Thirty years ago last month then-Idaho Governor Cecil D. Andrus stood at the front of a crowded hotel ballroom in Boise to warn the Northwest’s industrial and energy interests that the Endangered Species Act (ESA) was coming for them, and that the demise of the region’s salmon populations would eventually force them to change.
“We have to tell the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) and the Corps of Engineers that they’ve had a microchip in their head on how to run the river,” Andrus said at his “Salmon Summit” in 1991. “That should be removed and replaced with a new chip, in which you say, ‘You will maintain this river for the fish, as well as power generation.”’
Later that year, the first endangered species salmon listing was handed down setting off three decades of litigation and involving massive – and largely ineffective – spending on fish and wildlife. And yet the iconic fish struggled on.
Andrus, rarely a pessimist, eventually came to believe the region’s only salmon strategy was simply to stall until the last of the fish were gone leaving nothing left to fight over.
Nevertheless, the region’s Native American tribes and fish advocates fought for salmon, often winning repeat victories in court and slowly bending public opinion against the traditions and influence of BPA, the often-clueless Corps, the inattention of administrations of both parties and deeply invested special interests ranging from irrigators to port commissioners.
Now, in what must be one of the great political ironies of our age, this long, litigious battle over fish, power and river operations finds a most unlikely champion, a former dentist from eastern Idaho, a conservative Republican politician more at home on a golf course than in a drift boat.
This week, Mike Simpson, the one-time Trump loathing congressman from Blackfoot who discovered Trumpian religion just in time to avoid any challenge to his 22-years in the House, rolled out a plan for the region’s grandest social engineering project since Franklin Roosevelt envisioned a Grand Coulee Dam in the 1930’s that would turn the Northwest’s “darkness to dawn.”
And like the very transactional Roosevelt – Montana Senator Burton K. Wheeler said FDR rewarded the region’s senators with a dam in exchange for political support – Simpson’s audacious, $33.5 billion plan is all about the lubricating influence of a billion here and billion there. There is money and projects in his plan to compensate every affected interest when, as Simpson envisions, the four fish killing dams on the lower Snake River in eastern Washington are breeched in the next decade.
Economic development cash and energy research. Waterfront restoration for port towns. More rail options. Money for water quality enhancements. Big checks for irrigators and tourism. And a truly massive enhancement for tribal interests in management of fishery resources.
Pat Ford, who has fought the good fight for Northwest salmon for as long as there has been a fight, told me this week what Simpson “is a true believer in restoring the fish.” And then marveling at the reality, Ford stated the obvious: “The most committed politician in the region to restoring salmon stocks is a conservative Idaho Republican.”
The harsh political reality for salmon and for the Idaho congressman is that this fight, like all our political fights, is less about solving seemingly intractable problems than prevailing over “the other side.” Truth be told those four lower Snake River dams, condemned almost from their inception as expensive dinosaurs that would eventually destroy the fishery, are more important for what they represent than what they offer.
In reality the dams are political symbols, concrete proxies in the continuing western mythology that real men exist to remake rivers, tame Mother Nature and vanquish environmentalists. After spending years insisting dammed rivers can co-exist with migrating fish why admit it was always a lie?
Even as Simpson’s plan offers the promise of billions in goodies and the end of endless litigation, the grassroots forces who have defended the dams with religious vigor, while hating those who advocate for the fish, will find a “come, let us reason together” argument no more attractive than brackish slack water.
Eastern Washington congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rogers is the epitome of how this mythology works. She immediately blasted fellow Republican Simpson’s plan with a line that had the precision of a fearful focus group. “These dams are the beating heart of Eastern Washington,” McMorris Rogers said, knowing just how to connect the culture of concrete with the grievance of 21st Century conservative politics.
Will southeastern Washington Republican Jamie Herrera Beutler, one of the few House members to buck her party on impeachment and under fire for it, really pick another fight with her conservative base by getting on board with Simpson? What prevents the calculating, do nothing Jim Risch, who has done it before, from kneecap Simpson’s plans by quietly stoking the ready opposition?
Simpson’s calculation is that he has, at best, a two-year window of opportunity to sell his idea.
If American politics were more like 1980 when Henry Jackson and Frank Church and Mark Hatfield attempted the region’s last grand design to head off the end of salmon – the Northwest Power Act – Simpson’s billions of dollars in carrots without a stick might have a chance, and the fish might have a future. But today there is no Scoop Jackson, and no Mark Hatfield and region’s once proud bipartisan altruism is long out of fashion.
The Idaho congressman has taken this intriguing kickoff to his own 20-yard line. He’ll need the kind of regional offense not seen in decades to cover the next 80 yards to the end zone. The clock is running, and it benefits the same old group that wants to do nothing.
A few suggestions for additional reading this weekend…
The Secret History of the Shadow Campaign That Saved the 2020 Election
Time magazine journalist Molly Ball with a sobering look at just how close the United States came to failing at democracy.
“This is the inside story of the conspiracy to save the 2020 election, based on access to the group’s inner workings, never-before-seen documents and interviews with dozens of those involved from across the political spectrum. It is the story of an unprecedented, creative and determined campaign whose success also reveals how close the nation came to disaster. ‘Every attempt to interfere with the proper outcome of the election was defeated,’ says Ian Bassin, co-founder of Protect Democracy, a nonpartisan rule-of-law advocacy group. ‘But it’s massively important for the country to understand that it didn’t happen accidentally. The system didn’t work magically. Democracy is not self-executing.’”
“The big tech platform debates about online censorship and content moderation? Those are ultimately debates about amplification and attention. Same with the crisis of disinformation. It’s impossible to understand the rise of Donald Trump and the MAGA wing of the far right or, really, modern American politics without understanding attention hijacking and how it is used to wield power. Even the recent GameStop stock rally and the Reddit social media fallout share this theme, illustrating a universal truth about the attention economy: Those who can collectively commandeer enough attention can accumulate a staggering amount of power quickly. And it’s never been easier to do than it is right now.”
The writer, a restaurant worker in D.C., dishes on the habits of the former administration.
“The restaurant adapted to the Trump era. We introduced a $45 three-course early bird special, which I recall was still too pricey for Wilbur Ross, though the unusual influx of right-wing tourists who visited appreciated it. Betsy DeVos became a regular, and unlike the others she was a paragon of superficial graciousness, even if she didn’t tip quite enough to compensate for two or three tables that would ask to move if she was seated near them.”
Moe Tkacik writes of the Trumpers, “they were exhausting, impossible, stingy, and cruel, just like at their day jobs.”
And this delightful essay from Rose Henrie about, well, “talking to a man about a horse.”
“It is remarkable to think that each of us spends roughly three years of our life going to the toilet. And that’s not to mention the reading, watching, and maybe for some — though it’s still an etiquette grey area — talking on the phone. Potty training is a child’s first step to becoming a functioning member of society. Along with learning to communicate, this is phase one of proto-personhood: say please and thank you, and try not to wee on the floor. For those of us who are fortunate, this is the start of a lifelong lack of thinking about using the loo. It is something we take for granted. An accessible, clean space is often available, whether it’s in the home or out and about. When nature calls, we know exactly how to answer and can do so, for the most part, comfortably.”
On November 4, 1986, Cecil D. Andrus won a third term as Idaho’s governor. It turned out to be one of the closest gubernatorial elections in the state’s history with the outcome in doubt far into the morning after election day. Andrus eventually won by 3,635 votes; more than 387,000 votes were cast. His victory margin was less than one percent.
When Andrus went to a Boise hotel around 10 o’clock election night to speak to supporters – I remember it well, I was the campaign press secretary – the race was an absolute dead heat. In fact, just as we walked into the packed ballroom one local television station updated its vote count and as the numbers flashed on the screen it showed then-Republican Lt. Governor David H. Leroy and Andrus with exactly the same number of votes.
Andrus made his way to the podium, thanked his supporters, said the counting would continue and advised them to go home and go to bed, which is exactly what he did.
I stayed up and went back to the campaign office. By 2:00 am we knew Andrus had a narrow lead with a handful of precincts in far flung locations – Sandpoint, Salmon, Aberdeen, Weiser – not yet reporting numbers. I rousted a state senator out of bed in Power County and asked him to check on the status of uncounted ballots there. He called back a few minutes later saying they were safely locked up in the courthouse, counted but just not yet reported. A similar check in other locations produced similar reports.
If someone had wanted to mess with those ballots they could have tried, but they would have had to enlist dozens of local election officials in the conspiracy, a degree of fraud and undemocratic behavior that in my 40-plus years’ experience is unthinkable, indeed impossible. Additionally, the long-time Republican secretary of state at the time, Pete Cenarrusa, a guy who could be a tough partisan, ran an absolutely squeaky clean, scrupulously non-partisan election operation. His deputy, Ben Ysursa, who later succeeded Cenarrusa, was simply the fairest election administrator I’ve ever dealt with.
Now, in the wake of a decisive presidential election victory by President-elect Joe Biden, the sad sack loser in the White House is hunkered down in denial, advancing hourly conspiracy theories about widespread voter fraud. The allegations are absolutely absurd as everyone from the lawyers who handled the contested Florida election in 2000 to countless Republican election officials in key states have attested.
What is nearly as absurd as the president’s fraud charge is that a vast majority of Republican office holders remain unwilling to defend the thousands of local election officials and volunteers who, in the words of the now sacked election cyber security head, ran the most secure American election in history. These Republicans seem willing to accept the lies of a well-documented liar over the reality of thousands of dedicated election officials who have nothing to gain by doing their jobs except ensuring the continuation of American democracy.
Millions of Donald Trump’s brainwashed followers who apparently believe his election fraud nonsense are living in the fantasy land a life-long con man has created. Imagine for a moment what it would take to rig a national election in a half dozen states. Hundreds, if not thousands of local election officials would have to be in on the scam. Most of these people – Republicans, Democrats and independents – have devoted careers to the proposition that election security is essential to American democracy. You’d have to convince them to do the most dishonest thing they could imagine in a free society: rig the vote.
The logistics of rigging an election on a nationwide scale would require exquisite timing, all conducted in absolute secrecy. Stealing the election would mean coopting Republican secretaries of state in states Biden won, Nevada and Georgia for example. The top election officials in both states have aggressively dismissed Trump’s fiction. And if you’re going to steal the White House why not steal the Senate, too and hang on to all those House seats Democrats lost? Conspiracy theories don’t need to make sense they just have to further a grievance.
Meanwhile, Trump’s legal challenges have crumbled, while his unprincipled lackeys – read Rudy Giuliani – have beclowned themselves in front of judges and election officials from Philadelphia to Carson City.
And speaking of election fraud, Giuliani, who until two weeks ago, was peddling a mendacious conspiracy theory about the president-elect’s son, was admonished by one incredulous Pennsylvania judge who said, “At bottom, you’re asking this court to invalidate some 6.8 million votes thereby disenfranchising every single voter in the commonwealth.” The judge refused.
The election wasn’t stolen. Donald Trump lost it – decisively. Yet, the totally specious Trump allegations have planted the notion among his most fevered followers, those apparently with an election security diploma from Facebook University, that the entire election system is as corrupt as he is. To say that believing his nonsense is corrosive to the very essence of democracy is an understatement.
Those Republican elected officials who have allowed two weeks to pass while tolerating Trump’s efforts to further erode standards of democratic behavior are not merely indulging a weak, pathetic con man they are now part of the active fraud he’s peddling.
Back to that hard fought 1986 Idaho governor’s race. Andrus, an astute reader of election returns, claimed victory at 10:00 am the morning after the voting. A short time later Dave Leroy gracefully conceded. I can only imagine that it hurt losing an election that effectively marked the end of a career that at the time looked to be long and promising. “There must be a time when the vote is final,” Leroy said at the time, “and we should go forward with the people’s business.”
As the Associated Press noted, the narrow margin in the Idaho governor’s race 34 years ago could have “been grounds for a recount at state expense, but Leroy said he wouldn’t ask for one.” Allegations of voting irregularity were just that – allegations, and the defeated candidate said he wouldn’t pursue them.
Such attitudes are what mark honorable foes in politics. Sometimes your side wins. Sometimes the other side wins. Being willing to accept that fundamental reality separates democracy from where Donald Trump and too much of his increasingly corrupt Republican Party would gladly take us.
Some stories I found interesting this week…
Rebecca Solnit: On Not Meeting Nazis Halfway
As I’ve said before, she is a brilliant thinker and writer.
“Appeasement didn’t work in the 1930s and it won’t work now. That doesn’t mean that people have to be angry or hate back or hostile, but it does mean they have to stand on principle and defend what’s under attack. There are situations in which there is no common ground worth standing on, let alone hiking over to. If Nazis wanted to reach out and find common ground and understand us, they probably would not have had that tiki-torch parade full of white men bellowing “Jews will not replace us” and, also, they would not be Nazis. Being Nazis, white supremacists, misogynists, transphobes is all part of a project of refusing to understand as part of refusing to respect. It is a minority position but by granting it deference we give it, over and over, the power of a majority position.”
Ben Terris in The Washington Post has a funny – or disgusting – look at the oddballs, grifters, crooks and did I say oddballs that have surrounded Donald J. Trump.
Need I say it: this is not normal.
“Anthony Scaramucci, the New York finance guy who lasted less than two weeks as a senior administration official before he was fired after being too candid about his machinations with a reporter, has embraced his Trump White House alumnus status, fashioning himself as a dial-a-quote for reporters looking for insight on the president’s behavior. Former ‘Apprentice’ contestant and White House adviser Omarosa Manigault-Newman, too, has gone the route of Trump apologist-turned-Trumpologist. Sean Spicer, a longtime Republican hand who launched his brief tenure as press secretary by yelling at journalists for accurately reporting on the modest crowd size at Trump’s inauguration, had a cameo at the 2017 Emmys and competed on ‘Dancing with the Stars’ doing salsa to the Spice Girls in a shirt that resembled a gigantic piece of neon kelp.”
The Transition: Lyndon Johnson and the events in Dallas.
Lyndon Johnson biographer Robert Caro wrote this piece for The New Yorker some years ago. It’s a fascinating minute-by-minute account of when Johnson, amid unbelievable tragedy, became president.
“She was still wearing the same suit, with the same bloodstains. Her eyes were ‘cast down,’ in Judge Hughes’s phrase. She had apparently tried to comb her hair, but it fell down across the left side of her face. On her face was a glazed look, and she appeared to be crying, although no tears could be seen. Johnson placed her on his left side. The Judge held out the missal. He put his left hand on it—the hand, mottled and veined, was so large that it all but covered the little book—and raised his right hand, as the Judge said, ‘I do solemnly swear . . .’
“Valenti, watching those hands, saw that they were ‘absolutely steady,’ and Lyndon Johnson’s voice was steady, too—low and firm—as he spoke the words he had been waiting to speak all his life. At the back of the room, crowded against a wall, Marie Fehmer wasn’t watching the ceremony, because she was reading the oath to make sure it was given correctly.
“The oath was over. His hand came down. ‘Now let’s get airborne,’ Lyndon Johnson said.”
In my earliest broadcasting days I hosted a radio show were I often played music from the Big Band Era. I love this song, Glenn Miller’s theme.
“Miller and his American Band of the Allied Expeditionary Forces had been making appearances in England since early July. Now military authorities wanted the orchestra to entertain troops on the Continent. Determined to fly ahead and finalize tour arrangements, Miller told his brother in a December 12 letter that ‘barring a nosedive into the Channel, I’ll be in Paris in a few days.’”
I worked for many years for a politician of the old school. Former Idaho governor and U.S. secretary of the Interior Cecil D. Andrus practiced what is now clearly an old-fashioned version of politics.
Andrus could be, and often was, a tough partisan, yet as a Democrat who served more than 14 years as governor during four terms spread over three decades Andrus never once had a Democratic majority in the state legislature. He had to practice the art of the possible and that almost always involved give and take and compromise. It is an old school notion to believe that it’s not a political disaster when you have to settle for half a loaf.
Andrus had political adversaries, but few enemies. He counted among his closest political friends an old golfing pal and frequent partisan adversary Phil Batt, the conversative Republican who followed Andrus into the governor’s office in 1995. A long-time Republican state senator from Boise, H. Dean Summers, was on Andrus’s speed dial. Back in the day when Democrats had greater numbers in the legislature, if never a majority, Summers often helped Andrus pass his priority legislation. They were friends who could also make a deal.
In 1974, when Andrus was trying to get a controversial nominee confirmed to the state Public Utilities Commission (PUC), a project requiring a handful of Republicans votes, Summers convinced his friend the governor that another Boise Republican, Lyle Cobbs, might be persuaded to support the controversial Democratic candidate, but only if the conditions were right. The condition that became persuasive for Cobbs involved his enthusiastic backing of legislation to make then-Boise State College a university.
As luck would have it, or perhaps it was a matter of exquisite timing, a bill to rename the college was sitting on the governor’s desk when the PUC nomination came to the floor of the state senate. During the debate, Andrus, on a signal from his friend Senator Summers, placed a call to Senator Cobbs’ desk and reminded the Republican that his important Boise State legislation was awaiting executive action. Andrus hardly needed to say he was watching how Cobbs voted on his PUC candidate.
Later, after Bob Lenaghan took his seat on the PUC and while Andrus was signing the legislation to create Boise State University, Cobb jokingly asked: “You wouldn’t have vetoed this bill would you, governor?” Andrus smiled and said, “You’ll never know will you, Lyle?”
The two politicians had effectively made a bargain. Andrus got what he wanted; Cobbs got what he needed. They trusted each other.
For a politician like Cece Andrus there was no higher compliment to be paid to a fellow pol than to say, “his word is good.” I heard him say it a thousand times. It was one of many reasons he got along so well with Phil Batt. They could trust each other to stay “hitched,” as Andrus would say. You make a commitment to do something you do it. You shake hands on a deal and then you never renege. You give your word and stick with it. Even if it becomes uncomfortable.
I’ve thought a lot about this old school approach to politics as I’ve watched Senate Republicans this week literally twist themselves into partisan pretzels in order to go back on commitments they made in 2016 not to consider, let alone vote, on Barack Obama’s Supreme Court candidate in that election year.
No matter how they try to spin it, from Lindsey Graham to Mike Crapo, from Lamar Alexander to Mike Lee they simply aren’t keeping their word. Every Senate Republican save two has now said the principle they staked out then when a Democrat was in the White House doesn’t apply when their party controls who gets nominated to the high court. All are being accused of hypocrisy, but that word hardly does justice to the lack of character that allows politicians to do one thing when they want to prevent something from happening and the exact opposite when that position become convenient in order to arrive at a desired outcome.
Graham, the slippery South Carolinian, will become the poster boy for the current Republican double-dealing. He is actually on tape on at least two occasions saying that the pledge he made not to consider Obama’s appointee in 2016 would apply to a Republican in exactly the same circumstances. “You can use my words against me,” Graham said. And then he went back on his word.
Crapo and Graham and so many others have done the same. You’d be right to wonder if you could ever again trust their word on anything.
Some years ago, I wrote a remembrance of Montana Democrat Mike Mansfield, still the longest tenured majority leader in Senate history. I’d heard a story that Mansfield had once helped a freshman Republican, Ted Stevens of Alaska, as tough a partisan as ever prowled the Senate floor, get a fair shake on a piece of legislation. I wanted to confirm the story and arranged to speak to Stevens.
In a nutshell, Stevens had been promised by a senior Democrat that an amendment he wanted to offer to legislation particularly important to Alaska would be considered. But Stevens was busy in a committee meeting when the time came to offer his amendment and the courtesy of informing him was ignored. In short, a bond had been broken.
Stevens, a man with a hair trigger temper, confronted the majority leader complaining – justifiably – that he’d been purposely snookered. As Stevens told me, Mansfield asked for a copy of the amendment the Alaskan had intended to offer, got recognized by the chair, interrupted the roll call and offered Stevens’ amendment as his own. It was adopted. Mike Mansfield, one of the most respected men to ever serve in the Senate, was not going to let a colleague down. The substance of the issue was entirely unimportant, but the principle that your word is your bond was absolutely sacrosanct.
Ask yourself: Would you buy a used car from these guys whose word is so fungible? Would you trust a handshake deal with a Lindsey Graham or a Mike Crapo? When your word is worth so little your character is worth even less.
Some additional reading you may find of interest…
Thomas Mallon has a wonderful piece in the latest New Yorker, a look back at a presidential campaign exactly 100 years ago. The election took the country from Woodrow Wilson to Warren Harding. Voters were confronted with the political fatigue of the post-World War I period and a global pandemic and Wilson’s months of incapacity.
“When considered against the electoral circumstances that exchanged Wilson, a Democrat, for Harding, a Republican, some of the tumults of 2020 appear to be a centennial reiteration, or inversion, of the calamities and longings of the 1920 campaign. Then the country—recently riven by disease, inflamed with racial violence and anxious about immigration, torn between isolation and globalism—yearned for what the winning candidate somewhat malapropically promised would be a return to ‘normalcy.'”
Some months before she went on the Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg delivered the commencement speech at the Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland and she shared the assignment with her attorney husband, Marty.
Maxine Bernstein had a delightful piece recently in The Oregonian on how it went.
“Martin D. Ginsburg followed his wife. He shared how he started working as a tax lawyer at a New York law firm, then gave up the practice to teach tax law. He said he learned in both the practice of law and in teaching to use humor to help make messages stick, and he emphasized the importance of a lawyer’s professional responsibility.
“He shared how a senior litigation partner once called him into his office and shared a quote he lived his professional life by: ‘If someone goes to jail, be sure it’s the client.'”
I guess it’s a good thing we always fight over history, after all there is no one settled way of looking at events in the past. History is, or should be, based on verifiable facts, documents, first hand accounts and much more. It is not a political exercise unless partisan people try to make history partisan.
Pivot to the recent White House conference on American history. A distinguished historian, Ron Radosh – he taught at CUNY and has written extensively about American history – deconstructed the “conference.” It is a fascinating read.
“There are some important questions that deserve to be asked about the teaching of history and its contribution to creating a sense of citizenship, and the ways in which those two can be in tension with one another. But such questions went unasked at last week’s conference. The White House Conference on American History was anything but what the title of the forum announced. It was a publicity stunt, and the participants, including the two historians, were played by Donald Trump and his administration.”
“Gingrich had little interest in ethics, except as a cudgel. His own conduct, personal and political, was far from exemplary. But as Zelizer writes, he had ‘a central insight: the transformational changes of the Watergate era . . . could be used to fundamentally destabilize the entire political establishment.’ Post-Watergate reforms, designed to open up the closed doors of the Capitol and let the sunlight in, gave Gingrich an arsenal of weapons. Public hearings were an opportunity to drag reputations through the mud. Ethics investigations were a means to portray legislative dealmaking as a venal, vaguely criminal act. C-SPAN, a product of the reform movement, became a forum for character assassination, unfiltered, in prime time.”
Amid the hourly chaos that is the Trump government it is possible to lose sight of the truly significant, while focusing on the merely crazy or simply incompetent.
So it was with the appointment – without Senate confirmation – of the acting director of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the announced intention of the administration to effectively gut the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The two events – a hardly a coincidence – occurred a few days apart.
The appointment of William Perry Pendley, a hard rightwing lawyer who has repeatedly voiced support for selling public lands, is in keeping with the administration’s appointments of Ryan Zinke, the ethically challenged former Secretary of the Interior, and current Secretary David Bernhardt, a former coal industry lobbyist.
These guys don’t care about public access to public lands for western hunters and fishermen, backpackers and sightseers; they’re all about lessening protections and being cozy with the west’s extractive industries. You’d be naïve not to think that they will, as one-time Secretary Cecil D. Andrus said, cater to “the rape, ruin and run” crowd.
Pendley has a particularly pernicious reputation. As High Country News noted recently: “The Wyoming native has extreme anti-government views. He despises the Endangered Species Act, once writing the bedrock conservation law seeks ‘to kill or prevent anybody from making a living on federal land.’ He has sued the federal government numerous times in the last three decades, including over ESA listings and national monument designations. He’s called the science of climate change ‘junk science’ and blasted the Obama administration for waging a perceived ‘war on coal.’”
In a January 2016 article in the National Review, Pendley, who styles himself as one of the original “Sagebrush Rebels,” boldly asserted that, “The Founding Fathers intended all lands owned by the federal government to be sold.” In that article Pendley championed Illinois as a model all western states should aspire to. Ninety-eight percent of the land in Illinois is owned privately. Try finding a place to hunt on public land in the Land of Lincoln.
Pendley, a supporter of the anti-government, anti-public lands Bundy crowd, also traffics in the old myth that the 1980s “Sagebrush Rebellion” was a spontaneous reaction to policies advanced by the Carter Administration when Andrus was running the Interior Department. It’s nonsense. Big money interests and corporate exploiters have been lusting over your land for generations. They always wait for an attractive political moment to pounce and they now have a willing accomplice in the White House.
In 1980, the Interior Department did a study of the various efforts to liquidate the west’s vast public acreage and, to no great surprise, found the “Sagebrush Rebellion” was as old as the hills. To quote from that report:
In 1832 the Public Land Committee of the U.S. Senate claimed that state sovereignty was threatened by federal land ownership. The rest of Congress, however, maintained its discretionary authority to manage such land without limitation and rejected the complaint.
In 1930 the Hoover Commission proposed to cede much of the public domain to the states. The recommendation was opposed by both the eastern Congressional majority and by the Western states, who having already acquired the most productive land, wanted no responsibility for the “waste lands” remaining.
In the 1940s Senator Pat McCarran (D., Nevada) conducted a series of investigations into the Grazing Service (one of BLM’s predecessors) and the Forest Service, both of whom were trying to bring livestock grazing under control. In 1946 Senator Edward Robertson of Wyoming sponsored a bill to convey all unreserved and unappropriated lands to their respective states. BLM was formed the same year.
In 1956 Senator Russell Long (D., Louisiana) proposed similar legislation.
The new “acting” head of the BLM is just the latest in a long line of hucksters who want to limit your ownership of national forests and rangelands. They’re driven by an ultra-conservative mindset that don’t just devalue public land, but considers it valueless.
The decision to gut much of the enforcement mechanism of the ESA was, of course, immediately endorsed by Idaho’s anti-conservation Senate delegation and Rep. Russ Fulcher, and it represents an even more blatant attack on the environment. Fulcher, parroting talking points that could have been produced by the “rape, ruin and run” crowd, congratulated Trump and company for “increasing transparency and continuing to fix this broken law.”
Richard Nixon signed this “broken law.” It has saved bald eagles and grizzly bears and countless other species. Leave it to Trump, a guy whose idea of roughing it is a resort bathroom without gold fixtures, to shred the last bit of credibility Republicans had on the environment.
The legacy of America’s public lands is one sure thing we can hand off to our grandchildren. No other country on earth has as much abundance of the open and accessible public lands, as well as the wildlife diversity that literally defines the American west. The land doesn’t belong to a president, or a blinkered rightwing lawyer or a coal company. It belongs to all of us, and our kids.
I’ll believe Republicans like Jim Risch and Mike Crapo value public lands when I see them insist on putting the acting BLM director through a Senate confirmation vote. I’ll believe Fulcher cares about your kid’s western legacy when he speaks, even once, about the value of the wide-open west without sounding like a lobbyist for an oil company.
The folks who regular devalue the idea of America’s public lands often talk about “balance,” which is vitally important in a region where many people make a living off the land. But they rarely talk about stewardship or how to harmonize the needs of resource industries with the legitimate values of conservation.
“When the West fully learns,” the great writer Wallace Stegner once said, “that cooperation, not rugged individualism, is the quality that most characterizes and preserves it, then it will have achieved itself and outlived its origins. Then it has a chance to create a society to match its scenery.”
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.