Thirty years ago this month then-Idaho Governor Cecil D. Andrus willfully and with malice aforethought sparked one of the most consequential confrontations of the nuclear age. The Idaho governor, a rangy, bald-headed one-time lumberjack from Orofino, took on the federal government in a way few, if any, Idaho politicians ever had before, or has since.
I have many vivid memories of working for Andrus those long years ago, but no memory remains more evocative than when the governor of Idaho called the bluff of the Department of Energy over nuclear waste. We are still feeling the ripples of that encounter and Idaho, thanks to dozens of subsequent actions, including a landmark agreement negotiated by Andrus’s successor Phil Batt, has gotten rid of a good part of its nuclear waste stockpile. If current state leaders are half as smart as Andrus and Batt they will fight to retain the leverage Idaho has to get rid of the rest.
On a crisp fall day in 1988 Andrus and I flew to Carlsbad, New Mexico, a town in the southeastern corner of the state at the time better known for its caverns than for its starring role in a governmental showdown. Carlsbad was once the potash capitol of the country and had long been a place where extracting value from the earth dominated the economy. When potash ceased to be an economic driver for the region the powers to be in Eddy County went looking for a future. They found some level of economic salvation in nuclear waste. Andrus was there to help realize their expectations and in the process help Idaho.
Years earlier, as Secretary of the Interior, Andrus had become a Carlsbad favorite for his attention to local issues – Carlsbad Caverns National Park in the domain of the Interior Department is nearby – and because of the respect he enjoyed the locals made him an honorary member of the Eddy County Sheriff’s Posse. As a member of the august group Andrus was able to sport the outfit’s signature Stetson, a big hat hard to miss in a crowd. The Stetson was a scintillating shade of turquoise.
Wearing his colorful headgear, Andrus arrived in Carlsbad thirty years ago to “tour” the then-unfinished Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), a massive cavern carved out of the deep salt formations under southeastern New Mexico. Years earlier the Department of Energy (DOE), then as now the single most incompetent bureaucracy in the federal government, had determined that the salt formations would be the ideal place to permanently dispose of certain types of extremely long-lived radioactive waste. Encased thousands of feet below ground in salt that had existed for hundreds if not millions of years and never touched by water, the waste would be safe. The science was sound even if DOE’s execution of a plan to prepare the facility for waste was deeply flawed.
Andrus’s WIPP inspection left him convinced that the only way to move DOE’s bureaucracy was to manufacture a crisis. His motive, of course, was to shine a light on DOE management failures, but also advancing the day when nuclear waste that had been sitting in Idaho for years would be permanently removed to New Mexico. He returned to Idaho and closed the state’s borders to any more waste, declaring, “I’m not in the garbage business any more.”
I remember asking Andrus if he really had the legal authority to take an action that seemed sure to end up in court. He smiled and said, “ I may not have the legal authority, but I have the moral authority. Let them try to stop me.”
The audacious action had precisely the effect Idaho’s governor intended. The nation’s decades of failures managing its massive stockpile of nuclear waste became, at least for a while, a national issue. The New York Times printed a photo of an Idaho state trooper standing guard over a rail car of waste on a siding near Blackfoot. DOE blinked and eventually took that shipment back to Colorado.
A now retired senior DOE official recently told me Andrus’s action was the catalyst to get the New Mexico facility operational. His gutsy leadership also highlighted the political reality that Idaho’s rebellion against the feds might easily spread. Subsequent litigation, various agreements and better DOE focus, at least temporarily, lead to the opening of the WIPP site in 1999 and some of the waste stored in Idaho began moving south.
With the perfect hindsight of thirty years it is also clear that Idaho’s willingness to take on the federal government did not, as many of the state’s Republicans claimed at the time, hurt the Idaho National Laboratory. Republican Governor Phil Batt’s 1995 agreement, which Andrus zealously defended up until his death last year, continues to provide Idaho with the best roadmap any state has for cleaning up and properly disposing of waste. Idaho would be foolish to squander any of the leverage it has thanks to the work Andrus and Batt did to hold the federal government accountable.
But, of course, some Idahoans continue to talk about waste accommodation with DOE, even as deadlines for more removal and clean up are missed and the DOE behemoth stumbles forward. A former Texas governor who once advocated eliminating the agency now heads DOE. As Michael Lewis demonstrates in his scary new book The Fifth Risk, DOE Secretary Rick Perry is little more than a figurehead acting out a role that is both “ceremonial and bizarre.” According to Lewis’s telling, Perry didn’t even bother to ask for a briefing on any DOE program when he arrived.
Meanwhile Perry’s boss recently announced in Nevada, a state where waste is about as popular as a busted flush, that he’s opposed to eventually opening the Yucca Mountain site as a permanent repository for very high-level nuclear waste. Donald Trump made that statement even as his own budget contains millions of our dollars to work on opening the very facility.
Federal government incoherence obviously continues. Cece Andrus confronted it thirty years ago. He was right then and we can still learn from his leadership.
Former Idaho Governor and Secretary of the Interior Cecil D. Andrus died on August 24, 2017 in Boise. He was a day short of his 86th birthday. I was lucky enough to meet him in the mid-1970s and even more fortunate to work with him from 1986 on.
He was simply the best and greatest man I have ever known. I was honored and humbled to offer a remembrance for a packed house of family and friends at a memorial service in Boise last week. Below is what I said about a personal and political giant.
Cecil Andrus had, in almost every respect, a quintessentially American kind of life rising from the most modest beginnings to the far heights of political and personal accomplishment, and frequently his many and varied victories came in the face of the longest of odds.
Reflect for a moment on those humble begins in rural Oregon: The governor told of learning, as a youngster along with brother Steve, how to hunt and fish, and not merely for enjoyment, but because a successful hunting or fishing expedition put food on the family table. You can understand the seeds there of a life long love of hunting, fishing and the outdoors. He would joke in his retirement that with an elk in the freezer he and Carol could make it through the winter.
These early Oregon days were before there was a Bonneville Power Administration or the REA, electricity was scarce in the rural west. He vividly recalled his dad using the car battery to power the family radio set so that everyone could listen to Franklin Roosevelt’s Fire Side Chats. And he embraced throughout his political life the lessons of FDR’s New Deal, as well as the buck-stops-here pragmatism of Harry Truman. Politics, he thought, should be an honorable calling since it should always be about improving the lives of people. And government was the tool to make the improvements.
He never forgot where he came from.
Years after working long days in the woods, after serving in the Cabinet, after meeting the Pope, and presidents, and titans of industry, and after conserving vast swaths of America’s last frontier, he could still walk the walk and talk the talk of a gyppo logger from north Idaho. Some wise guy once conceived of a campaign commercial where the governor donned a hardhat and cork boots and wielded a chain saw to cut down the biggest dang Ponderosa pine you can imagine.
This was 1986, and probably 20 years after his last logging job, and he dropped that tree right where it was supposed to be.
He never forgot where he came from.
To those who had the honor to work for him – with him – he was role model, mentor, inspiration and surrogate father. He was simply a wonderful guy to work with. It was fun, demanding and important work, and, in my case, his taking a flier on me and bringing me into his orbit absolutely changed my life – and all for the good. I even adopted his hairstyle.
A Political Accident…
All of you know the broad outline of his story, but permit me for a moment to draw the big picture that, I think, helps us understand what will be his enduring legacy. He was elected at age 29 to the state senate from Clearwater County by defeating an incumbent Republican. He had never before held political office. Elected governor at age 39 in 1970, he became the first Democratic governor in Idaho in sixteen years. He defeated an incumbent Republican that year by gaining 52 percent of the vote. Four years later, he won re-election in a crushing landslide – 71 percent of the vote.
His political and personal skills and his first-rate intellect next took him to the president’s Cabinet – the first Idahoan to ever serve there.
Following service in the Carter Administration he returned to Idaho, in and of itself a remarkable fact since “Potomac Fever” is a powerful affliction, but it never settled on Cece Andrus.
In 1986, he was trying again to win what he often called “the best political job in the world,” and he won a very close election for governor with just under 50 percent of the vote. Four years later, he won an unprecedented fourth term in another landslide – more than 68 percent of the vote.
I like to say he was elected four times in three different decades, a Democrat in one of the most Republican states in the nation, a conservationist in a state where timber, mining and agriculture were paramount. He built a record of remarkable legislative accomplishment that occurred while his party never once controlled either house of the state legislature.
I remember going to Marsing during that 1986 campaign and seeing a pick-up truck with an Andrus sticker on the left rear bumper and a Steve Symms sticker on the right rear bumper. That is the definition of bipartisan appeal. He never would have won all those elections without having remarkable appeal all across the political spectrum.
And there was a discernible pattern in his political life, and his victories were no flukes. He would win an election narrowly, as in 1970 and again 1986, and then, after showing voters how well he led and how much he cared – in other words the more the voters saw him in action the better they liked him – he won the two greatest victories in modern Idaho gubernatorial history. You need to go all the way back to 1896 and Frank Steunenberg to find another gubernatorial election won by a larger margin that Cece Andrus’ margins in 1974 and 1990.
And after he won he led, and he governed. Permit the editorial opinion that we could use a little bit more of that formula in our politics today.
Historians will sort this out, but I think it is fair to argue that no politician in the history of Idaho had a bigger impact for good for more people for a longer period of time than Cece Andrus.
He was, to appropriate the title from Bernard Malamud’s great novel, he was indeed The Natural. He believed, as Churchill said, that you had to be an optimist – it simply wasn’t much use to be anything else.
I have rarely met another person, let alone a politician, so completely comfortable in his own skin as was Cece Andrus. He was the very definition of the old saying: What you see is what you get. No pretense. No artifice. No overstuffed self-importance. Cece Andrus never met a stranger and never had to master the politician’s trick of faking sincerity.
He liked being Cece Andrus – and who wouldn’t?
What you saw is what he was: confident, decisive, almost always the smartest guy in the room, but never one to believe it of himself. He rarely – as in never – seemed to have a bad day. He had an amazing capacity for work and analysis, but also a remarkable ability to make a tough decision and never second-guess that decision. He also displayed, more than any other quality, a genuine regard for people, which I would submit was the secret sauce of his astounding political success and why he remains, nearly a quarter century after leaving public office, the most popular Idaho politician of the modern era. He really liked people. And they liked him precisely because he was – to use a phrase political consults employ today – he was authentic.
To Carol, Tana, Tracy, Kelly, Monica, Morgan, Andrew and great granddaughter Casey and all the extended Andrus family: At this difficult time and while still coming to grips with such a great loss please know we hold all of you in our hearts and in our prayers. While we gather today to celebrate the governor’s remarkable life and legacy we are all too aware that no words can really ease the hurt you feel.
Still, it would be our collective hope that the sentiments, the images, the music and the outpouring of love and affection from all gathered here, as well as the collective memory of what he has meant to all of us, will begin to bring some degree of peace.
We confront today, each of us, the realization that no matter how large the hurt, no matter how awful the loss, we can – and we should – take profound inspiration from Cece Andrus’ life. He would tell us, I think, that when faced with adversity we have only one choice – to move ahead, to step confidently, as he would, toward the bright sunshine on the next high hill, to envision and work for a better future, and to never indulge in the darkness of despair.
He once said, in reflecting on his long career, that when things change we need to change to meet the new circumstances. He was nothing if not an agent of change, and he was always – always – focused on the future.
And we remember that great sense of humor, those flashing eyes, and the perfectly delivered self-deprecating joke. We all have a Cece story.
Here is a favorite of mine: it was August 1986, and he was locked in a tough campaign for a third term as governor. As well known as Cece Andrus was at that time, he had been off the ballot for a dozen years, away from the state for four years and he was a blank slate for a significant number of Idahoans. Practicing the best kind of politics – the retail, handshaking and visiting kind of politics – we were trying to get him in personal contact with as many voters are possible. But on this particular hot August day we didn’t have a blessed thing scheduled – no Rotary Club speech, no parade, nothing. Not one to waste a campaign day, he had his tiny paid campaign staff – Larry Meierotto, the campaign manager, Clareene Wharry (of course) and me gather at his office on Bannock Street downtown. He wanted to know what we could do that day to meet some voters.
Larry shuffled through some papers in his lap and said: Well, the Owyhee County Fair starts today. We could drive out to Homedale – as you all know a Democratic stronghold – and work the fairground. Strategy decided we took off mid-afternoon for Homedale. As we arrived at the fairgrounds something just didn’t seem quite right. For one thing no one was around. The fairgrounds were deserted. Armed with a handful of Andrus brochures, the governor set off to find some voters, any voters, and we finally spotted four guys sitting in the shade drinking Coors out of can and smoking cigarettes. He introduced himself and asked these guys where they were from. Nevada, they answered. They were the “carnies” setting up the carnival rides for the Owyhee County Fair that would start – the next day. We went to the fair on the wrong day.
For the rest of my life in the wonderful orbit of Cecil Andrus the Owyhee County Fair became shorthand for anything that didn’t turn out quite right. All he had to do to make a point about a lack of planning or execution was to say those words – “Owyhee County Fair.” And he would frequently add, twinkle in his eye: “That was a real high point of the campaign, talking to four guys in Homedale, all from Nevada who couldn’t vote for me.”
When his hunting mule Ruthie delivered a serious blow to his head during an elk hunting expedition and he was helicoptered off a mountain up above Lowman, I went sprinting down to the emergency department at St. Luke’s not knowing how seriously he had been hurt. About the first person I saw was the National Guard helicopter pilot who had delivered him to the hospital. “How is he doing,” I asked. “I think he’s going to be fine,” the pilot said, “the first thing he asked me when we got him strapped in was whether there was any chance we had a cold beer on board the helicopter.”
He was not the kind of leader who expected perfection, but rather competence. He wasn’t in any way a harsh taskmaster, but he did demand honesty, hard work and really insisted that you harbor a sense of the awe that he felt in having the privilege and responsibility of working for the people of Idaho.
He wasn’t a memo writer and he rarely issued orders, but he did expect everyone who worked for him to be on his or her A-game all the time. And he had standards: Tell the truth; no surprises – if you had a problem you’d better let him know, he didn’t want to read about it in the newspaper – no funny business with expense reimbursements – if you cheated on the small stuff, you’d cheat on the big things, he said – and no drinking at lunch. Think of the problems those simple rules avoided.
When things went wrong, he took responsibility. When things went well, he shared the praise. Ask anyone who ever worked for him and you’ll find that he inspired incredible loyalty. You wanted to work for the guy and no one ever wanted to disappoint the boss.
He led the best way – by example. A good way to measure the character of a politician is to see how people who worked for an elected official regard their experience. I believe I can speak for the so-called “Andrus Mafia” in saying that working for Cece Andrus was the absolute pinnacle of our professional lives.
The Andrus Legacy…
He loved to hunt and fish. And the outdoors, in addition to Carol, his daughters, grandchildren, and great granddaughter, were his great personal passions. He also had, I think, three great political passions. Perhaps above all he valued education. He admired and cared for students and teachers. I’ve always thought one reason he placed such great stock in education was due to the fact that he did not have the chance to complete his own college education. Lord knows that never hampered him, but he always knew that education was the way ahead in the world. He believed every single youngster deserved a first-rate education and he was determined as a legislator and as a governor to do everything he could to emphasize and improve education. It is one of the Three E’s of the Andrus Legacy.
His second E was the economy. First you must make a living, he said, and then he acted on that idea. He promoted Idaho products – like the spuds in those great commercials – and he courted those, like Hewlett-Packard and Micron, who would bring about a diversification of the Idaho economy. But he was also a shrewd and pragmatic dealmaker. He told David Packard that Idaho would be glad to have a big technology company like H-P locate here, but to not expect a bunch of tax giveaways since that wouldn’t be fair to companies already here. H-P came.
Micron needed engineering education in Boise. He found a way to get it done.
He had an astute sense of leadership that helped him navigate domains as different as the Albertson’s boardroom, the White House Cabinet Room, a Land Board meeting or an elk camp. Only after I observed him in action for a while did I conclude, without a doubt, that this guy could have literally done anything in business or in politics. He inspired people to be better than they were and they followed him – the very essence of a great leader.
We have heard a good deal lately about certain people who know the art of the deal. Most of them don’t. Cece Andrus did. Since we are here today on the Boise State University campus I want to relate one of my favorite stories about Andrus the dealmaker. Back in 1974 – long before Bob Kustra – Boise State College was the poor stepsister of Idaho higher education, but even then the Broncos had big aspirations, aspirations shared by the largely Republican delegation from Ada County…and by Cece Andrus.
Here is the art of the Andrus Deal.
The legislation to create Boise State University – rename it from a college – was sitting on Governor Andrus’ desk in 1974 at the precise moment the state senate was considering whether to confirm the nomination to the Public Utilities Commission of a crusty former labor leader from Pocatello by the name of Bob Lenaghan. To say the least, Bob Lenaghan was not a GOP favorite, and Andrus knew he would need a handful of Republican votes to get him confirmed. A potential yes vote rested with a Republican state senator from Ada County by the name of Lyle Cobbs, who just happened to be the sponsor of the legislation to create Boise State University. You may see where this is going.
Literally while the roll call to confirm – or not confirm Bob Lenaghan’s PUC appointment – was proceeding on the senate floor the governor of Idaho dialed the phone and it rang on Senator Cobbs’ desk.
“Lyle, this is the governor…anxious to know how you intend to vote on the PUC appointment.” Long, silent pause on the other end of the line. “Lyle, just so you know, I have your BSU legislation sitting right here on my desk awaiting action…”
The vote to confirm Bob Lenaghan was 18 in favor, 17 opposed. Senator Cobbs cast the deciding vote in favor. At the signing ceremony for the BSU legislation – by the way there is a great photo on the BSU website of the occasion with a rather anxious Lyle Cobbs looking on – the senator quietly asked the governor: “You wouldn’t really have vetoed that bill would you?” Andrus, smiling, said: “Lyle, you’ll never know will you?” The governor got his PUC commissioner, and he helped launch a fine university in one fell swoop.
The third E in the Andrus Legacy is, of course, the environment. He championed the environmental long before it was popular and long after some attempted to make conservation a purely partisan issue. Alaska is the greatest piece of his conservation legacy, but we should remember as well smaller, but no less important victories.
He shamed a timber company in northern Idaho into changing its forest practices when he personally took photographs of a logging job that had messed up a stream.
He told Jack Simplot to clean up the effluent from his potato processing plant on the Snake River or the state would shut it down. Simplot complied.
And all the while he was also a pragmatist. You could have it both ways, he believed, you could build and sustain a strong and vibrant economy, but you could also protect public lands for his generation, for mine and for our kids and grandkids. “First you must make a living,” he said, “but you must have a living that is worthwhile.”
I suspect at one time or another all of us have pondered a fundamental question of human existence: can one individual really make a difference? Can one person in a big and very complicated world make a lasting mark? Cece Andrus’ life is all the proof any of us need that one person can make a difference. If you take nothing else away from this occasion today, please take that lesson from his long and impactful life – one person can have a profound influence for good.
And he showed us how to do it by: Pushing for kindergartens, putting the first women on the Idaho Court of Appeals and Supreme Court, unflinching support for Marilyn Shuler and human rights, the courage to confront the DOE, one of the earliest to question the excesses of the National Rifle Association, one of history’s great crusaders for conservation.
The words repeated over the last few days – Giant, Icon, Legendary – are all true. And Cece Andrus will be remembered for many things not least for his courage and his humanity, not least for the fact that indeed his life did make a huge and lasting difference.
The Best of Us…
Cece Andrus was our North Star – our beacon – inspiring us to be a little better, to think a little bigger, to act a bit more boldly. He was the ultimate people person – big-hearted, generous, fair, and the most loyal of loyal friends. He made us want to walk toward that sunshine on the next high hill.
John Kennedy had inspired him in 1960 at the beginning of his political life, and Barack Obama did much the same nearer the end. Reflecting on the improbably of a black man in the White House, Cece Andrus said, “I can still be inspired. I can still hope.” In turn, he always gave us hope, which is after all along with the love of our family and friends, about all we can surely count on in this world.
His optimism and his sense of hope, his personal decency and his rock solid integrity, and of course his caring is why we loved him, and followed him, and believed in him, and it is why we mourn him. Long after all of us go on to our own just rewards they will still be talking about Cece Andrus.
And, of course, we will continue to admire him and miss him in the days and years to come and we should all try to give him the best possible tribute and live out his example.
We will never, ever forget what he did for his country, his state and for each of us.
The Lewiston Tribunethis week published my remembrance of Mike Mitchell a long-time Idaho legislator and one-time chief of staff to Idaho Governor Cecil D. Andrus. Here’s the piece, written with a smile and a heavy heart.
Generally speaking there are two kinds of people in politics: the show horses and the workhorses. The show horses are often in the game for the title, the attention and because its makes something of them. The workhorses are different. They don’t crowd to the front to take the bows. They go to the meetings, read the bills, master the budget and are in politics because they think they can do something, not just be something.
Long-time Lewiston state legislator Mike Mitchell, who died last week at 91, was a workhorse, or more correctly a draft horse. He pulled the heavy loads in state government and he did so for decades motivated by a fierce commitment to Nez Perce County, his state and to those people at the edges of our system who never seem to have a platform, but deserve an effective voice.
I first met Mike Mitchell in the late 1970s. I was a very junior statehouse reporter. Mitchell, already a legislative veteran, was a minority Democrat on the powerful Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, the legislature’s budget committee. It didn’t take long for even a novice political reporter to appreciate his encyclopedic grasp of the state budget. He was approachable, authoritative and incapable of the kind of partisan animus many politicians can’t seem to avoid. He was funny, often at his own expense. My regard only grew as I came to know him better and better.
During his long years of public service Mitchell mastered the hard, essential, but not very unglamorous work of government. He forgot more about the state budget than most legislators ever learn. He was an expert on corrections and education and, of course, Lewis Clark State College. He knew more about roads and bridges than most Idaho Transportation Department district engineers. Mike was a student of government and his fingerprints are all over Idaho from social work licensing to services for troubled kids.
It is often said, incorrectly, that government must operate more like a business. Mitchell knew something about business – he was a successful businessman, too – but he also knew that government is different than the private sector. Operating successfully in the public arena, particularly as a Democrat in Republican Idaho, requires an appreciation for facts, a commitment to accommodation and a belief in the art of the possible. Success depends on build relationships and trust and credibility, all of which Mike did and that is why so many people who knew him and worked with him praise his ability to bridge the partisan divide. To know him was simply to like him and respect him.
Mike Mitchell wasn’t a big guy, but his heart was. It was made of gold and his backbone made of steel. Mike wasn’t one to shy away from a fight, but he was more comfortable making things work and he did make things work time and again.
I had the singular honor of my life to work with Mike Mitchell and for Cecil D. Andrus, the man Mike replaced in the state senate when Andrus was elected governor for the first time in 1970. Mike became a mentor, a friend, a golfing partner and one of the best joke tellers I’ve ever laughed with.
When he “retired” after Andrus’ 1990 re-election – that retirement didn’t stick and he had a whole second act in politics and public service – I followed him as chief of staff to the governor. I didn’t replace him, however. No one could. He was Mike Mitchell.
There was only one of his kind. He is missed already.
It would be easy – even inevitable – given the dysfunctional state of American politics to just say the heck with it – nothing works any longer and nothing much gets done. I’ve been in that funk and may well slip back soon enough, but today I take heart that politics can still work.
The United States Senate this week completed action on a piece of legislation to protect more than a quarter million acres of some of the most spectacular landscape on the North American continent as Wilderness – with a capital W. The action, eventually coming as the result of a unanimous consent request in the Senate, follows similar approval in the House of Representatives. President Obama’s signature will come next.
The Politics of Effort…
The legislation is largely the result of determined, persistent effort by Idaho Republican Congressman Mike Simpson, a legislator of the old school who actually serves in Congress in order to get things accomplished and not merely to build his resume and court the fringe elements of his own party. Simpson is not the type of lawmaker that many in his party might wish him to be – one of those nameless, faceless members who vote NO, do as little as possible, get re-elected every two years and blame Washington’s shortcomings on “bureaucrats” and “Democrats.”
For the better part of fifteen years Simpson has, often single-handedly, championed greater environmental protections for the high peaks, lush meadows and gin-clear lakes of the Boulder-White Clouds area in his sprawling Congressional district in eastern Idaho. Rather than churn headlines denouncing the environmental movement, Simpson invited them to the table along with ranchers, county commissioners and a host of other interests to find a way to resolve controversies in the Idaho back country that date back decades. None of the parties trusted the others, but Simpson made them reason together with the quiet hard work that is the essence of real politics.
Blessed with a fine staff and the instincts of a patient dealmaker, Simpson worked the problem, understood the perspectives of the various interests and pushed, cajoled, humored, debated, smiled, and worked and waited and never gave up. At any number of points along the way a lesser legislator might well have lost patience, gotten discouraged or just said the hell with it, but Simpson never did, even when blindsided by members of his own party who once unceremoniously knifed his legislation after publicly indicating their support.
I wasn’t alone in concluding that the political process in Washington and the “Hell No Caucus” in Mike Simpson’s own party would never permit passage of another wilderness bill in Idaho. Over time the discouraged and disgruntled placed what little of their faith remained with President Obama. Obama, who has only gotten grief from Idaho Republicans the last seven years and owes the state nothing except maybe a thank you to a handful of Democrats who give him a 2008 caucus victory over Hillary Clinton, hinted that he would use “executive action” to declare the Boulder-White Clouds a National Monument. That potential provided the grease needed to lubricate Simpson’s legislative handiwork and the stalemate was broken.
There is an old maxim that dictates that you can keep your opponents off balance and disadvantaged in politics by displaying just enough unpredictability – even recklessness – that they think you just might be crazy enough to do what they most fear. Idaho Republicans, who had mostly not lifted a finger to help Mike Simpson over the years, came to believe that Obama just might be crazy enough to stick his proclamation pen in their faces and create a monument twice the size of the wilderness Simpson’s proposed.
Make no mistake, whatever they might say now, the determined congressman would not have received the support he ultimately did from other Idaho Republicans had they not feared – really feared – action by the president that would have created an Idaho national monument. It also didn’t hurt that Simpson and conservation-minded Idahoans in both political parties demonstrated broad public support for action on the Boulder-White Clouds.
Victory has a thousand fathers…and mothers…
While it is tempting to gloat about the late comers to the grand cause of environmental protection finally having to cave, it is more important to remember that political victory always has a thousand fathers and mothers. This is a moment to celebrate. Mike Simpson deserves – really deserves – to savor what will be a big part of his political legacy. Idaho conservationists, particularly the Idaho Conservation League and its leadership, deserve to celebrate the role that Idaho’s oldest conservation organization played in creating what some of us thought we would never see again – a wilderness bill in Idaho.
There must be praise for visionaries who came before, particularly including former Governor Cecil D. Andrus who campaigned against an open pit mine in the area in 1970 and later attempted to do what has now been done. The late Idaho Senators Frank Church and Jim McClure deserve a big acknowledgement. Both knew the value of protecting the area and never flagged in their determination to see it accomplished. Countless other Idaho hikers, hunters, fishermen and outdoor recreationists played their indispensable roles as well.
Best of all, unborn generations of Americans will now have a chance to experience one the most remarkable, pristine, and beautiful areas in the entire country, if not the world. American wilderness is landscape and habitat and majesty and solitude, but it is also a state of mind. Knowing we have conserved something so special and so valuable not just for ourselves, but also for the future is truly a priceless gift.
On this one occasion and after decades of work, the good that politics can do reigns supreme. A piece of heaven right here on earth has been saved and we are all the richer for it.
Years ago I enjoyed a delightful series of conversations with John Corlett, a true old-school newspaper reporter in Idaho who could recall political anecdotes with the sharpness that a gambler brings to counting cards in a Las Vegas casino. John’s career spanned a good part of the last century, from Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency to Ronald Reagan’s. He covered political conventions, wrote about statesmen and scalawags and he relished sharing his storehouse of memories every bit as much as I enjoyed hearing those memories.
One of many stories I remember involved former Idaho Governor and U.S. District Judge Chase Clark, the father-in-law of Senator Frank Church. Clark was part of a genuine Idaho political dynasty that featured two governors and a congressman who later became a U.S. Senator. Church married into the dynasty when he wed Bethine, the politically astute daughter of Chase Clark. The Clarks were mostly Democrats, but for bipartisan flavor the family also includes the remarkable Nancy Clark Reynolds, the Congressman’s daughter, and a Ronald Reagan confidante and D.C. power player.
Chase Clark ran for re-election as Idaho governor in 1942 and narrowly lost a re-match election with former Governor C.A. Bottolfson, the man Clark defeated in 1940. But 1942 was a Republican year, the country was at war, Roosevelt was in the second year of his third term and voters everywhere seemed to hanker for change. Corlett remembered that Democrat Clark considered his re-election chances to be less than stellar under those circumstances; so much so that Clark seems to have taken steps to create for himself a soft landing should the election turn out badly from his point of view.
As returns trickled in on election night 1942 it soon became clear that the governor’s race in Idaho would be a cliffhanger. Bottolfson eventually won by 434 votes out of more than 144,000 cast.
The Governor Who Wanted to Lose…
Late on election night as Corlett monitored the vote counting and tried to determine who was winning the very tight contest his phone rang. Governor Clark was on the other end of the line. “John,” he said, “it’s time for you to call the election for Bottolfson.”
Corlett could hardly believe what he was hearing. The incumbent Democrat was effectively conceding the election and doing so hours before it would become clear who the real winner might be. The curious phone call only made sense a few weeks later when Roosevelt announced Clark’s appointment to fill a vacancy on the federal bench in Idaho. A little over a month after leaving office in January 1943, Clark was nominated for the judgeship. He was confirmed by the Senate fifteen days later and served on the federal bench until his death in 1966.
Corlett was convinced that Clark had made a deal with Roosevelt before the election in 1942, a deal to have the president appoint him to the court should he lose, and John believed Clark actually wanted to lose, maybe even planned to lose. For Corlett, Clark’s election night telephone call concession was a political smoking gun. The governor wanted to be a federal judge a good deal more than he wanted to be a governor.
The life tenure of a federal judicial position (assuming good behavior) is just one attractive aspect of the job. The pay isn’t shabby, the working conditions are typically first rate and the retirement benefits quite nice thank you. As they say, “it’s indoor work with no heavy lifting,” unless you consider hours of sitting, listening, reading and writing strenuous. Done correctly, however, the job really should be demanding. It requires a certain temperament and a scholarly demeanor, experience, perspective, learning in the law and an abiding sense of fairness. It helps, as well, to be a real person with an ego in check, someone who is not overly impressed when everyone refers to you as “your honor.”
Idaho’s Next Judge…
I remembered the old John Corlett tale recently as I read the news of the unfolding and very secret process being managed by Idaho’s two Republican United States senators to fill the vacant judgeship on the federal district court in Idaho. As the Spokesman-Review’sBetsy Russell first reported, Senators Mike Crapo and Jim Risch have been quietly – very quietly – interviewing prospective candidates for the federal court position, but, as Russell also reported, two of the most obvious women candidates have not been interviewed, at least not yet.
The senators subsequently released a short statement to the effect that the confidential process was in everyone’s best interest and that men as well as women would be considered. Russell also reported that the current process is a dramatic departure from that used the last time Idaho had a federal court vacancy. In 1995, with Democrat Bill Clinton in the White House, Republican Senators Larry Craig and Dirk Kempthorne created a nine-member bipartisan panel made up of five Democrats and four Republicans. The partisan split was in deference to fact that Democrat Clinton would make the appointment. That process ultimately produced three stellar candidates, including current federal District Judge Lynn Winmill, who was nominated and confirmed and continues to serve with great distinction.
Crapo and Risch could have adopted a similar approach when respected Judge Edward Lodge announced his decision to move to “senior status” in September of last year. That they did not, and that only in the last few days has there been any news about the judicial position, might indicate that the senators aren’t really much focused on producing a candidate that will be both acceptable to them and to the person who under the Constitution actually makes the appointment, Barack Obama.
While its clear under the Constitution that the president “shall nominate, and, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint” federal judges, it is an unwritten fact of life in the United States Senate that no nominee gets approved by the Senate unless the senators of the state involved green light the appointment. This is particularly true when the Senate is controlled, as it now is, by one party while the other party holds the White House.
This political reality cries out, if indeed Idaho’s senators really want to see a judicial appointment while Barack Obama is still in office, for something like the bipartisan approach Craig and Kempthorne employed twenty years ago. It is entirely conceivable that the process now being used will produce a candidate that will turn out to be unacceptable to the White House and that may be what the senators truly desire. In the hardball of Senate politics the Idaho Republicans may have decided, as an Arizona Congressman actually said recently, that Obama should have not more appointments approved – period.
Idaho’s senators may have simply made the political calculation that they will “run out the clock,” while betting that a Republican wins the White House in 2016. Under this scenario Crapo and Risch will have teed up the candidate they want for early consideration by President Jeb Bush, Scott Walker or someone else.
With no more than seventy working days remaining on this year’s Senate calendar and with the Senate surely going into paralysis mode next year with a presidential election looming time will soon dictate whether an Idaho appointment is even possible. Even if Crapo and Risch were to produce a candidate relatively soon the White House and FBI vetting process could take months and extend into next year’s presidential morass. For the two senators this approach could neatly, if unfairly, place the blame for failing to fill the vacancy on the president’s desk.
The statement from Crapo and Risch last week made much of the need for an “entirely confidential” process. But it’s worth asking why? At least two widely mentioned, not particularly political and eminently qualified female candidates – U.S. Attorney Wendy Olson and federal Magistrate Candy Dale – have publicly acknowledge their interest in the appointment. Idaho, of course, is unique in that the state has never had a woman federal district judge. One suspects it is the senators insisting on the confidentially, since applying to become a federal judge, even if you are not selected, is hardly something most Idaho lawyers would hide under a bushel. Merely applying puts one in rare company.
One can certainly understand senatorial prerogatives and the Constitution wisely provides for “advice and consent” from the Senate, but a vacant federal judgeship that comes around maybe once in a generation really doesn’t belong exclusively to two U.S. senators or even to a president. The important job belongs to Idaho and given the nature of Idaho and national politics shouts out for a high degree of transparency.
Advise and Consent…Not So Much…
As this process stumbles forward the White House might consider these political facts:
Idaho’s two senators recently voted against the confirmation of a highly qualified African-American woman to become the first ever attorney general. They based their votes on the fact that Loretta Lynch, a seasoned federal prosecutor, merely said that she agreed with her boss, the president, on his immigration actions; actions admittedly controversial, but also currently under judicial review. Such conservative Senate stalwarts as Mitch McConnell, Orrin Hatch and Jeff Flake voted to confirm Lynch as attorney general, but not Crapo and Risch.
As the old story about Judge Clark in the 1940’s proves, being appointed a federal judge is a highly desirable job. Franklin Roosevelt placed the just defeated Chase Clark on the federal bench in 1942 without, near as I can tell, much if any involvement by Idaho’s two senators at the time.
In fact it’s very likely that Roosevelt could have cared less about the opinion of Senator D. Worth Clark, Chase’s nephew and Nancy Clark Reynold’s father, since Worth Clark was an outspoken opponent of FDR’s foreign policy. Coming as it did from a member of his own party, Roosevelt bitterly resented Clark’s harsh isolationist critique and let it be known that he did.
Senator John W. Thomas, a Republican, who was appointed to replace William Borah when he died in 1940, was, with the exception of foreign policy, philosophically far removed from the man he replaced. Roosevelt both liked and respected Borah even though the two men clashed on many things and had Borah, a long-time member of the Judiciary Committee, lived he certainly would have had a say in filling the Idaho judgeship. With a war to run it’s not hard to speculate that the opinions of Clark and Thomas counted for next to nothing in Roosevelt’s White House. While the Senate did “advise and consent” on Judge Clark, it can safely be said that Idaho’s two senators had very little to say about his appointment.
Perhaps in the current case Mr. Obama ought to engage in some of that dictatorial activity he is so often accused of and go ahead and appoint one of the highly qualified and non-political women candidates to the federal bench. Let Idaho’s senators explain why a sitting U.S. attorney already confirmed by the Senate, or a federal magistrate vetted by her peers, or any number of other qualified women aren’t acceptable. The way things look today President Obama has nothing too lose as the clock winds down on his term and he confronts a judicial selection in Idaho vetted and suggested by two senators who can hardly mention his name without a sneer.
Barack Obama might enjoy, just as Franklin Roosevelt often did, seeing some of his greatest opponents in the Senate squirm just a little. At the very least, Mr. Obama could go down in history as the first president who tried to appoint the first women to the federal bench in Idaho.
There is a wide-open field on the Republican side for the presidential nomination, with at least a half dozen serious contenders, while the lame duck Democrat in the White House, one of the most polarizing figures in modern American politics, struggles with foreign policy challenges which have emboldened his fierce critics in both parties and submerged his domestic agenda. The foreign policy challenges involve questions about the effectiveness of military aid in bloody conflicts that may, or may not, involve strategic American interests, as well as the proper response to brutal foreign dictators determined to expand their influence in central Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
The incumbent in the White House, elected with promises of “hope and change,” has lost his once large majorities in both houses of Congress and, while he remains a profoundly talented communicator and is still popular with many voters, others have grown tired of his aloof manner and the fact that he surrounds himself with a tiny corps of advisors who tend to shut off competing points of view. Even his wife can be a polarizing figure with some criticizing everything from her priorities to her wardrobe.
A fragile economic recovery continues to sputter along, while memories remain fresh of an economic collapse that rivals anything that has happened in three-quarters of a century. Half the country blames Wall Street, eastern bankers and the well-heeled for the economic troubles, while the other half laments excessive regulation, increasing debt and bloated federal government that is constantly expanding its role in American life. The country is deeply divided by race, class and religious differences.
The year is…2016? No…actually 1940.
The Most Important Election in Our Lifetime…Not Really…
The claim heard every four years that “this is the most important election in our lifetime (or in our history), it is, of course, nonsense. We don’t have “critical elections” every four years, but in fact have really only had a handful of truly “critical” elections in our history. In my view the two most important were 1864, when Abraham Lincoln defeated George McClellan thereby ensuring that the great Civil War would be fought to its ultimate end and achieve its ultimate goal, the abolition of slavery, and 1940 when Franklin D. Roosevelt broke with long-established political tradition and sought and won a third term. Roosevelt’s election, although it would have been hard to see clearly at the time, sealed the involvement of the United States in World War II and ultimately led to the defeat of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan.
Those two elections (you could add 1860 to the list, as well) had serious consequences that still echo today, the 1940 election particularly since it does have many parallels with what voters will face when they make a choice about the White House in 2016.
Arguably the field for the Republican nomination hasn’t been so completely wide open since 1940. In that election, as today, the GOP was a divided party between its more establishment wing – represented by New Yorker Thomas Dewey – and an insurgent element represented by the party’s eventual nominee in 1940, Indiana-born, former Democrat Wendell Willkie, a true dark horse candidate. The party was also split into isolationist and internationalist camps, with Willkie the leader of the later and Senators Robert Taft of Ohio and Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan leading the Midwestern, isolationist element.
As Many GOP Contenders as 2016…
Ten Republican candidates that year captured at least twenty-eight convention votes, with Dewey leading on the first ballot with 360 votes, still far below the number he would need to win the nomination. The Republican candidates, not unlike today, were a broad and opportunistic bunch ranging from names lost to history – the governor of South Dakota Harland Bushland, for example – to shades of the past like former President Herbert Hoover who amazingly thought he was a viable candidate eight years after losing in a landslide to Roosevelt in 1932.
Dewey lost support on every subsequent ballot, while Willkie and Taft steadily picked up steam. As Charles Peters has written: “To Republicans who liked Franklin Roosevelt’s sympathy for the allies but had a low opinion of his economic policy, Willkie began to look like an interesting presidential possibility. This group was not large in early 1940, but it was highly influential,” not unlike the “establishment wing” of the GOP today, which is tentatively coalescing behind Jeb Bush.
Finally on the sixth ballot Willkie commanded the votes needed to win the nomination and face the man who was the real issue in 1940 – Roosevelt.
By the time the Democrats convened for their convention in Chicago on July 15, 1940 (the Republicans met in Philadelphia in June), few besides FDR knew his intentions with regard to the “no third term” tradition. I’m convinced Roosevelt had decided much earlier to seek another terms, but the master political strategist wanted it to appear that his party was “drafting” him rather than as if he was actively seeking the nomination again.
Roosevelt dispatched his very politically astute wife, Eleanor, to Chicago to subtly, but unmistakably make the case for her husband. It worked and the Democratic Party rushed to embrace FDR – again. This whole story is wonderfully told in Charles Peters’ fine bookFive Days in Philadelphia: The Amazing ‘We Want Willkie!’ Convention of 1940 and How It Freed FDR to Save the Western World.
FDR of course, went on to win the pivotal election of 1940, a rare election in American political history that turned primarily on foreign policy issues. Remarkably, both candidates endorsed the creation of a peace time draft in the middle of the campaign and Roosevelt and Willkie differed only in the most nuanced ways over the big question of whether and how the United States would provide aid to Britain as it struggled to hold off a Nazi invasion and eventually return to the offense against Hitler.
The 1940 campaign, like most political campaigns, had its share of pettiness and overheated rhetoric. Roosevelt was denounced as a “warmonger” and a dictator who would do anything to prolong his hold over the country’s politics. Willkie, a wealthy utility executive who made much of his small-town Indiana upbringing, was derided as “the barefoot boy from Wall Street,” so dubbed by Roosevelt’s Interior Secretary Harold Ickes. It was an open secret that Willkie had a long-time romantic relationship with a woman not his wife, but Roosevelt and the Democrats dare not raise the issue for fear that the “marriage of convenience” between FDR and Eleanor, not to mention the president’s own indiscretions, might become an issue. This would not be a John Edwards or Gary Hart campaign.
The 1940 campaign did involve two talented and serious candidates who openly discussed the big issues of the day and once the voters had spoken, Roosevelt and Willkie put aside personal animosities and linked arms for the good of the country – and the world.
Barack Obama won’t be running for a third term next year. Republicans made certain that would never happen when they recaptured control of the Congress after World War II and adopted the 22nd amendment to the Constitution, but Democrats will be, in effect, seeking a third term with presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton carrying the party banner.
Perhaps all – or almost all – politicians tend to look better in hindsight than they do when they are grubbing for votes, but it would be hard to argue that any of the contenders in either party today could hold their own on a stage with the major party nominees in that pivotal year of 1940.
The stakes were very high that year and Americans had their pick between two serious, quality candidates. Here’s hoping history repeats next year. Looking at the field I have my doubts.
I’m not sure, but this photo may be the last time Democrats smiled about the Affordable Care Act or, if you prefer, Obamacare. President Obama put his signature on his signature legislative accomplishment on March 23, 2010 and, until the last few weeks, from a political standpoint the news has been pretty awful.
First the admissions: Democrats – thank Nancy Pelosi as well as the president for this – completely lost control of any coherent message about the law. Republicans did a masterful job of characterizing the ACA as government run amok. Obama, so the story goes, has Socialized health care in America and shredded the Constitution in the process. Sarah Palin chimed in with her nonsense talk about “death panels.” Democrats failed to respond or failed to respond effectively. Obama fumbled, screwed up, mislead, fabricated (chose your word) the business about liking and keeping your health plan. The roll-out was a first-class mess and we all know about the stupid website. Fundamentally the law, thanks to log rolling in Congress with the drug companies, the device manufactures, doctors, hospitals and insurance companies, is a massively complicated pile of legalize. It was almost as though the president and his supporters were saying, “We could tell you how it will work and how you will benefit, but you’d have to get sick first…”
More importantly from a political point of view the supporters of the law, chiefly including the Commander-in-Chief, never adopted a coherent, consistent, engaging message that might have allowed them to talk to the American people about an issue that has been on the agenda of every Democratic president since Franklin Roosevelt. The debate became about process, ideology and partisanship and not about a better more secure future.
In politics, as in corn flakes, you can’t sell an idea without a believable message. The failure to offer a coherent, believable story about the law is nothing short of political malpractice. Critics will say, of course, that the law is such a mess that it can’t be defended or marketed, but I don’t buy that. Even George W. Bush, initially at least, sold the invasion of Iraq. Creating a system for millions of Americans to have health insurance and a more secure life is surely an easier sell than a war.
Still, four years later the law is the law, upheld by the Supreme Court (or at least by five justices), a survivor of a hundred different efforts by Republicans to repeal it or, better yet from their perspective, use it as a blunt instrument to pummel Democrats in another mid-term election. Apparently – crank up the irony meter – Americans now hate the law so much they have signed up in numbers that have even surprised the law’s biggest supporters. The polls tell us the law is a huge loser – although repeal is even more unpopular – and yet the GOP has placed nearly all of its mid-term eggs in the “we hate Obamacare” basket. All of the party’s 2016 hopefuls have bought into the notion that Obama’s law is the worst things since, well, maybe since Social Security, yet they offer nothing in the way of a better alternative.
In one of his pithy and incisive essays Garry Wills points out that supporters of the law will likely never turn the opponents around. Obama, Wills writes, “made the mistake of thinking that facts matter when a cult is involved. Obamacare is now, for many, haloed with hate, to be fought against with all one’s life. Retaining certitude about its essential evil is a matter of self-respect, honor for one’s allies in the cause, and loathing for one’s opponents. It is a religious commitment.”
Wills reminds us that Social Security was once almost as hated as the ACA, but somehow nearly 80 years on it still stands. “Repealing Obamacare will eventually go the way of repealing the New Deal,” Wills opines. “But the opposition will never fade entirely away—and it may well be strong enough in this year’s elections to determine the outcome. It is something people are willing to sacrifice for and feel noble about. Creeds are not built up out of facts. They are what make people reject all evidence that guns are more the cause of crime than the cure for it. The best preservative for unreason is to make a religion of it.”
The editorial page of the Wall Street Journal with an almost daily discourse on the “failures of the law” or any given George Will column easily serve as the Bible for this new religion. Will’s most recent column excoriating the law and the president concludes with this sweeping indictment of all things Obama: “progressivism is…a top-down, continent-wide tissue of taxes, mandates and other coercions. Is the debate about it over? Not quite.” Reads like a sermon to me.
But let’s talk politics. If Garry Wills is right (and George Will is his proof point) and it follows that Republican voters who have made a religion out of hating Obamacare are the most likely to turn out and vote in the November Congressional elections, what are Democrats to do?
They have two basic choices: Continue to flounder around and try to pretend they can whistle their way past the political graveyard without defending Obama’s law or they can embrace the obvious and begin – finally – to vigorously defend the law and its impact. One of this year’s imperiled Democrats, Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, has adopted Option Two.
“It’s a solid law that needs improvement,” Landrieu told the Washington Post. “My opponent [Republican Bill Cassidy] offers nothing but repeal, repeal, and repeal. And even with all the law’s setbacks, we’re seeing benefits for thousands of people in Louisiana.”
Landrieu continued, “I think the benefits that people have received are worth fighting for.” She citing an end to discrimination against preexisting conditions and extended coverage for young adults on parents’ plans. ”I think Bill Cassidy is going to be at a distinct disadvantage. He has insurance, but he’s also denying it to the 242,000 people” who would qualify if Louisiana expanded Medicaid as it can opt do under the Affordable Care Act.
Her opponent, Landrieu says, “also wants to take coverage away from tens of thousands who have gotten it for the first time.”
There is an old adage in politics that holds “being for something is better than being against something.” Democrats don’t have a choice. They can try to campaign this year by being for a law that admittedly is very controversial and almost universally misunderstood, but that is also of obvious advantage to millions of Americans or they sink again into the defensive crouch they have largely adopted since that smiling day back in March 2010.
Republicans are agin’ it. We know that for certain. Yet, voters must be just as confused about where Republicans stand on issues – providing health care for millions of uninsured, expanding Medicaid, keeping young folks on their parents insurance plans longer and providing coverage for preexisting conditions – as they are confused about what is and isn’t part of the controversial law. This is ground, as Sen. Landrieu suggests, for a real election year debate.
Democrats may not win a religious fight this year over Obamacare, but they won’t even have a chance unless they start throwing a few punches rather than trying to absorb those the other side will continue throwing. Defending a law that more than eight million Americans have embraced and that holds out the hope for a much improved quality of life for millions more seems like something worth fighting for because it really is better to be for something than against everything.
Many Republicans of the generation that created Social Security never came to fully embrace the program, but time, events and public opinion overtook them. Franklin Roosevelt, the father of modern American politics, loved to taunt his opponents by asking them what they would do differently and whether they had an alternative. Those are still good questions.
The United States Senate this week confirmed a new judge, Patricia Millett, to a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. That court is, after the Supreme Court, arguably the most important federal court in the nation. Millett’s confirmation had been stalled for weeks over a partisan dispute, not about her qualifications, but basically over whether a Democratic president would be allowed to make an important appointment to an important federal court.
That standoff helped precipitate the recent change in Senate rules that eliminates the filibuster as a tool of the minority to thwart a president’s federal court and executive branch nominees. When it finally happened the vote to confirm the new judge was mostly along partisan lines, two Republicans – Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins – did vote to confirm.
Regrettably, in my view, partisan politics – and both parties bear some guilt – has taken on a completely outsized role in the selection and confirmation of federal judges. And, remember in the case of new Judge Millett, hardly anyone questioned her strong qualifications for the job. She has been a partner at the white shoe D.C. law firm Akin Gump, she worked at the Justice Department in both Republican and Democratic administrations and argued 32 cases before the Supreme Court. She’s qualified, but partisanship was the stage manager in this case, and unfortunately, has been in many others in the recent past.
Until the 1920’s appointees to the Supreme Court didn’t even go before a Congressional committee for a confirmation hearing. When former Utah Sen. George Sutherland was nomination for a position on the Supreme Court in 1922 his nomination went to the Senate one morning and he was confirmed that afternoon. Admittedly that pace may have been too light on the “advise and consent” role of the Senate, but now days it’s not uncommon for a judicial nominee to hang in confirmation no-man’s (or no-woman’s) land for months. It has become an awful system that will over time further erode public confidence in an independent judiciary and it doesn’t have to be this way.
A small, long ago example from Idaho involving Federal District Judge Edward Lodge (that’s Judge Lodge in the photo) makes the case that judges – and sometimes great judges – are indeed “made” by politicians acting as politicians, but that politics – if practiced wisely – can also help ensure the right man – or woman – ends up in the right job.
Ed Lodge has been on the Federal District Court in Idaho since 1989. He was nominated by Republican George H.W. Bush and confirmed unanimously by the Senate. The Judge, widely respected, even revered by those who know him and practice before him, just passed 24 years on the federal bench and all told Lodge has been a judge in Idaho for half a century. But, it’s Ed Lodge’s time before he came to the attention of the first President Bush – we can thank Sen. Jim McClure for that – that really counts in this little story.
In 1965, Lodge was laboring in relative obscurity as a probate judge in Canyon County, Idaho – Idaho did away with probate judges during judicial reorganization years ago – when a vacancy came open in the state District Court bench in Canyon County. It dawned on a couple of young, northern Idaho legislators – Ed Williams from Lewiston and Cecil Andrus from Orofino, both Democrats, that they might be able to use the Canyon County vacancy to engage in a bit of political mischief at the expense of Republican Gov. Robert E. Smylie and also help create a new judge at the same time.
Smylie, a mover and shaker in national GOP politics, was out of the state for a few days as was his habit; a habit that helped get him in trouble with voters a year later, which meant the governor had left the tending of the state store to his Democratic Lt. Gov. William Drevlow, a old-style party warhorse who hailed from Craigmont. In Idaho, by virtue of the state constitution, when the governor is physically absent from the state the lieutenant governor assumes the governor’s full powers, including the power, if he chooses to use it, to make appointments. If you understand politics perhaps you see where this is going.
According to Andrus, his good friend Williams came up with the idea of trying to convince Lt. Governor Drevlow to act in Smylie’s absence and fill the Canyon County judicial vacancy. But who to appoint? The two north Idaho lawmakers consulted with Rep. Bill Brauner of Caldwell, also a Democrat, and a well-regarded local attorney. (Yes, Canyon County did once upon a time have Democrats in the Idaho Legislature.)
Andrus recalls that another prominent Canyon County attorney and Democrat, Dean Miller, was brought into the discussions and it was Miller who suggested strongly that able young Ed Lodge, who Miller knew personally and professionally, would be a superb candidate to fill the vacancy. All the players in this little tale, save for Andrus and Lodge, are no longer with us to confirm or deny, but Andrus claims none of them were really sure at the time of Lodge’s politics. Lodge was being touted by Democrats who knew him well, after all, and only later did the legislators learn that Republican blood ran in Lodge’s lawyerly veins. Even better they thought. When the stuff inevitably hits the fan the conspirators could fall back on the fact that a Republican-leaning judge had been appointed by a Democrat. What could be more bipartisan?
But the really key thing here is that the mischief makers were not looking simply to make mischief, although that was clearly a motivation, they also wanted to see a capable judge appointed. Politics was played, but the goal of putting a capable candidate on the bench was also achieved.
“We convinced Bill Drevlow, maybe with a little help from John Barleycorn,” Andrus said, “to make the appointment. He knew it would damage his relationship with Bob Smylie, but he really didn’t care. We knew Smylie would be livid, since he must have had his own candidate.” And, one suspects, that didn’t bother the legislators either.
Judge Lodge was appointed to the state court vacancy by Drevlow – the youngest district judge in Idaho at the time – where, by all accounts, he immediately began to acquit himself with real distinction winning awards as the state’s top trial judge and serving for years as the administrative judge of the district. After a short stint as the state’s federal bankruptcy judge President Bush came calling and Lodge went to the federal bench some twenty years after his Democratic benefactors plotted to get him appointed to the Idaho court.
Andrus remembers Smylie being peeved about the whole thing, but as the man who would go on to be elected governor of Idaho four times told me recently, “Smylie could never argue with the fact that the cream rises to the top. And time has proven that Ed Lodge is one of the two or three best federal judges Idaho has ever had.”
Any way you analyze it Ed Lodge has had a distinguished and impactful career. He presided over the Ruby Ridge case, Claude Dallas was in his courtroom, financial responsibilities under the Superfund law in the Silver Valley were hashed out under his watch, and the U.S. Department of Energy was held to account for cleaning up the Idaho nuclear waste legacy of the Cold War. Judge Lodge was honored last summer for his his service and for the longest judicial tenure in Idaho history. His is quite a legacy.
Is there a moral to this little story of political intrigue? It’s entirely possible that Ed Lodge, even without the bipartisan push he got from a bunch of mischief making young Democrats in 1965, would have amassed a distinguished legal career. He might well have made it to the state district court by another route and been ultimately appointed to the federal bench to preside over all those important cases. Who is to say?
Perhaps the only moral, as the old saying goes, is that politics does – or can – make strange bedfellows. And once in a while – not as often as it once did unfortunately – strange bedfellows conspire to help along the career of an able young man, who given the chance became a truly distinguished judge and helped write the history of Idaho for the last half century.
Next time you read a news report about some judicial decision that identifies the judge involved as an “appointee of George Bush” or as a “nominee of Bill Clinton,” think about Judge Lodge. There is more to most judges – and there should be – than the partisan label attached to the person who appointed them. And think about the new and highly qualified D.C. Circuit Court Judge Patricia Millett who came so close to being denied a chance to serve at all because of, well, just politics.
There will always be “politics” involved in the appointment of judges. It’s been that way since John Adams and Thomas Jefferson fought over the shape of the federal judiciary, but too much emphasis on politics must inevitably lead to a too politicized judiciary, which only damages public confidence in the judges and our judicial system. Ed Lodge got his start on the merits. An able young man with supporters on both sides of the aisle then proved over the course of a distinguished career just what he was able to do.
I like to think that is what we call the American Way.
The last time an Idaho governor received a serious primary challenge he lost.
It was 1966 and three-term incumbent Republican Robert E. Smylie, pictured here dressed like he might have been trying out for The Sons of the Pioneers, seemed to be at the zenith of his political power – chairman of the National Governors Association, the senior governor in the nation and a serious player in national politics.
Time magazine took note of Smylie’s re-election announcement in April of 1966 by reporting, “In Idaho, Republican Governor Robert E. Smylie, 51, dean of the nation’s Governors and a 1968 vice-presidential hopeful, filed for a fourth four-year term, which if completed would make his the longest gubernatorial tenure in U.S. history (current record: 15 years, set by Maryland’s Albert C. Ritchie from 1920 through 1934). Smylie, who led the 1965 fight to dump Goldwaterite Dean Burch as G.O.P. national chairman, will campaign on his ‘New Day’ programs of increased state outlays for health, welfare and education financed by a 3% sales tax.”
Time confidently predicted Smylie was “assured” of winning the GOP nomination. He wasn’t. The future vice-presidential hopeful lost his party’s nomination to a little-known state senator from Bonner County named Don Samuelson. That election had dramatic consequences for Idaho’s political history.
“When the primary returns were tabulated,” University of Idaho political scientists Syd Duncombe and Boyd Martin wrote in a post-election analysis, “Samuelson carried all but seven of Idaho’s forty-four counties to defeat Smylie 52,891 to 33,753. One columnist [the Lewiston Morning Tribune’s Robert Myers] attributed Smylie’s defeat to his long term of office, his support of the sales tax, and opposition from Goldwater Republicans stemming from his role in the replacement of Dean Burch.”
Following Arizona Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater’s disastrous 1964 presidential lost to Lyndon Johnson – NBC’s Chet Huntley called Goldwater supporters “classic Republicans, segregationists, Johnsonphobes, desperate conservatives, and radical nuts…the coalition of the discontent” – the moderate wing of the GOP, shoved aside by Goldwater’s hard right followers, set out to reclaim the national party and Bob Smylie helped lead the moderate charge.
One major target of Smylie and the GOP moderates was Tucson, Arizona lawyer Dean Burch, a friend of Goldwater’s who the candidate had installed as chairman of the national Republican party. Burch helped turn the party hard to the right, as Rick Perlstein documents in his fascinating book on Goldwater called Before the Storm. When Ku Klux Klan leaders in Georgia and Alabama, for example, endorsed Goldwater in 1964 Burch refused to disavow their support and said only “we’re not in the in business of discouraging voters.”
Smylie’s Moderate National Role
In January of 1965, after Goldwater’s landslide loss to Johnson, Smylie made national news when he said, as the Associated Press reported, “the time is past when Dean Burch can do anything to save his job as national chairman of the Republican party.” Conservative commentators took to identifying Smylie as a leader of the “Rockefeller wing” of the national party with one writing that the Idaho governor was utilizing “meat axe” tactics to push Burch out as national chairman. Eventually Burch, who went on to serve as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission and a top aide to Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, resigned the GOP chairmanship and was replaced by Ohio pol Ray Bliss, a choice acceptable to party moderates like Smylie.
In the mid-1960’s the national Republican party was badly divided, much as it is today, between an insurgent wing loyal to Goldwater’s brand of unflinching conservatism and a moderate wing where political operators, like Ray Bliss, preached the politics of expansion. Bliss, for example, once said his only concern as party chairman was winning elections.
The Goldwater partisans were, in many ways, an earlier version of today’s Tea Party adherents and in Idaho they effectively took over the state party. Bob Smylie found himself swept along in these roiling waters with a growing national profile as a moderate who at the same time had to appeal to an increasingly conservative Idaho GOP. It was a difficult, maybe impossible task, since Smylie stimulated bitter hostility from much of the party base, including a young woman named Gwen Barnett.
Idaho’s Republican national committeewoman, Barnett was the youngest member of the national committee and she made it her cause to defeat Smylie. As long-time Idaho political observer Marty Peterson wrote a while back, “Barnett had become a close ally of the Goldwater forces. Her friend Dean Burch, a former member of the Goldwater Senate staff, had been elected Republican national chairman. She was also close to such rising conservative stars as John Tower, who had become the first Republican elected to the senate from Texas since Reconstruction.” Barnett recruited Samuelson to run against Smylie, helped round up the money and saw to it that insurgent Idaho Republicans united behind the challenger. The resulting and stunning defeat of the moderate Smylie made 1966 one of the most significant years in Idaho political history.
Looking back on this near ancient political history it is now easy to see that Smylie, a governor who deserves to be well remembered for creating a state park system and establishing a balanced tax system, committed a cardinal political sin – he lost touch with his base. Undoubtedly this supremely self-confident man was overconfident.
Generally speaking there is little payoff in Idaho for being well regarded on the pages of Time or being chummy with the very liberal then-governor of New York Nelson Rockefeller. You can Google Robert E. Smylie today and find a photo of him at the Boise airport in 1959 welcoming his buddy Rockefeller to town and another picture of Smylie in 1961 at a national governors’ gathering wearing shorts, his shirt unbuttoned to the naval and at the helm of what appears to be a very large yacht. Not exactly typical Idaho political images today or in the 1960’s.
The Rhyme of Political History
Fast forward to 2013 and the news last weekend that a relatively unknown state senator, Russ Fulcher of Meridian, will challenge two-term incumbent Butch Otter for the Republican nomination for governor in 2014.
As Mark Twain is famously reported to have said, “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
It would be easy to overstate the parallels between 1966 and 2014, but you would also have to have political blinders in place not to recognize some of the striking similarities about the two races separated by nearly 50 years. The first would be Gov. Otter’s “long term of office” – four years in the state legislature, 14 years as Lt. Governor, six years in Congress and going on eight years as governor. It is often true in politics that as the years accumulate so do the enemies.
Another parallel: Otter’s opponent comes to the race from a perch in the state senate where by all accounts he has assembled a very conservative voting record not unlike Samuelson all those years ago. And like the man who beat Bob Smylie, Fulcher is making a straight forward play for support from the insurgent/populist wing of his party.
With Idaho Democrats still mostly an after thought in the state’s politics, the Idaho GOP has in effect become two or maybe more parties divided into various factions. There seems little doubt the anti-establishment, populist oriented Tea Party wing (and its many variations) has been on the rise since at least 2008 when insurgents pushed out a state party chairman who had the support of Otter and many of the party’s traditional movers and shakers. Many of those same insurgents, over the objections of Otter and other leaders of the party, then successfully battled to close the state’s GOP primary, in essence forcing party registration on Idaho, a move which seems certain to ensure that the most motivated and perhaps the most disenchanted Republican voters dominate next May’s primary election.
Ironically, the battle for the heart and soul of the Idaho GOP, tends to pit more traditional business-oriented, Chamber of Commerce Republicans against the same brand of populists who fueled Barry Goldwater’s rise in the early 1960’s. Generally speaking many of these voters are the most skeptical of government, dismissive of “elites” of any type and disdainful of long tenure in office. All of which makes you wonder if Gov. Otter’s forthcoming campaign event in Coeur d’Alene, featuring the great moderate hope of the national GOP New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, will serve to reinforce the image that the insurgents are fighting the establishment. Christie recently won a landslide re-election in New Jersey by appealing to Democrats and independents with the kind of campaign Ray Bliss would have loved, but that many in the Tea Party find off putting.
One final parallel. Don Samuelson had a compelling issue in 1966 against the incumbent. Smylie’s championing of the sales tax – first put in place in the 1930’s then repealed by voters before being resurrected in 1966 – was at the heart of the entire campaign that year. Ironically Idahoans endorsed the tax at the ballot box in November of 1966 even as Samuelson, who had voted against the measure in the legislature, was winning a four-way general election race with barely 41% of the vote. The pro-tax vote in 1966 was 61%. Samuelson simply sliced the electorate just finally enough to grab the votes of the anti-tax crowd, and that block and a few more votes were enough to give him a win.
[It’s worth noting that both Idaho parties originally nominated anti-sales tax candidates for governor in 1966 even as voters were warming to adopting the tax at the ballot box.]
Fulcher’s issue is, of course, Otter’s advocacy of development of a state-managed health care exchange, which he equates to Otter supporting “Obamacare.” Never mind that Otter sued the federal government and lost over the extremely controversial health insurance reform law before concluding that the state would be better off developing its own exchange rather than relying on the federal government.
Obamacare, not unlike rank and file GOP resentment of Smylie’s moderate leadership role in national politics and his support for establishing a sales tax in the 1960’s, could become a powerful cause for many GOP primary voters, and in politics a powerful cause that juices up the base can, as long-time Idaho analyst Randy Staplius recently observed, be even more important than the profile of the candidate.
The politics of Idaho just became a lot more interesting and, while it should be said emphatically that Butch Otter has many, many significant advantages as he goes for a third term as governor – a solid conservative record, a winning personality, a polished retail approach to politics, lots of money, and the advantages of incumbency – once in a while history does rhyme.
The Wonderful Unpredictability of Politics
Political scientists Duncombe and Martin presciently noted in their 1966 election analysis that, while Idaho Republicans had won big at the ballot box that year – electing Len Jordan to a full term in the U.S. Senate, winning both of the state’s congressional seats, picking up seats in the legislature and, of course, retaining the governorship – the party came out of the Smylie-Samuelson experience badly divided. Such “rifts would need to be healed” they pointed out if the party were to consolidate its gains in 1968 and beyond. What actually happened show that the riffs weren’t so well healed.
In 1968 Democrat Frank Church won re-election to the U.S. Senate and just two years later, in 1970, Democrat Cecil D. Andrus, who had cut his political teeth on primary and general election campaigns during the dramatically unpredictable year of 1966, won the governorship over Samuelson who proved to be a better giant killer than a governor.
Andrus has often said when folks joke about Samuelson’s ineptitude as governor, “Don’t say anything bad about Don Samuelson. If there hadn’t been a Don Samuelson there never would have been a Cecil Andrus.”
That 1970 election began 24 straight years of Democratic control of the Idaho governorship, a political phenomenon that seemed unimaginable four decades ago, but that happened in no small part because of the turmoil fostered by the primary defeat of an Idaho governor who seemed unbeatable until he wasn’t.
In the second wave of New Deal legislation in the spring of 1935 – historians often refer to the period as the “Second New Deal” – Congress passed a massive omnibus bill – The Emergency Relief Appropriations Act. In a move that would be political poison today, Congress granted vast discretionary power under the Emergency Act to the president and Franklin Roosevelt got busy. With the stroke of a pen Roosevelt allocated millions to construct dams, build airports, bridges and tunnels.
Among the raft of Executive Orders signed by Roosevelt, and permitted under the Emergency Act, was the creation of the Rural Electrification Administration (REA). As Stanford University historian David Kennedy has written, “when REA began its work, fewer than two farms in ten had electricity; a little more than a decade later, thanks to lost-cost REA loans that built generating plants and strung power lines down country lanes and across field and pasture, nine out of ten did.”
Before the REA’s low-interest loans changed the landscape, as Morris Cooke the first REA Administrator said, the typical American farmer was in an impossible situation. “In addition to paying for the energy he used,” Morris wrote, “the farmer was expected to advance to the power company most or all of the costs of construction. Since utility company ideas as to what constituted sound rural lines have been rather fancy, such costs were prohibitive for most farmers.”
One of the great and enduring myths of the American West, as the great writer Wallace Stegner liked to remind us, is the myth that the West was built by rugged individuals. Nonsense, Stegner said. The West was built by the federal government and there are few better examples of how an enlightened government changed the landscape and life of millions of Americans than the REA. This fascinating and still immensely important story, fundamentally a political story about the good government can do, is told with engaging flair and real insight in Ted Case’s fine recent book Power Plays.
Case, the executive director of the Oregon Rural Electric Cooperative Association, argues that preserving the public institutions and the public good that the REA ushered in during Roosevelt’s day has required nearly 80 years of constant hand-to-hand combat with a variety of political forces, often including hostile presidents. The battle has been worth it, since it is not an overstatement to say that the region’s cooperative utilities, and the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) that serves them with power and transmission, really have built the Northwest.
As debates rage in Washington over the scope and role of government, it’s worth remembering that during some of the nation’s darkest days of Great Depression, presidential candidate Roosevelt came to Portland, Oregon in 1932 and made an eloquent argument for a government devoted to the “larger interests of the many.” The occasion was a campaign speech – billed in the day as a major policy address on public utilities and hydropower development – that turned out to be one of FDR’s most important policy pronouncements during his history making campaign against Herbert Hoover.
“As I see it, the object of Government is the welfare of the people,” FDR said during his Portland speech. “The liberty of people to carry on their business should not be abridged unless the larger interests of the many are concerned. When the interests of the many are concerned, the interests of the few must yield. It is the purpose of the Government to see not only that the legitimate interests of the few are protected but that the welfare and rights of the many are conserved…This, I take it, is sound Government — not politics. Those are the essential basic conditions under which Government can be of service.”
During his Portland speech Roosevelt pledged to develop the hydro resources of the Columbia River, proposed vast new regulation of private utilities and foreshadowed the creation of what became the REA, the agency that, as David Kennedy says, “brought cheap power to the countryside, mostly by midwifing the emergence of hundreds of nonprofit, publicly owned electrical cooperatives.”
The reason many Americans in 1932 lacked access to adequate or any electricity, Roosevelt said, is “that many selfish interests in control of light and power industries have not been sufficiently far-sighted to establish rates low enough to encourage widespread public use.” He might also have said that many private utilities in the 1920’s and early 1930’s were content to operate highly profitable businesses in relatively easy to serve urban areas and were simply unwilling to make the effort and expend the resources to deliver power to smaller communities and farmers.
It’s difficult to imagine today, when without thinking we enter a dark room and flip the switch, how long it would have taken to get affordable electricity to rural Northwest and its farms had Roosevelt not followed through on his powerful Portland speech on power. Imagine the Pacific Northwest without the power of the federal dams that FDR promised in1932 in Portland – and I know they have become controversial – or the legacy of public power. The region’s great public utilities have played their part in the region’s development for sure, but they often have a fundamentally different mission from public power, including the need to generate a rate of return on investments, while answering to shareholders and investors.
It is a re-occurring feature of American democracy that we debate and debate again the reach and responsibility of government. We are stuck in a particularly dysfunctional period of that debate right now. Almost always in our history these periodic debates have been resolved, to the extent they are ever fully resolved, in favor of what Roosevelt long ago called “the welfare of the people.”
In the last years of his life, as Ted Case points out in his political history of how cooperative utilities remade rural America, Lyndon Johnson remarked that “of all the things I have ever done, nothing has given me as much satisfaction as bringing power to the Hill Country of Texas. Today in my home county,” LBJ said, “we have full grown men who have never seen a kerosene lamp except possibly in a movie – and that is all to the good.”
Rugged individuals make for good movies, but aggressive action by a federal government devoted to the greatest good for the greatest number helped turned on the lights in much of the Pacific Northwest. The story Ted Case tells in his book Power Plays is a reminder of what truly enlightened public policy once looked like.