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"Man With a Plan" Becomes Reality

Life imitates art as "Man With a Plan" star Fred Tuttle wins the primary for Senator in Vermont. And guess who his campaign manager is? Yup, film director John O'Brien.

By Kiersten Conner-Sax

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Fred Tuttle voting.
Tunbridge, Vermont—In 1996, Fred Tuttle, a 79-year-old retired dairy farmer, was the star of a movie, "Man with a Plan," in which he played Fred Tuttle, a 76-year-old retired dairy farmer who runs for Congress. The fictional Fred won and moved to Washington. The real Fred recently won the Republican primary for the Senate, but hopes he won't have to leave Vermont.

Why was Tuttle running? Most politicians, after all, are happy to leave their home districts, and only pretend to hate Washington. In the movie, Fred runs because he needs a good-paying job with health benefits that doesn’t require references or a high school diploma. In real life, however, things are a bit more complicated.

Tuttle is the close friend of his 35-year-old neighbor and filmmaker, John O'Brien, who directed him in "Man with a Plan." O'Brien, whose father ran in the Democratic primary for Governor of Vermont in 1976, was disturbed a few months ago to see that one Jack McMullen, late of Cambridge, Mass., was the sole candidate in the Republican Primary to oppose long-time Vermont senator Patrick Leahy. The multimillionaire McMullen felt he understood the needs of Vermonters because he had owned what some sources described as a "ski chalet" in Warren for 15 years. So, to provide both a protest candidate for voters and a promotional vehicle for his film, which is to air on PBS in October, O’Brien convinced Tuttle to run and filed his candidacy papers in July.

O’Brien has remarked in more than one interview that Vermont is not for sale, and this maxim is a persistent theme throughout both of O’Brien’s films, "Man with a Plan" and the earlier "Vermont is for Lovers." His concern is understandable. Vermont is a state of fewer than 600,000 residents, approximately as many people as live in the city of Boston. Recently, however, the state has seen the decline of farming, its traditional industry, and a large influx of people—many of them buying vacation homes. At one point in "Vermont is for Lovers," a character remarks that the new homes are the real pollution, not the agricultural waste, and that the newcomers have "more money than brains."

McMullen established residency in Vermont only last year. Prior to that time, he was a consultant in Cambridge. He seems flabbergasted by the reaction to his campaign. "I’m up against an announced frivolous candidate," he commented in an interview with "Salon" magazine (http://www.salonmagazine.com/media/1998/08/06media.html). "I have done my homework. I’ve spent 17-hour days meeting with hundreds and hundreds of people around the state. I’ve spent a lot of time learning about the issues."

McMullen’s learning curve appears to have been steeper than he anticipated. After O’Brien filed Fred’s petitions to appear on the primary ballot, the (Republican) Secretary of State’s office invalidated 95 of the required signatures; Fred would need another 23 to continue. Vermonters, seemingly thinking Mr. McMullen a jackass, responded by providing an additional 2,309 signatures for Fred.

And thus the campaign was on.

For McMullen, the situation worsened. He couldn’t decide whether to take Fred seriously or not, first seeming humorless by encouraging the Republican challenge to Fred’s candidacy, then seeming like a sycophant by bringing Fred flowers in the hospital, where he had landed after knee surgery. Meanwhile, O’Brien publicized a campaign spending limit of sixteen dollars and threw nickel-a-plate fundraisers. Once out of the hospital, Fred "campaigned" from his front porch. In a debate the night before the election, McMullen could name only two of the towns bordering Warren, and had a rather surreal exchange with Fred, who, in his thick Vermont accent, asked, "How many tits a’ Holstein got?"

"What?" McMullen asked.

"Tits!" Fred crowed.

"What?"

"Tits!"

McMullen finally replied, "six." Those in attendance were not amused. As O’Brien’s mother, Ann, related the story to me, "even city people know that."

(A Holstein has four teats. To Mr. McMullen’s credit, this is not the easiest fact to discern (http://www.roadsideamerica.com/set/cow.html) for the uninitiated.)

On election day, I drove to Tunbridge, Vermont. I wanted to provide a first-hand account of election day in Tunbridge: Would there be swarming press? Would the Vermont that O’Brien wanted to protect still be evident? And what about O’Brien himself—was he a creative guy taking a stand, or the Alexander Haig/Dick Morris-style manipulator the Republicans were making him out to be?

I arrived in Tunbridge slightly ahead of the rest of the press. The town appears much as it does in O’Brien’s films, unlike, say, Woody Allen’s freshly-scrubbed New York. The hills are a verdant green, and the town consists of a few white clapboard buildings across from a cemetery on a hillside.

The town librarian directed me to City Hall, where the polling took place. I met Helen, the town clerk, in the basement. O’Brien had told me I could ask her a few questions if I arrived ahead of him and Fred. Helen, who looked to be in her thirties, with long blondish hair and think, fluffy bangs, wore a purple silk blouse over a turtleneck and thick pearls, and she eyed me with a look I can only describe as distrust. While I had tried not to dress conspicuously, (and in Cambridge I wouldn’t have stood out, in khakis and a black shirt), I felt as if I had "outsider" stamped on my forehead.

I told Helen who I was and why I was there. About five people, all elderly, milled around flat tables, the kind you’d see in a high school cafeteria. Helen very brusquely told me that that was fine, so long as I stayed out of the way. I nodded and tried to joke that I’d remain out of the "melee," and she looked at me as if I had just coughed up a frog.

Feeling incredibly uncomfortable, I walked outside and took a picture of the town hall. A reporter from the "Rutland Herald" asked if I were waiting for Fred. Although he was balding, tall, and a little stoop shouldered, he stood out the same way I did: our clothes were too new. All the Vermonters seemed to be wearing clothes that had gotten at least five years of good use.

In general, the residents of Tunbridge looked at us as if we were invading marauders. It felt strange to see myself through their eyes, lumped in with the plastic-coated television reporters, a flatlander with a notebook. No, I wanted to say, I'm not sure my car will make it back to Massachusetts, and I can't raise my arms because the air conditioning's broken and I seem to have sweated through this silk shirt, which has a torn collar, anyway. I took notes instead.

The gentleman from the "Rutland Herald" drove off in search of some action, and I kept taking notes until a lime green Honda Civic with "Spread Fred" on the bumper pulled up in City Hall’s driveway. Tuttle and O’Brien emerged and entered the building, and some milling photographers quickly scrambled down the hill after them.

O’Brien has commented that Tuttle has "that star charisma that you can’t put your finger on." As he limped slowly into the voting booth, Fred Tuttle looked a little tired: he’s a small man, not much more than five feet tall, with a walker, baggy overalls, and thick glasses. He wore the famous "FRED" baseball cap immortalized in "Man with a Plan," and seemed to be having fun. A reporter from "Life" pointed out that Fred may have violated federal election law by wearing the cap.

"You’re supposed to tell me your name, Fred," said the woman recording the voters as they entered.

"I don’t know it," he replied.

At least five photographers snapped pictures while Tuttle voted. The basement, by then, had become something of a free-for-all, as reporters and photographers circled and asked questions of both Tuttle and O’Brien. Finally, after a slow progress with the walker, the party moved outside to the driveway for something of a press conference. Helen looked noticeably relieved.

As Tuttle gingerly stepped over the threshold, one reporter commented that McMullen had said he was going to win.

"Ooo, that’s a problem, isn’t it," Tuttle replied.

Photographers continued to snap pictures, and it seemed as though a camaraderie had grown up between them and the candidate over the last few days. They waited for a particular reporter to arrive, and re-enacted Fred’s leaving the building so that he could get a picture. When one reporter asked O’Brien and Tuttle to pose together, O’Brien made a joke of holding his arms up behind Tuttle’s head, a puppet master with his creation.

Another reporter smiled and asked if Fred were enjoying the campaign. "Best time of m’whole life," he replied, smiling. He and O’Brien seem close, and Tuttle more than once asked for O’Brien to appear in pictures beside him.

O’Brien, however, appeared somewhat more tense than his candidate; perhaps the handlers usually do. He has faced a good deal of criticism and scrutiny in his role as campaign manager, and had recently endured a debate in which Republicans spewed invective at him for hours. In front of City Hall, he told one television reporter that "both candidates are tremendously unqualified. It’s a mockery of a mockery." He told another that "Jack McMullen represents the future, the Silicon Valley, Big Box future of Vermont if we don’t do anything. Fred represents the old Vermont."

As the conference continued, a light rain began to fall. Other Tunbridge locals, many of whom have appeared in O’Brien’s films, continually wished Fred luck and made friendly jokes about his walker. Many kissed him. A few, however, seemed nervous of the press gauntlet and hung back from voting; Helen eventually shooed us away from the door.

The electoral portion of the day over, events took a more sedentary turn. O’Brien took Tuttle home for a nap, although Tuttle seemed more interested in spending time with some of the pretty young women in the press corps. As he entered the house, he asked where a reporter was from.

"Massachusetts," she replied.

"My family came from Massachusetts," Tuttle said. "In 1832." A press packet for "Man with a Plan" explains that "Fred inherited the family farm from his father, Joe, who inherited it from his father, Fred, who inherited it from his father, Joe."

I followed O’Brien back to his family farm up the road, and took the opportunity to learn some of Fred Tuttle’s positions on the issues:

On abortion: "If a woman’s sick, and maybe something happens, then she should be able to get an abortion. But if she went out and got knocked up on purpose, then she shouldn’t be able to." (O’Brien suspects that Fred would become somewhat more moderate on this issue were he to meet with some Planned Parenthood staffers.)

On welfare: he’s against it. However, he also thinks that people who make over $100,000 per year make too much.

On gun control: Tuttle is in favor of banning handguns.

On Monica Lewinsky: "Let them do what they want."

O’Brien spent much of the next few hours on the phone with friends and reporters. He looked tired and harried. Work on his upcoming film, "Nosey Parker," has been put on hold during the campaign. Moreover, you won’t be seeing "Man with a Bigger Plan" or the like anytime soon; O’Brien actually hasn’t filmed the campaign itself. While he did want to generate publicity for "Man with a Plan," he didn’t want there to be legitimate reason for the Republicans or the Federal Elections Commission to question the validity of the race.

Asked whether he was happy he convinced Fred to run, O’Brien responded, "Most of the time."

That night, Fred Tuttle won the Republican nomination for the Senate with 55 percent of the vote.

Since then, not much has changed. O’Brien and Tuttle continue to run, although they don’t bear any ill will toward incumbent Senator Patrick Leahy, who once slept in O’Brien’s house. "If we were running against Trent Lott," O’Brien commented thoughtfully, "things would really get interesting."

Although Tuttle doesn’t want to drop out of the race after so many people voted for him, he hates Washington and has said that on the off chance Leahy has a heart attack and leaves him the sole candidate, he’ll have a heart attack, too.

Currently, the Leahy and Tuttle campaigns are trying to work together on non-partisan issues, such as voter turnout. One plan involves going into the schools and inspiring children to get their parents to vote. O’Brien mentioned another innovative plan: "Leahy has $750,000 socked away, so they could take $500,000 to preserve Vermont farmland, and use $250,000 to drub us." Leahy reportedly isn’t going for it. In spite of the Tuttle spending cap of $251, the Leahy campaign feels that the Tuttle campaign will garner a lot of free publicity. And with six weeks left to go, O’Brien and Tuttle will try to hold a press conference each week on agriculture, health care, or another worthy cause.

The Republican party hasn’t contacted either Tuttle or O’Brien. At first, Jack McMullen planned to mount an independent campaign for the Senate, but two days after making the announcement, he met with Republican party officials who persuaded him not to. Rumor has it that he had acquired only 600 of the required 1000 signatures necessary to enter his name on the ballot, anyway. After all, as Fred Tuttle told the "Burlington Free Press," "He couldn’t milk a cow if he had to!"

Copies of "A Man With a Plan" can be purchased at BuyIndies.com.