BY SALLY POLLAK • FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER • NOVEMBER 16, 2008
MONTPELIER — A little levity, courtesy of the Bread and Puppet Theater, filled the Statehouse on Nov. 7.
Just in time.
After a morning in which speakers bemoaned the state of the U.S. — and suggested that seceding from the union is Vermont’s best hope — a troupe of puppeteers and musicians from Glover lightened and enlivened the proceedings with music and theater in the Statehouse chambers.
“We have lame policies. We have a lame president. We have a lame Congress. And we can expect lame results,” said speaker Gerald Celente of Rhinebeck, N.Y., founder of the Trends Research Institute. “We envision America breaking up the way the former Soviet Union broke up.”
It was against this backdrop, with a portrait of George Washington overseeing the drama, that Bread and Puppet presented scenes from the “Federal Cookbook” and played a brass band version of “Down by the Riverside.”
The black-painted cookbook was written and illustrated by artist and company founder Peter Schumann. Its recipes echo the spirit (if not the tone) of the talks at last week’s Vermont Independence Convention, a gathering organized by the Second Vermont Republic.
The group advocates the secession of Vermont from the union after 217 years of statehood. The “empire” has served its purpose, they argue. Smaller is better; villages are green and golden; Vermont can lead the way.
“Vermont wants out,” said Thomas Naylor, 72, of Charlotte. He’s the green-jacketed founder of the Republic, a onetime Duke economist.
“We have two objectives,” Naylor said the evening before the convention. “One: The peaceful secession of Vermont from the empire. Two: The peaceful dissolution of the empire itself. This is much bigger than a bunch of guys talking about secession. America needs a new metaphor; Vermont stands ready to provide it.”
At the Statehouse, Bread and Puppet cheerfully served up metaphors, drawing on Schumann’s recipe book. The puppeteers, dressed in chef’s whites, provided a jovial respite from the speakers.
One dish, Election Stew, uses “hardly any ingredients” and calls for scrambling leftovers from the last administration until they “acquire the same old taste.”
The Justice Department Specialty of the House dinner, served in a dining room decorated with razor wire and state-of-the-art surveillance equipment, comes with an after-dinner treat: “Guests are invited to shoot each other with Second Amendment legal protection,” the puppeteers announced, spraying each other to the accompaniment of cheery brass and drums.
“This is brilliant,” said Lynette Clark, chairman of the Alaskan Independence Party (AIP), laughing at the performance. She was one of the convention speakers.
Minutes before the Bread and Puppet show, Clark expressed her support for the Second Amendment in the well of the Statehouse.
“I carry — not here, not now — but at home everyday, a loaded 45-caliber Colt on my hip,” she said. “I don’t have an empty chamber. It is our tool. It is our protection. It is our right to bear arms.” It was unclear how Clark’s heat relates to Vermont’s independence, though early freedom fighters — the Green Mountain Boys — were armed.
Elaborating on her belief that government services should be privatized, Clark used as an example roadkill moose already tenderized by the crash. “Gut it, skin it, cut it up and pass it around to folks who need it on their table,” she said.
Clark called V.P. loser Sarah Palin, whose husband, Todd (aka the First Dude), was a member of the AIP for seven years, “a darn-fine gal with Alaska at her heart.”
About 125 people attended last Friday’s convention, though the audience grew during Bread and Puppet’s performance. Organizers speculated that Barack Obama’s presidential victory kept attendance down as his win infused the nation with a certain hope.
Though not enough to disavow even those who voted for him, like Tom Lackey, 49, of Stowe, from the notion of secession. “I think it’s a good idea because the U.S. has evolved into an empire,” said Lackey, a civil engineer. “This is a way of changing the direction we’re heading in.”
Lackey is not troubled by the prospect of leaving behind one-time compatriots. “It’s sort of like getting a divorce,” he said. “You can still be friends.”
Several students from Montpelier High School decided to attend the convention rather than go to school. Andrew Bullard, 17, called himself a “huge supporter” of Vermont independence.
“I’m a Vermonter, I’m not an American,” Andrew said. He favors a government apparatus that is local and sustainable — one he hopes will be accomplished in Vermont and then shared with “everyone who is willing to listen.”
“As soon as people are cold and hungry, they will be willing to make the change,” Andrew said. “I’m hoping for the economy to crash.”
Zeke Smith, 16, of Montpelier, said the United States has become “unmanageable” and can use a major overhaul. Obama has already brought change to the country, Zeke said. But maybe not enough.
“People are at least happier,” Zeke said. “The president of the United States is someone you look up to. Not just a clown — an admirable person.
Still, Zeke said he’s in favor of Vermont “breaking away” from the rest of the nation. “It’s a very juicy idea,” he said. “Vermont being its own country.”
Naylor calls secession a “radical act of rebellion grounded in anger and fear. We got on the map in Vermont because of the anger. Vermonters really hate George W. Bush.”
The separation would mean Vermonters could “disengage from the Wall Street global economy” and cease contributing tax dollars to the federal government’s $700 billion bailout and its military operations, Naylor said.
The Statehouse chambers where the Vermont Independence Convention took place is the very place formal proceedings toward secession would likely be held, Naylor said.
The process would involve the legislature calling for a statewide convention, made up of Vermont citizens, to consider articles of secession, Naylor said. Should a two-thirds vote of the conventioneers favor secession, the articles would be presented to government officials in the nation’s capitol.
“We think the empire is going down,” Naylor said. “Everyday it gets worse and worse and the leaders are clueless.”
At the convention, Naylor called on U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., to resign, run for governor of Vermont, and lead the state to independence.
The senator Thursday declined the offer, saying through his spokesman thanks, but no thanks.
“Obviously I do not believe in secession,” Sanders said in an e-mail. “I think, however, that in the midst of these enormously difficult problems facing the United States, the state of Vermont can and should be a leader in moving our country in a very different direction from where we have been in recent years.
“My hope is that Vermont will be the first state in the country to provide health care for all of its citizens, the leader in energy efficiency and sustainable energy, the leader in creating good-paying, environmentally sound jobs and in leading our state and country to a more peaceful world.”
Dale Manning of Hardwick witnessed much of last Friday’s convention. He, too, wants Vermont to remain in the union.
Manning commutes to Montpelier, where he’s a member of the capitol police force.
“I know that Vermont was an independent republic at one time and then we joined the United States and I’m very happy to be a member of the United States,” Manning, 45, said. “This is our great country that we live in and I’ve taken an oath to defend the Constitution. If I wanted to be in a different country, I’d leave the U.S.”
One of the great things about the Constitution is the right to free speech it guarantees and protects, Manning said. This includes the right to discuss secession in the halls of state government, he noted.
And to sing and dance there — in an historic room that Bread and Puppet played for the first time in more than 35 years in Vermont.
“It’s a wonderful space,” Schumann, the theater’s founder, said. “It’s how it should be: That the Statehouse is so open to this.”
Contact Sally Pollak at firstname.lastname@example.org or 660-1859.