With a Vermont accent thicker than custard, a dicky heart, diabetes, cataracts, and knees ruined by 80 years of milking cows, Fred Tuttle is the first to admit that he had no experience, no platform and no money (his biggest outlay during his campaign was for a Portaloo at a five-cent- a-head chicken lunch). His bumper sticker - designed for the back of manure spreaders - read "SPREAD FRED", and his campaign slogan was "Why Not!"
Fred Tuttle's fame began when he appeared in the films of local auteur John O'Brien. A 35-year-old gentleman farmer, who lives up the road in their village of Tunbridge (population 1,154), O'Brien calls his films "community cinema" - all the amateur actors are locals, and fact and fiction run together like tie-dye. Fred, with his baggy smile and doddery ways, proved to be so photogenic that O'Brien made him the star of his 1996 mock-documentary entitled Man With a Plan, in which Fred played himself running for Congress. In the movie, Fred's real-life problems - a $5,000 tax bill and a 93-year-old father with an outstanding $28,000 bill for hip surgery - spur him on to seek the only job that would pay someone who has no experience and no education a living wage: politician.
The movie became a cult hit in the North-East, and struck a chord with anti-Washington rural folk all over America. In Vermont, Fred Tuttle began cropping up on ballots as a write-in candidate. What had started as a political satire in the vein of Being There - in which Peter Sellers played a slow-witted gardener whose inarticulate pronouncements are mistaken for gnomic wisdom - snowballed into a merry prank worthy of counterculture at its finest.
Long, thin and mountainous, Vermont stretches from near New York right up to Canada. Its biggest town, Burlington, has a population of only 50,000. The state is poor, but the people - a mixture of hunters and hippies, students and Sport Utility Vehicle owners - are proud.
Things really got rolling for Fred this summer, when one Jack McMullen, a millionaire management consultant with degrees from Harvard and Columbia, decided he wanted to be Vermont's man in Washington. He considered the Green Mountain state to be quaint, rural, in need of some fiscal tough love: the perfect vehicle for him. McMullen, who lives in Massachusetts but owns a ski chalet in Vermont, viewed the state as a sick corporation.
McMullen's first step was to stand at the Republican Primary election. Unfortunately for him, Vermonters saw him coming. He was denounced as a carpetbagger and much was made of the fact that he had been renting his place in Burlington for only a year. "People up here saw straight through him," says John O'Brien, who acts as Fred's campaign manager. McMullen's candidature pushed O'Brien into action: Fred, a lifetime Republican, would challenge the upstart, both as a stunt to help publicise Man With a Plan, and as a protest against the "flat-lander". The requisite 500 signatures in support of Fred's candidacy were obtained hours before the deadline. And it all took off from there. Neutrals went wild for this sweet old man with his bib-and-braces, his Zimmerframe and his equal appetite for kissing babies, women and cows.
The Republicans' next mistake- to try to have Fred kicked off the ballot - proved fatal. McMullen complained that some of the signatures collected by O'Brien were void - illegible, or from unregistered voters. But the law allowed O'Brien another week to find replacements. He came back with 2,400. Fanning the fires which the Republican party bigs had intended to extinguish, the story ran and ran until Fred had instant name recognition. McMullen's attempts to backtrack were transparent. After denouncing Fred as a sham, he very publicly brought him flowers in hospital. (In order that Fred could rest his knees, most of his campaign consisted of him sitting on his porch, receiving visitors.)
The death blow, however, came in a debate on agriculture, during which Fred cross-examined the management consultant. The old man could hardly believe his pendulous ears when the answer to his question, "How many teats does a Jersey cow have?" (four) came back as "six". And so it was that the $200 man beat the $475,000 candidate by 5,000 votes.
Which is why, in November, Fred was still on the stump, despite Dottie's strenuous efforts to talk him off it. As we sit in the kitchen, the phone rings every 10 minutes, another media outlet wanting to talk to Fred. The kids are there as part of their home-school lesson on democracy. Dottie scowls and says she's not happy with John - all this trouble he's brought them. Her daughter and son-in-law come over and man the phones when the Tuttles need to nap.
Fred left school at 14 to farm, and his political knowledge is limited. He's in favour of reviving the old family farms, but has no idea how. So he talks to me about the Second World War. He wants to know if Blackpool, where he was stationed as an engineer, is still thriving, and did we appreciate the help the Americans had given us in the war? Indeed we did, I say, and he beams.
"This has become the biggest thing in his life," says O'Brien later that evening, at a rally in Burlington. The crowd cheers wildly as a video is shown of Fred's television appearances - here he is on the Conan O'Brien show in New York, then in LA with Jay Leno, baffling the beautiful people with his toothless diction but winning them over with his attitude. He rubs his dry hands together and says that Hollywood isn't the paradise he had expected. More cheers as Fred admits that he smoked marijuana once. After all, this is a growing state.
After Fred beat the carpetbagger, the game changed. With Dottie breathing down his neck, Fred said that he wouldn't go to Washington if he won the November election, and told everyone to vote for his opponent Leahy, whom he referred to as a "good man" - one of his favourite expressions. Even John O'Brien - still his campaign manager - became a little worried. It was Leahy, a seasoned politician, who saved the day. A popular senator in any case, Leahy knew how to avoid alienating the voters. He treated Fred with respect and befriended him, realising that the voter cynicism which had propelled Fred Tuttle into this advanced position must not be provoked again.
In the Tunbridge General Store, where, because there is no bar or diner in town, people gather for gossip, there is a movie poster of Fred which reads: "Locally Grown Ham." Fred's gestures - the head-scratching, the cap-waving, the oo-arr innocence - might seem hokey, but they are genuine.
"I do worry about Fred's health," says O'Brien. "But you'd have to know him from before. Two days from now, if we did nothing, he'd be getting antsy again. He's been a farmer all his life - that means having something to do for 18 hours a day. He's an exhibitionist. When we're out in public he'll stop and talk to everyone. The local doctor says he's 10 years younger since this started."
November 4. Election day, and Fred has a doctor's appointment in the morning, so it is two o'clock before O'Brien can drive him and Dottie to Tunbridge Town hall to vote. Outside, Fred leans on his aluminium crutches and waves his cap for the media; then he chats with the locals.
"I actually think this has done Dottie and Fred's marriage a bit of good," O'Brien says. "She used to really screech at him a lot. That's probably why he spent such a lot of his time in the barn. But when Fred became this star - with the media, the visits from senators - she developed a curious respect for him."
Despite the fact that Fred doesn't want it, O'Brien admits that he has sometimes dreamed about victory. "With a good staff, he could be an interesting presence in Washington. He could walk around in his overalls and every kid in the United States would know he's Fred Tuttle. The one way you could fight Trent Lot [the Senate majority leader] would be to have someone like Fred, who doesn't want anything from any lobbyist. And he'd be on the news every night with a funny quote."
In the evening, the clerks are busy with their piles of ballot papers while, upstairs, Fred sits on a folding chair by the buffet. A small crowd has turned up. Kids run around the wooden hall and Dottie, still wearing her coat, sits to one side. Someone hears on the radio that the exit polls show Fred to be losing by 40 per cent. Leahy has effectively won. Fred shuffles his concession speech from his pocket, has the mike clipped on to his collar for the last time, and reads with halting intonation, hunched over.
"It's like the joke about playing the country song backwards: you get your dog back, your truck back and your wife back. Now I've got my life back." With that, still smiling, he and Dottie are helped into their car and driven home to bed.
In the final analysis, Patrick Leahy, Democrat, received 72 per cent of votes cast. Fred H Tuttle, Republican, received 23 per centReuse content