The Senator From Alaska

StevensRemembering Ted Stevens

I wanted to feature this photo of former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens for one reason. Stevens is smiling, something he seemed rarely to do – at least in public. A more common Stevens image captured him as a scowling, angry guy, given to instant fits that displayed his legendary temper. A D.C. magazine once voted him the “hottest” senator and not for his chiseled good looks.

Stevens, the longest serving Republican senator in the country’s history, died Monday night in a back country plane crash in Alaska, the state he represented in the Senate for 40 years. Stevens was 86 and scandal and controversy and temper aside he deserves to be remembered as one of the most influential senators of the second half of the 20th Century.

I can’t say I really knew the man, but did interview him on two occasions and both were memorable. In 1980, Republicans captured control of the Senate for the first time in memory in the election that saw a slew of western senators, Stevens included, elevated to committee chairmanships. Stevens went on to run the Appropriations and Commerce Committees with a loud voice and a fast gavel and, of course, with a slab of bacon for the Last Frontier always first in his mind.

I was producing public television programs in 1980 and some how was able to convince the boss to send me and a photographer (current Idaho Public Television General Manager Peter Morrill) to Washington to do an hour-long special on the newly powerful GOP. Stevens graciously sat for an interview and gave the yokels from Idaho plenty of his time.

Years later I was working on a piece for Montana Magazine on the late, great Montana Senator and Majority Leader Mike Mansfield. I’d been told by a former Mansfield aide that I really needed to get to Stevens who, the aide assured me, would tell me a great story about his relationship with the famous Montanan.

Thanks for my old boss, Cecil Andrus, who had clashed many a time with Stevens over Alaska issues, but who nevertheless maintained a healthy respect for the senator, which Stevens reciprocated, I was able to connect with Stevens on the phone.

He told me a remarkable story of how, as a freshman senator, Mansfield has shown him an unprecedented degree of respect and courtesy and imbued Stevens with the notion that every single member of the Senate has a right to be taken seriously on every single issue. He ended by saying, in words I’ll never forget coming from a Republican about a Democrat, “Mike was the best leader the Senate has ever seen.”

Ted Stevens was tough on environmentalists and those who dared to cross him. He was a champion of the earmark back before speaking ill of federal appropriations became a litmus test for every politician. By one count, Stevens had a hand in nearly 1,500 earmarks over his Senate career worth more than $3.4 billion. Like his friend the late Robert Byrd, Stevens came to the Senate to take care of his state and that meant appropriating money for projects back home.

He was, as has been said of lesser men, not always right, but seldom in doubt. Stevens once proclaimed, while chairing the Appropriations Committee, “I’m a mean, miserable S.O.B.”

On another occasion, he said: “I didn’t lose my temper. I know right where it is.”

Ted Stevens was also part of a vanishing breed, a throw back to the Senate of Mansfield and Jackson, Church and Baker, Long and Dole. Theirs was a Senate were, once in a while, serious legislation got considered and past without the incredible partisanship displayed today by both parties.

Much will be made of the fact that Stevens’ death came in a plane crash, the same awful circumstance that claimed his first wife and nearly killed him in 1978. Considering his eventful life, including flying Army Air Force transports over “The Hump” in the Himalayas ferrying supplies from India to China in World War II, it seems like a eerily fateful ending to more than eight decades.

In his Senate farewell, Stevens summed up his career: “To hell with politics, just do what’s right for Alaska.” That’s pretty much how he’ll be remembered, I suspect.

With Byrd’s death earlier this year, we’ve now seen the passing of two old and tough Senate bulls, a type not around any more. They’ll both be remembered for a long time – and should be.

The Richest Hill on Earth

butteDoig’s Historic Fiction…Butte in 1919

By 1919, Butte, Montana had fully made the transition from mining camp to industrial city. It is no exaggeration to say that the copper mining city, a mile high in the Rockies, was the most important mining center in the country. What a place it must have been – ethnically diverse, a cauldron of labor unrest; a place where culture, politics and big business collided.

Ivan Doig’s latest book – Work Song – deals with all this history in a compelling, engaging way that liberally mixes a novel’s plot with historical background. Doig understands what makes Butte such a fascinating and enduringly important place. In a recent interview with the Seattle Times the author of novels, non-fiction and a great memoir This House of Sky said that he encounters people from Butte at his book reading/signing sessions and “they’re still proud of Butte and still taken with it.”

Julia Keller, the cultural critic for the Chicago Tribune, like me, really enjoyed the new Doig, saying it captures the American spirit.

Keller wrote, “Doig, grand storyteller that he is, understands this (spirit). His books — with “Work Song,” the tally hits 13 — explore the American West with humor and pathos. His men and women are drifters, gamblers, barkeeps, landladies, cowboys, thugs, poets and librarians, and that’s just the smallest peek at his census.”

The New York Times featured Work Song in the Sunday Book Review and also did an interview with Doig about his own work and reading habits. Big surprise for a guy writing about Butte, he loves Roddy Doyle’s book The Commitments about a band of young Irish musicians in Dublin.

Doig has long objected, in his gentle and gentlemanly way, to being characterized as a “western writer.” Tim Rutten, writing in the Los Angeles Times gives him his due. “Ivan Doig is an exemplary regional voice in American letters,” Rutten says, “which simply means he is a very fine writer who has chosen to site his work in the West, particularly in Montana, where he was born and grew up.”

Among the reviews of Work Song that I reviewed, only the Washington Post’s Jonathan Yardley took shots at the tight, little historical novel calling it “uninviting” and “a world-class dud” among other pejoratives. I can’t agree.

I wonder if the typically provocative Yardley has ever been to Butte. In 1919, the Anaconda Company, the powerful economic and political force in Montana, secretly owned virtually all the newspapers in the state and, of course, in his book Doig pokes many sticks at “the company.”

I’m not suggesting that the eminent critic of the Washington Post is some how secretly carrying water for the long-dead Anaconda Company, but his review is every bit as much of a polemic as you might have found on the front page of the company’s Butte newspaper in 1919. Which is to say, read Work Song for yourself and see if its not a pretty decent summer read with a realistic dose of the truth-stranger-than-fiction history of the “richest hill on earth.”

This House of Sky

white sulphurOn the Road to No Where and Everywhere

In his classic memoir – This House of SkyIvan Doig writes of the country in the very middle of Montana, the country where he grew up, and he celebrates the beauty and the challenges of the landscape.

“The country’s arithmetic tells it,” Doig wrote. “The very floor of the Smith River Valley rests one full mile above sea level. Many of the homesteads were set into the foothills hundreds of feet above that. The cold, storm-making mountains climb thousands of feet more into the clouds bellying over the Continental Divide to the west. Whatever the prospects might seem in a dreamy look around, the settlers were trying a slab of lofty country which often would be too cold and dry for their crops, too open to a killing winter for their cattle and sheep.”

Even after a generation of trying to carve a life and a living out of this rough and beautiful country, Doig remembered, “a settling family might take account and find that the most plentiful things around them still were sagebrush and wind.”

Welcome to Meagher County, Montana.

The county seat of Meagher County – White Sulphur Springs – is close to little that “modern civilization” would value and in the middle of all that is important. The county, current population estimate is 1,868, is named after a complicated (notorious) Civil War general, was birthplace of Doig and once attracted the investment dollars of John Ringling, the circus entrepreneur and railroad builder. There isn’t much in Ringling, Montana (south of White Sulphur) these days, but John – one of the five circus brothers – once dreamed of a railroad linking Yellowstone and Glacier Parks with his luxury hotel at the half way mark. As Ivan Doig says, many came to this rough and lovely land with big dreams and not all made it work. Ringling’s railroad made it 22 miles and the hotel never got built.

Two remarkable people who did make it work in central Montana – Jamie and Jock Doggett – have made a major difference in Meagher County, Montana and beyond. The Doggetts live on the old place that Ivan Doig once called home and they are the kinds of people who make the West – and the world – work.

Jamie has been a country commissioner, organizes the annual – 6th annual this weekend – Meagher County Book Festival and seems to serve as the unofficial hostess of the county. Jock seems at one with this place – hard working, serious, very smart and, even better, wise. He is quick with a quip and quicker with his courteous, yet candid take on all things from the price of lambs to what’s happening at the Senior Center in town. He’s the kind of guy you trust with the keys to the new pick-up or your safe deposit box.

I met Jamie more than a decade ago when we served together on the board of the Federation of State Humanities Councils. She had chaired the Montana council. I’d done the same in Idaho. As two “non-academics,” given a chance to see what the power of “the public humanities” can do to change lives, we found some of the greatest change in our own lives. Both Jamie and I are nuts for history and love to examine the interplay and interdependence of cultures. Continuing her work in the humanities, Jamie is now a presidential appointee to the National Council for the Humanities.

Last Friday night, Jamie helped organize a talk in White Sulphur Springs by a Crow Indian woman and former National Park Service ranger, Mardell Plainfeather, that had a crowd enraptured. Her presentation focused on the tradition of Crow clothing as art, but her real message, as she said gently, is that we are all just people who can learn from one another.

The real power of the humanities is the liberation and power contained in critical thinking, leavened by a dose of history, literature and the other humanities disciplines. If you want to understand the world – and each other – a little better, check out the website for your state humanities council. It just might change your life.

I had never been this far into central Montana until last Thursday when we rolled into the Doggett’s Camas Creek Ranch and spent two unforgettable days beginning to understand how in touch with the land and their neighbors the Doggetts truly are. Living in a city – even a modest sized city like Boise – often precludes a chance to listen to the silence, watch a thunderstorm develop, or simply sit and swap old stories with an old friend. The pace in the Smith River Valley may not be slower, just better.

At the same time, life is demanding on the high plains of central Montana. Lots of folks – This House of Sky is my proof – just couldn’t make it here. It is not country for the uncertain. Maybe that’s why sensible talk about the latest book read, a Friday night conversation about what the Crow culture has to offer to a bunch of late arrivers, or how the high school football team will do this fall seems a little more important and a little more human.

It’s easy to romanticize the American West. It can be, and always has been, a place of conflict and controversy. Nothing comes easy. Not everyone is a saint. Hard work and a few scoundrels built the West. There is no Marlboro Man, never was, only complex people and sagebrush and wind. Still every place – in the West and beyond and Meagher County is lucky – needs a pair like the Doggetts; people who give and care and value history and not just their own.

Like a beautiful book that stays with you forever, good people and good intentions can change a lot for the better.

Ivan Doig’s beautiful book about growing up in Montana is really about the landscapes we all carry around in our minds, forever. I’ve now been to the floor of the Smith River Valley, up the road to Camas Creek, on the road to no where and everywhere. I’ll have those memories of landscape – and wonderful people – with me until the last day and, who knows, beyond.

Tomorrow…some more thoughts from Montana on Doig’s latest book – Work Song.

Idaho Baseball

IDhailey-baseballteam1rWho Were the Best Ever From Idaho?

As far as I know, none of the guys in the photo nearby – a ball club from Hailey, Idaho in about 1910 – ever made a baseball name for themselves outside of the Wood River Valley. Hailey, or Idaho for that matter, hasn’t ever been in the fast lane for pro baseball players, although the great state has produced a few genuinely talented players.

Harmon Killebrew, the “Payette Strongboy,” comes first to mind. Killebrew had a great major league career with the old Washington Senators and the later Minnesota Twins. he is 11th on the all-time home run list and did it by eating steak rather than injecting steroids. Any guy in the Hall of Fame – Harmon was elected in 1984 – should be on the “all-time, all-state” team.

Steve Crump, the columnist with the Times-News who has a fine eye for Idaho history, recently compiled his all-time list of players with at least some tie to Idaho. Crump identified three other Hall of Famers who at least had a cup of coffee in Idaho on the way to bigger things – the great Walter Johnson (played in Weiser in 1907), Reggie Jackson (played in Lewiston in 1966) and Ricky Henderson (played in Boise in 1976).

As good as Steve’s list is – and aren’t these kinds of lists fun to debate – I would argue for a mention of the late Larry Jackson, a native of Nampa, as among the all-time, all-Idaho team. Jackson, a right handed pitcher, had a 14-year career with the Cardinals, the Cubs and the Phillies and a career record of 194-183 and a highly respectable 3.40 ERA. Jackson broke in with the Cardinels at the tender age of 23 in 1955.

Another baseball great, Maury Wills, the base stealer, said of Jackson: “Larry Jackson has one hell of a slider. He also had a questionable balk move that was rough on a base runner. He got away with it, though, because he was a veteran.”

Sounds like the lament of a guy who had trouble getting a good jump. Jackson also had two career home runs back in the good old days when all pitchers had to walk to the plate.

Larry Jackson also holds the distinction of being the best Idaho baseball player to have a serious political career. Jackson served in the Idaho House of Representatives, rose to chair the Appropriations Committee, ran the state Republican Party operation and ran for governor in 1978. I remember him as a quiet, effective, open guy. I covered his political career, but wasn’t smart enough to really have a conversation about his earlier career in the big leagues.

Jackson angered a few fellow Republicans in 1986 when he endorsed Democrat Cecil D. Andrus for governor. Larry Jackson died too young in 1990.

Good ball player. Good guy.

Hope over Experience

efork_bitterroot1-dayle-langley2It Will Be Different on the Next Cast

I’m convinced that fly fishing – much like politics – is a simple matter of hope overcoming experience. You can pursue the wily cutthroat for hours – days – and still believe that the next cast, the next perfect march of fly through riffle, will produce the fish that will keep you coming back and back.

Politicians, even successful ones, must practice the same “hope over experience” approach when wooing voters, building support and passing legislation. In both pursuits, you fail much more often than you succeed. Still, the pursuer of votes must believe that the next handshake, like the next successful presentation of an elk hair caddis, will produce affirmation, success and hope over experience.

In baseball, if you hit safely three times out of ten, you can get to the Hall of Fame. The success rate on a stretch of trout water or under a capitol dome is much, much lower.

Fly fishing (politics, too) is – excuse me – a brainy pursuit. It is all about practice, patience and persistence. You have to think about many things at once and if your mind wanders, even a bit, your fly is in the bushes or your waders are full of very cold water. Same thing in politics, although I know a lot more politicians than fishermen (or women) who can’t get their line untangled, if you get my drift.

The relative lack of success in trout fishing may explain why certain types of people – politicians – gravitate to the sport. Two of our brainiest presidents – Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter – were passionate fly fishermen. They also generally rank as among the most unsuccessful presidents. I would argue both have been victims of a bad rap in the history books. It’s time for some revisionism about both men – both engineers, both self made from humble beginnings who took up the fly rod for recreational and intellectual reasons.

Hoover once said, “Fishing is a… discipline in the equality of men – for all men are equal before fish.” That sounds like something Hoover would have said, but the old engineer was right. Forever the engineer, Carter has written well about fishing and become an expert fly tier.

Carrying all that baggage from the Great Depression – Carter had his own Iranian hostage baggage to lug around – helps me understand why a brainy politician, who didn’t succeed all that well at his chosen profession would seek solace on a stretch of water. Unlike politics, fishing is a solitary pursuit. Man against trout. And even when we know the river and its inhabitants will win the vast majority of the time, we keep casting. Hope over experience.

“Fishing is much more than fish,” Hoover also said. “It is the great occasion when we may return to the fine simplicity of our forefathers.”

Amen. Any president who knew that simple fact can’t be all bad. I’ll think about the much maligned engineer/politicians from West Branch and Plains today when I am unsuccessful the vast majority of the time, but still loving every minute of it.

The Western Industrial Age

smelterAnaconda…Then and Now

It has been said that Butte, Montana is where the frontier intersected with the Industrial Age. If that’s true, then just down the road in Anaconda is where the Industrial Age built its monumental smoke stack.

No black/grey smoke pours from the old Anaconda Washoe smelter these days and the smelter jobs left along with the smoke. The smelter has been closed since 1980, but the history – and environmental legacy – remains, as does the stack. Taller than the Washington Monument and the largest free standing masonry structure in the world, the Anaconda stack still looms over the old smelter town as a constant reminder of what once ruled here – copper and the “Company,” as the Anaconda Mining Company was known.

Today, Anaconda is continuing to reinvent itself as an outdoor recreation center and a tourism destination. The stack is a state park and on the National Historic Register. The Jack Nicklaus-designed Old Works golf course is one of the best public courses in the country. Still, the history of the Industrial Age bumping up against the frontier oozes from the streets here. The Hibernians still have a hall, you can still buy fresh pasties and the high school team is called the Copperheads. Among a few spectacular historic homes, the houses once occupied by the smelter workers stand so close together the eaves overlap.

This past weekend was reunion weekend for some grads of what were once the two high schools in Anaconda. We had breakfast with a couple of the graduates of the Class of 1969. I asked one of them, now a resident of Southern California and wearing a USC tee shirt, when he had left Anaconda. “When I was 18 years old,” came his quick reply. In other words, as soon as he could get out of town.

Another charming fellow – with Anaconda in his blood and memory – quickly added that he had worked his last summer job before college at the smelter. “If you were going off to college,” he said, “they made sure you had a job at the smelter. They were good about that…they just didn’t tell you it might kill you.”

The closing of the Washoe Smelter didn’t kill Anaconda, as some had predicted. The environmental clean up continues, as do the memories of one of the most spectacular and most consequential chapters in the industrial development of the American West. Anaconda is worth a visit to see a survival story and an important piece of American and Western history.