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Cow Teats & How To Say 'Calais': Reflecting On The 1998 Tuttle-McMullen Debate

Fred Tuttle, left, and Jack McMullen squared off in a now-notorious debate during the 1998 Republican primary.
VPR file/Tim Johnson, VPR
Fred Tuttle, left, and Jack McMullen squared off in a now-notorious debate during the 1998 Republican primary.

Twenty years ago a political debate on VPR pitted a retired dairy farmer against a Harvard-educated Vermont newcomer in the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate. We're looking at back on the Tuttle-McMullen debate, how it affected the 1998 election and what the debate says about Vermont politics and values.

The questions that piqued the public's interest in that debate were far from ordinary:

"What's a tedder?" "What's rowen?" "How many teats does a Holstein have, and how many does a Jersey have?"

Tuttle endeared himself to Vermont and national audiences when the septuagenarian dairy farmer from Tunbridge starred in the political satire Man With A Plan. Satire sprawled into real life when Tuttle joined the state's Republican primary for the Senate seat, facing off against lawyer and businessman Jack McMullen, who had worked for years in Massachusetts and established Vermont residency "the better part of two years" prior to seeking office. 

The contrast between the two candidates was stark, culminating in the September 1998 VPR Switchboard debate where Tuttle's questions — ranging from agricultural terms to town pronunciations to dairy production — left his opponent with few answers. Tuttle would go on to win the primary and endorse his challenger, incumbent Sen. Patrick Leahy, during the November general election. 

Longtime VPR statehouse reporter Bob Kinzel moderated the Tuttle-McMullen debate and joins Vermont Edition to discuss how the primary debate came together and how it influenced the final weeks of the campaign. Also joining the conversation is state Sen. Phil Baruth, whose writing and research on Vermont politics has looked at the 1998 campaign and the Tuttle-McMullen primary debate.

Broadcast live on Tuesday, June 19, 2018 at noon; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

Jane Lindholm is the host, executive producer and creator of But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids. In addition to her work on our international kids show, she produces special projects for Vermont Public. Until March 2021, she was host and editor of the award-winning Vermont Public program Vermont Edition.
Matt Smith worked for Vermont Public from 2017 to 2023 as managing editor and senior producer of Vermont Edition.
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