It was nearly impossible to have a neutral feeling about Perry Swisher. If you expressed admiration for one of his ideas or newspaper columns he would find a way to say or write something the next time that he knew would be highly contrary, bitingly caustic or searingly funny. He was truly one of a kind.
What can you expect after all from a guy who had been elected as both a Republican and a Democrat and ran for governor of Idaho in 1966 as an independent; with the last label perhaps being the most accurate. Swisher, who died Tuesday in Boise at 88, was truly a one of a kind independent – candid, brilliant, opinionated, humorous, not an easy sufferer of fools. The old line “not always right, but never in doubt” fit Swish like a glove.
I have a personal recollection of Swisher as an independent that perhaps summarizes his life of intelligent, not always gentle, commentary on the world and the hapless mortals who inhabit the place. In 1979, then-Democratic Gov. John V. Evans, who had ascended to the governorship when Cecil D. Andrus went off to serve as Interior Secretary in the Carter Administration, appointed Swisher to fill a vacancy on the Idaho Public Utilities Commission.
It was a bit of a surprise appointment and one sure to ruffle feathers down at Idaho Power corporate offices. Swisher was, shall we say, not a champion of big business. He was the kind to make sure that the “regulated” in regulated utility received his full attention.
I interviewed Swisher the day of his appointment to the Commission and, knowing I would get colorful, candid responses, devoted the last few minutes of the interview to asking him for quick comments on various political people he had know as allies and adversaries over so many years. I asked him about Evans, the man who had just given Swisher a new career and a new platform from which to influence public policy in Idaho. I remember the quote verbatim.
“John Evans,” Swisher said, “is the Mayor of Malad who by a quirk of political fate has become governor of Idaho.” Now that is candid.
He might have said Evans is a nice guy, as he is. Or that his benefactor was fast learning the ropes of the governorship, which he was. But Swish, never one to mince words, essentially said the governor who had just given him a plum appointment was a small town mayor who had risen to high office by being in the right place at the right time. Interviewers seldom get such answers. You always got them from Swisher. Politically correct he was not. He once showed up a post game rock concert at Boise’s Memorial Stadium in his bathrobe – he lived nearby – waving a hatchet and threatening to hack the power cables if the noise didn’t abate. He made waves.
The obituaries will chronicle Swisher’s accomplishments, which are not insignificant as a legislator – he championed the establishment of the sales tax – or as a utility regulator – he helped transition us from the old Ma Bell days to fiber optics and cell phones.
Swisher once said of the decision by federal Judge Harold Greene that caused the Bell System divestiture and heralded the deregulation of telecommunications, “Judge Greene took the only perfect thing in the world and screwed it up.” As I said, no lack of opinions from this old newspaper guy.
Swisher would have been a force in Idaho political and economic life had he never served in the legislature or presided at the PUC. He was, and this is not hyperbole, a true public intellectual. The guy had ideas, lot of them. Not everyone in public life thinks enough to actually have ideas about big issues. He did.
If you want to know what a newspaper looked like 25 years ago go back and look at the Lewiston Morning Tribune when Swisher ran the night desk. The paper was breaking news – real news – almost every day. He paid attention to institutions, like the State Board of Education, the PUC and House Business Committee. He’d been on the inside and knew were the public might get shafted and as an editor he was comfortable pulling back the veil.
Former Gov. Andrus told Idaho Statesman reporter Rocky Barker that Swisher was “an Idaho icon,” although he probably cost Andrus the governorship in 1966 with his independent run. Swisher polled almost 31,000 votes in a four-way race and Andrus lost to Republican Don Samuelson by just over 10,000. Both Andrus and Swisher supported the newly enacted Idaho sales tax that year, the issue that dominated the race, and Samuelson didn’t. It doesn’t require a political science degree to conclude that Swisher took pro-sales tax votes from the Democrat Andrus, particularly in Democratic leaning counties like Bannock and Nez Perce.
Another former governor, Phil Batt, told Barker that Swisher was an outstanding legislator, which I took to mean Swish knew how to get to “yes” and it didn’t often require a heavy dose of partisanship.
Perry Swisher was old school. He liked a drink and a good story. He read everything and applied his knowledge. I never had a sense he cared what anyone thought of him or his ideas. He was comfortable being what he was – smart, opinionated, candid and funny. Not always right, but never in doubt.
I’m glad I knew him. Idaho should be glad he flashed across our political and journalism sky. He lived a full life and left a mark, a measure for anyone to aspire to. When people remember Swish I’m betting they bemoan that there aren’t more like him; more true, intelligent, candid independents.