Perhaps it was the boredom of being just another Vermont sheep farmer-filmmaker that this year prompted John O'Brien '85 to add another career to his résumé: political campaign manager. Two minutes before the filing deadline, he placed one of his actors in the running for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senator from Vermont. Seventy-nine-year-old retired farmer Fred Tuttle had already become famous within the state, largely by starring in O'Brien's 1996 movie, Man with a Plan. This fall, with the film airing nationally on Public Broadcasting Service stations, viewers will be watching a fictional story that eventually played itself out in reality.
Man with a Plan casts Tuttle as himself: an aged dairy farmer who had to stop milking cows due to his badly arthritic knees. His 94-year-old father needs an expensive hip replacement, and Tuttle himself needs money for bills, so he decides to run for Congress to land the $130,000 salary. As a tenth-grade dropout with no political experience, Fred Tuttle is supremely unqualified for Capitol Hill--and clearly has no real desire to leave his hometown of Tunbridge. Nonetheless, Fred gets into the swing of the political campaign, declaring, "I've spent my whole life in the barn. Now I just want to spend a little time in the House!"
The film is the second in O'Brien's trilogy on his hometown of Tunbridge (see Harvard Magazine, January-February 1994, page 85); he casts local citizens in stories that mingle documentary techniques and fictional narratives. A government concentrator in college, O'Brien took a visual and environmental studies course on filmmaking in his senior year and, he says, was "totally hooked. Harvard was unlike the professional film schools that teach you how hard it is to make films, or that you can only make them in a certain way. That helped. You really don't want to know too much about it when you get into filmmaking." Then he adds, "As much work as it is to make a film, it's nothing compared to marketing it."
Marketing Fred Tuttle for U.S. Senate proved a bit easier. Tuttle is a natural ham with a personality whose rural authenticity is irresistibly likable. The spread fred bumper stickers that appeared around the state this year repeated a slogan coined in Man with a Plan, in a humble allusion to the role of manure in agriculture. Tuttle originally declared he would stick to a campaign budget of $16, beating even the $17.09 that legendary Vermont Senator George Aiken spent on his last campaign in 1968--inflation be damned. However, amenities like portable toilets at Tuttle's five-cent-a-plate fundraiser cost $60, and with advertising buys like a one-column, one-inch ad in the alternative newspaper Seven Days ($9.50), his outlays eventually ballooned to nearly $200.
His opponent in the primary, Jack McMullen, M.B.A. '72, J.D. '73, spent considerably more--close to $450,000--hoping to lay the groundwork for a general election run against four-term incumbent Senator Patrick Leahy. But Tuttle's entry proved a stumbling block. O'Brien admits that half his motivation for entering Tuttle in the race was to publicize his movie, but adds, "Both Fred and I were disturbed by McMullen, because of his lack of commitment to Vermont. He'd spent less than one year living here before running for the highest office."
In reply, McMullen points out that he has owned a second home in Vermont for 15 years, even though his primary residence was formerly in Massachusetts. A successful management consultant, he acknowledges that the senatorial run was his first political campaign, but asserts that length of residence ought not to be an issue, asking, "Suppose you were to say someone wasn't qualified for office because they were a recent immigrant from abroad?"
On primary night in Tunbridge, early returns showed favorite son Tuttle winning by a large margin. "People were saying, 'This means Fred will do well statewide--if he is running this well among people who know him, he'll do really well with people who don't know him,'" O'Brien recalls. The extrapolation proved sound: Tuttle astonished pundits by winning the senatorial nomination with 55 percent of the votes. Vermont's open primary system helped his cause. McMullen says that up to 30,000 voters have turned out for the Republican primaries over the last decade, whereas this year 52,000 voted, suggesting that a hefty number of non-Republicans participated. He admits that he "lost fair and square," but wonders if "part of O'Brien's unstated agenda was to make trouble in the Republican primary."
Even if it was, Tuttle will find it hard to make much trouble for the popular Leahy in the general election. Yet the Tuttle shoestring campaign reeks with charm; the answering machine at O'Brien's home, for example, notes that Fred Tuttle's campaign staff "is away from his desk."
After Man with a Plan, nature aped art for Fred's father, Joe, who eventually got his hip replacement. Joe lived to 97. Fred himself is only 79: his political career may have just begun. So may O'Brien's: the filmmaker holds elective office himself, as Tunbridge's justice of the peace. He runs as a Democrat.