I'd rather spend two years down there trying to accomplish something, than ten worrying about re-election. We may lose this election, but then again, we may surprise them." Meyer's adversaries have called him irreligious (he is a former deacon of a Dutch Reform Church, and has made a concerted study of all the major religions) and a dupe of the Reds (he warned against the consequences of close alliance with the Soviet Union during the Second World War), but they have been forced to shy away from attacking his record.
His campaign has again been a give-and-take with the voters, wherein he tries to do as much listening as talking. Apparently his major objective is to reach a maximum number of people personally, to counteract the effects of a generally hostile press. The factors working for him are the tremendous degree to which Vermonters believe in his honesty, and the growing acceptance of his views.
On the other hand, Stafford's attack by insinuation and innuendo seems to have succeeded to a certain extent, and of the 30,000 more Vermonters who will come out to vote in a Presidential year, most will be Republicans. Should he lose, he has already done a great deal by raising the questions of disarmament, peace, and civil liberties. If he wins, Vermont will have shown the extent to which outspoken peace candidates are in demand.
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