History will record that Sen. Jim McClure, who died Saturday at the age of 86, was one of the most significant politicians in Idaho’s history. A staunch Republican conservative, McClure nonetheless was liked and respected by those across the political spectrum, but beyond that he accumulated a record of accomplishment that has lasting impact.
A strong advocate for the natural resources industries so important to Idaho, McClure also saw the need to resolve long-standing debates over wilderness designation in his native state.
He worked out the boundary lines of the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area by spreading maps on the floor of the governor’s office and getting on his hands and knees with Democrat Cecil D. Andrus.
As a reporter and in other capacities, I have had the chance to interview Jim McClure probably more than 20 times over the years. I never sat down with any person who was better prepared or who provided a better interview. He was candid, opinionated and always impeccable well informed. I also never saw the guy use a note card or a script. He was a marvelous extemporaneous speaker. He was also a complete gentleman.
Once in Sun Valley years ago, while McClure was chairing the Senate Energy Committee, he sat for a taped interview for well more than half an hour. At the end of the session, while we were making small talk, the technical crew whispered in my ear that none of the half hour of Q and A had been recorded on tape. Gulp.
I’d just wasted the time of a busy, important U.S. Senator and had absolutely nothing to show for it. Not missing a beat, McClure smiled and said, “Let’s do it again.” And we did. He didn’t have to do that. Most would have said, sorry, but I’ve got to run. Obviously, I have never forgotten the kindness.
One thing I’ll never forget about McClure was his principled pragmatism. Never anything less than a loyal and conservative Republican, he also knew that progress often requires compromise and finding a middle ground. Such was the case when McClure again hooked up with Andrus in 1987 and spent weeks working out a comprehensive approach to the decades-long battles over Idaho wilderness. They flew around the state, spread out the maps and offended everyone – particularly their respective “base” voters. There was something in the grand compromise that everyone could hate and the McClure-Andrus approach ultimately failed.
I’ve thought many times since that the two old pols knew they were far out in front of their constituents, but were nevertheless willing to risk political capital to try to resolve a controversy. It’s easy in politics to say “no.” It is much more difficult – and risky – to try to lead. McClure was a leader.
I was pleased to have a hand in creating a University of Idaho video tribute to Jim McClure in 2007. You can check it out at the University’s McClure Center website.
In the Idaho political pantheon, McClure stands with Borah and Church as a among the greatest and most important federal officials Idaho has ever produced. He was a genuinely nice guy, too.