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The Senator from McCook

I took a political pilgrimage last week to an out-of-the-way little town in my native state.

I’ve taken similar trips in the past to Mount Vernon and Hyde Park, to Independence, Missouri and once to Dixville Notch, New Hampshire, which every four years casts the first-in-the-nation votes for president.McCook My pilgrimage to tiny, remote McCook, Nebraska in Red Willow County, hard by the Republican River and a short drive north of the Kansas border was as meaningful as any I have ever taken.

McCook is the hometown of one of the greatest political figures of the 20th Century, a man – a senator, a statesman, an ideal politician that most Americans have long forgotten, or worse, never heard of. I went to McCook to see George William Norris’ town, his home and to remember why he deserves to be considered among a very small handful of the greatest of American politicians.

McCook is where Norris first got elected as a local judge and where Norris - MIcfriends continued to call him “Judge” long after he had become one of the most influential senators in American history. Judge Norris went to the United States Congress for five terms early in the 20th Century and eventually in 1912 to the U.S. Senate for five more terms.

Norris retired to McCook – it was decidedly not his idea – in 1943 after losing a re-election that, at age 81, he might well have been advised to avoid. But unlike most politicians who lose and are forgotten, Norris’ reputation should only have risen after 1942, but that is not the way things work in the brutal, forgetful world of American politics. George Norris is mostly forgotten these days even in his hometown and sadly, almost completely forgotten in the “what have you done for me today” world of contemporary political importance.

Still, any member of the current Congress would kill for the Norris record of real accomplishment.

George Norris at site of Norris Dam.

George Norris at site of Norris Dam.

Twice Norris passed legislation to create public ownership of the hydropower resources in the Tennessee River valley only to see Republican presidents – leaders of his own party – kill the idea. When Franklin Roosevelt came to power in 1933, Norris’ vision of a Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) finally had a champion in the White House and the money was appropriated to construct Norris Dam and bring electricity to a vast swath of the American South. George Norris was the father of TVA and in many ways the father of public power in the American West.

When FDR ran for president in 1932, four percent of Nebraska’s farms had electricity. By the time his Nebraska constituents ignored Norris’ accomplishments and sent him into retirement in 1942 that number had increased to more than forty percent. George Norris was the father of the Rural Electric Administration – the REA – which he considered his most important accomplishment.

During his long career George Norris opposed U.S. entry into World War I, convinced it was a war forced on the country by greedy capitalists. Vilified for what many considered his “unpatriotic” stand, Norris came home to Nebraska, stood before the voters and said simply: “I have come home to tell you the truth.” Undoubtedly, many of his constituents still opposed his position, but his straightforward explanation of his action marked him as a man of great integrity and courage.

Norris conceived of the “unicameral,” single house, non-partisan legislature in Nebraska and campaigned across the state to ensure that the idea was approved at the ballot box by Nebraskans in 1934. Nebraska is still the only state in the country with the unique unicameral legislature. Norris argued for the idea as being more democratic than a system that allowed lawmakers to hide behind the “actions of the other house” and that gave special interests more avenues to influence legislation. It has been a noble experiment that others states might well consider.

In an earlier era when Wall Street and big bankers also dominated American politics, Norris took on the interests of greed and bigness and prevailed. He created a massive chart – the Norris spider – to illustrate to the Senate the vast web of financial interests that controlled everything from electricity to railroads, from oil wells to credit. Long before there was an Elizabeth Warren there was a George Norris.

Norris broke with his own party time and again on matters of principle and pragmatism most famously when he lead the 1910 revolt against the dictatorial rule of Republican House Speaker “Uncle Joe” Cannon. Norris rounded up the bi-partisan votes to strip Cannon of the ability to use the Rules Committee as his own personal tool to control the House of Representatives. Norris also broke GOP ranks in 1928 and again in 1932 to endorse Democratic presidential candidates. When Norris determined that Roosevelt deserved a second term in 1936, he ran for re-election in Nebraska as an independent and won.

When Norris lost his bid for a sixth senate term in 1942 to a Republican non-entity by the name of Kenneth Wherry, a former undertaker, he did something that no politician does any more – he went home to McCook to the house he and his wife had owned for Norris - Homedecades. He died in that house in 1944 never completely reconciled to having been turned out of office by his Nebraska neighbors.

The Norris house is preserved today as a Nebraska historical landmark complete with most of the furnishings that graced the modest two-story frame structure when the great man lived there. His books are in the bookcases. His plaque of appreciation from the TVA is prominently displayed. His 1937 Buick still sits in the garage. I think we may have been the only visitors of the day when we showed up last Friday afternoon.

In 1956 when a young Senator John F. Kennedy – with the help of his Nebraskan-born aide Theodore Sorensen – wrote his Pulitzer Prize winning Profiles in Courage, he included a chapter on George Norris, emphasizing Norris’ independence and willingness to fight for unpopular causes.

YOUNG-JFKA year later the U.S. Senate created a special committee – Kennedy was named chairman – to recommend five “great” former senators who would be recognized for their accomplishments. Kennedy’s committee labored for months to define senatorial “greatness” and eventually enlisted the help of 160 historians to advise them. The historians produced a list of 65 candidates. Kennedy joked that picking five senators from such a long list of worthies made choosing new members of the Baseball Hall of Fame look easy by comparison.

The scholar’s top choice was Norris. It wasn’t even close. The Nebraskan came in ahead of Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoun and Henry Clay, which you might think would have settled the matter. But members of the Kennedy committee had agreed among themselves that their recommendations must be unanimous. New Hampshire Republican Styles Bridges, who had served with Norris and didn’t appreciate his political independence as much as the group of historians did, black balled his consideration. Nebraska’s two Republican senators at the time also rebelled at any honor for Norris and as a result he was left off the list of all-time Senate greats.

[The list, by the way, included Webster, Calhoun, Clay, Robert Taft and Robert La Follette, Sr. In 2004, Senators Arthur Vandenberg and Robert Wagner were similarly recognized.]Norris - Time

Settling political scores is, of course, something politicians do, but the petty slight of George Norris, a product of small-town, rural Nebraska, who left a huge mark on American life, is a long ago error that should be corrected. Regardless of our personal politics, we should celebrate greatness in our political leaders. Lord knows there is little enough of it these days.

My pilgrimage to McCook convinced me all over again that while true political greatness is indeed a rare thing, George W. Norris had it. It was a moving and very special experience to step back into his world and know that such men once sat in the United States Senate.


Drawing the Lines

Here’s an Idea…Let Ben Do It

When Idaho’s “citizen” reapportionment panel deadlocked recently everyone in the state looked to the Big Man on the second floor of the state capitol building for guidance. And for good reason. Ben Ysursa has forgotten more about Idaho’s election process than most of us could ever hope to know. So here’s a novel idea that will never happen, but should – let Ben draw the lines. I apologize in advance to my friend, Ysursa, but stay with me.

Rather than Ysursa’s steady and experienced hand on the redistricting tiller, we’ll now have a new reapportionment panel in place next week – three partisan Democrats and a trio of partisan Republicans – trying and do what the first gang of six failed to do in 90 days of expensive trying. In theory the equally divided “citizens” committee seems like a sensible solution to the games legislators historically play when it comes time, as it does every ten years, to decide the shape of the state’s legislative and Congressional boundaries. The sensible idea goes south, however, because both parties bring their partisan agendas to the process and common sense is handed a spoiled ballot. To those who will be quick to say, “but the citizen panel worked last time,” I say it worked only because one member – to perhaps his eternal regret – voted with the other side. The partisan political powers to be seemed determined to not have that happen again.

I know, I know, drawing legislative and Congressional boundaries may be the single most partisan thing done in our politics. Careers are made or ended based on these geographic and population decisions. All the more reason to let a pro call the shots. Suppose for a minute that the Commissioner of Baseball decided that we need to tweak the rules of the great game. Would he assign the job to a group of amateur fans, three Red Sox partisans and three Yankee fanatics? Of course not. Even Bud Selig would be smart enough to call in a Joe Torre or Frank Robinson; an expert who knows and loves the game, but is wise enough not to play games with the rules.

The Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call did a story last week detailing how difficult the reapportionment job is in a smaller states, like Idaho. The biggest states have finished the job, while Maine (and Idaho) seem hopeless caught in the political weeds. Idaho reapportioners wandered into the weeds when Republicans panel members pushed an agenda to create a legislature even more conservative than the current one and Democrats saw the process as offering a small sliver of opportunity to get the party back to relevance. Next stop: deadlock.

Of course, my solution – let Ben do it – will pass muster with no one, including most likely Ben. What sane person would want this job? But consider this: Ysursa has been in the Secretary of State’s office since just after statehood, or at least it seems so. Ben first toiled as long-time Secretary of State Pete Cenarrusa’s chief deputy and he has held the top job himself since 2002. Ben has twice been overwhelmingly re-elected with bi-partisan support. You would be hard pressed to find a loyal Republican, as Ysursa proudly is, who is seen by partisans of every stripe as both a professional and completely fair minded. I can think of no person in either party who would approach the partisan job of reapportionment with more dispassion and with a long view as to what is in the best interest of Idaho. He could have the lines drawn by tomorrow afternoon and I’d bet a ticket to a Red Sox – Yankee playoff game that Ben’s plan would pass Constitutional muster if, as always seems likely, the ultimate plan goes before a judge.

Somethings are too important to be left to politicians and, with all due respect to the six people who tried to write a plan, some things are too important to be left to amateurs. The lines defining Idaho’s legislative and Congressional districts should be drawn based, number one, on common sense as defined by population, communities of interest, geography and history. If six truly independent people brought that notion to the Idaho process they could write the plan in a week. Partisan considerations make that impossible.

Think that letting Ben do this job is crazy? Maybe, but let’s see where we are in six weeks or so.


More on Pete

cenarrusaI Stand Corrected: Make That Two “R’s” and One “S”

I received a very gracious note yesterday from former Idaho Secretary of State Pete T. Cenarrusa thanking me for my post on his long career in Idaho politics and the publication of his new memoir. Pete also, ever so gently, pointed out that I have apparently been misspelling his last name for 35 years! And, of course, I did it again on Monday.


Pete said the misspelling is a common problem – even in the Basque Country – but I should have known better and extend my apology for the error. For a guy whose mother decided to spell his first name the way mine is spelled, I am particularly sensitive to such things.
By the way, Pete spelled my name correctly when he wrote his nice thank you!


My error does give me another chance to tout his fine new book – Bizkaia to Boise: The Memoirs of Pete T. [two “r’s” and one “s”] Cenarrusa.


Congratulations to Pete on his recent 92nd birthday and the publication of a great addition to the Idaho political bookshelf.

From Bizkaia to Boise

cenarussaCenarrusa Writes It Down

His record of holding elected office continually for 52 years is not likely to be bested and the standard he established for running a non-partisan office as Secretary of State has, we can hope, been institutionalized in Idaho.

Pete T. Cenarrusa, the eight-term former Idaho Secretary of State, is 92 now and has been back in the public spotlight the last few weeks thanks to his welcome and worthwhile memoir.

The book – Bizkaia to Boise: The Memoirs of Pete T. Cenarrusa, written with long-time Associated Press reporter Quane Kenyon – is a fine addition to the relatively thin line of books about Idaho politicians and politics.

[Steve Crump had a nice Cenarrusa piece in the Twin Falls Times-News Sunday and the same paper correctly noted in a recent editorial that the Basque sheepherder from Carey is the most important politician the Magic Valley of southern Idaho has ever produced.]

Cenarrusa presided as Speaker of the Idaho House of Representatives during the landmark 1965 session when the state’s modern tax structure, including a sales tax, was put in place and the state’s Departments of Parks and Recreation and Water Resources were created. By common consensus that was the greatest legislative session in the state’s history. Governor Don Samuelson appointed Cenarrusa as Secretary of State in 1967 and no one laid an electoral glove on him afterward. He retired in 2003.

There is much worth saying about Pete Cenarrusa, but his real lasting legacy to Idaho may well be the fact that not once in my memory (which dates to the mid-1970’s) was the Secretary of State’s office seen as anything but a professional manager of the state’s elections and its lobbying and campaign finance disclosure process. With the help of a dedicated staff, including current Secretary of State Ben Ysursa [is another Basque in training for this job?] Cenarrusa dispensed good advice, conducted clean recounts and played by the book on Sunshine disclosures.

During a time when it seems that everything is partisan, everything is up for debate, Cenarrusa and his crew kept the playing field fair and tidy. Always the loyal Republican, Cenarrusa never played partisan games with the essential functions of his office. So should it always be.

Pete’s book, published by the Center for Basque Studies at the University of Nevada, is available there or in local bookstores. Proceeds help support the Cenarrusa Foundation for Basque Culture at Boise State University.

One quick personal Cenarrusa story: in 1992, while I served as Chief of Staff to Governor Cecil D. Andrus, I had the once in a lifetime opportunity to accompany the Governor on an official visit to the Basque region of northern Spain. The trip came about as a result of an invitation from the Lehendakari – the President of the Autonomous Basque government Jose Antonio Ardanza Garro – who had visited Idaho two years earlier.

It was a wonderful and wholly memorable trip climaxed with an Andrus speech to the Basque Parliament, the first time a non-Basque had officially addressed the Parliament. A day or so later, while touring with our Basque’s hosts, we stopped in a small, roadside tavern for some afternoon refreshment. The tavern was near the mountain town of Durango in Bizkaia, the Basque province from which Cenarrusa’s family emigrated to the United States. As we walked into the bar someone mentioned we were the group from Idaho. The bartender looked directly at Cece Andrus and said: “You must know Pete Cenarrusa…”

Now, that’s what you call name recognition – from Biskaia to Boise.

Who We Choose To Honor

Statue Statuary Hall: A Curious, All-American Mix of Politics, Art and Political Correctness

At the very heart of American government, inside the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, stand 100 statues of famous and not-so-famous Americans. The statues – two from each state – depict the individuals each state has chosen to represent its story to the rest of the nation.

The collection – a fascinating national cross section of great, near-great, and some mostly forgotten Americans – recently added a new honoree from Alabama – Helen Keller. The Los Angeles Times blog has that scoop.

The Statuary Hall collection from the Northwest states is fascinating.

Montana’s Jeanette Rankin (left), the first woman elected to the Congress and the only member to vote against U.S. participation in both World Wars, is in the Hall. Montana’s other statue is a great likeness of the wonderful cowboy artist and sculptor Charlie Russell.

George Shoup, Idaho’s last territorial governor and first state governor and also a Senator, is in the Hall. Idaho’s great progressive Republican William E. Borah is Idaho’s other pick and a natural.

Oregon is represented by Jason Lee and Dr. John McLoughlin , two early day Oregonians who played key roles in establishing the state. Not exactly household names, but interesting choices.

Washington’s picks are the pioneering missionary Marcus Whitman and Mother Joseph, a Catholic nun, who raised money and built early hospitals, schools and orphanages.

As with all things political, you know that there must be a back story (read political deal) regarding how each of these folks were chosen for this special attention in such a special place.

Earlier this year California, acting at the behest of the legislature, replaced its statue of Civil War-era preacher Thomas Starr King – he had been in the Hall since 1931 – with a likeness of Ronald Reagan. Minister King was credited by Abraham Lincoln with helping prevent California from becoming an independent republic during the great rebellion. Quite an accomplishment, but King was clearly not the Gipper.

Alabama’s new Helen Keller statue displaced a guy named Jabez Lamar Monroe Curry, a Confederate Army Lt. Colonel and pre-and post-war politician. Southern states tend to honor Confederate generals and politicians. Bobby Lee, for example, stands erect for the Old Dominion and Jefferson Davis represents Mississippi.

Some of the picks are no brainers. Utah – big surprise – honors Brigham Young and the Kingfish, Huey P. Long, in full oratorical flourish, stands in the Hall for Louisiana.

Statuary Hall seems to me a particularly American idea – each state honoring its own in the nation’s capitol and every pick saying something interesting about each state.

I have not read the new Dan Brown best seller – The Lost Symbol – but I’m told Statuary Hall plays a role in the novel. Considering that the book sold more than two million copies in its first week, perhaps Dan Brown will help a whole new group of Americans discover this unique piece of American real estate.

Once readers have solved the mystery of The Lost Symbol, they can turn their attention to discovering Jacob Collamar, the extremely forgotten Vermonter who was President Zachery Taylor’s postmaster general. He, too, is in the Hall.