Man Bites Dog
Lots of reaction and remembering, very appropriately, to the weekend passing of one of Idaho’s political icons Sen. Jim McClure. Most of the reaction, again appropriately, has described McClure’s time in the U.S. House and Senate as distinguished, thoughtful and productive. Others have noted that he was a work horse, not a show horse; a decent guy in a business that has become more and more characterized by nastiness and blind partisanship.
One of the best and most thoughtful reactions to McClure’s death and his career comes in a great piece by long-time Idaho Conservation League Executive Director Rick Johnson. Johnson has taken the point in the Idaho environmental community in stressing a new approach to engagement and even collaboration with some of the traditional “enemies” of the conservation community. He writes of not initially thinking much of McClure, but over time coming to realize that the conservative Republican was a fellow you could talk with and maybe even make a deal with.
“I now see,” Johnson writes, “how much wilderness we didn’t get back then working with him and later in the under-appreciated collaboration he had with then-Gov. Cecil Andrus. Those bills were far from perfect. But bills today are also far from perfect, and today’s are more limited in scale. Nothing’s perfect you say? I didn’t know that then. Incidentally, my older mentors didn’t know that, either.”
It is almost a “man bites dog” moment and strong kudos to Johnson for recognizing and admitting that a guy who is a card carrying environmentalist – I say that with affection – could learn a thing or two from a senator who was often caricatured as an apologist for extractive industries. That is the beauty of politics – things are rarely as black and white, cut and dried as some try to make them. Progress is in the gray area of compromise and consensus.
One aspect of McClure’s career deserves special recognition as Idahoans reflect on his importance to the state’s politics. The guy was a legislator. He didn’t see his job as making bombastic speeches, although like any good and effective politician he could do that, he went to Washington, D.C. to get things done. Over a career that included strong advocacy for timber, mining and the Department of Energy, he also offered up conservation oriented legislation that, as my friend Rick Johnson argues, many of us would be glad to have on the books today.
That alone is why Jim McClure and others of his ilk will be long remembered. They used public office to try and do things. His approach is always going to be a good model – at any time in any state.
Archive for the ‘McClure’ Category
Man Bites Dog
James Albertus McClure, 1924-2011
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.
He helped champion creation of the Sawtooth NRA and in the last days of Frank Church’s life he got the iconic River of No Return Wilderness renamed for the Democrat.
He fought tooth and nail to grow the Idaho National Laboratory and distinguished himself as a member of the Iran-Contra Committee investigating that scandal.
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.