Fewer than a million souls live in Montana, the state that sprawls out under the Big Sky. Yet, during the 20th Century, Montana produced well more than its share of powerful, influential United States Senators.
The handsome and very liberal Jim Murray, a wealthy son of Butte, Montana, is one of a group of Democratic senators who wielded real power and have had lasting influence, while representing geographically massive, but population small Montana.
Murray’s pioneering role in pushing for universal health care coverage was recalled recently in a fine piece by Montana journalist Charles Johnson. Johnson notes that Murray occupied, from 1934 to 1961, the seat now held by Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, a champion of the health care legislation recently passed.
“Jim Murray was a trailblazer as part of a trio of lawmakers who worked hard but ultimately failed to pass national health insurance bills under Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman,” Johnson wrote.
As proof that little really ever changes in American politics, Murray’s work more than 50 years ago with Sen. Robert Wagner of New York and Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, the father of the current Dingell in the House, was attacked as “socialized medicine” that was certain to usher in the ruination the country.
Johnson recalls that Sen. Robert Taft, the Ohio Republican now regarded as one of the all-time giants of the Senate, once interrupted Murray at a hearing to denounce the health legislation as “the most socialist measure that this Congress has ever had before it.”
Murray, never a great orator, shouted back at Taft: “You have so much gall and so much nerve. … If you don’t shut up, I’ll have … you thrown out.”
The charge of aiding and abetting socialism was perhaps an even more powerful accusation in the 1950’s than it is when hurled at President Obama today. Murray’s brand of progressive liberalism always brought with it a charge that he was a dangerous lefty. In his long Senate career he never had an easy election.
Charles Johnson notes the irony in the fact that while Murray’s most passionate opponents in the 1940’s and 1950’s came from the ranks of the American Medical Association, the AMA’s current president endorsed the recent legislation, noting that it “represents an opportunity to make a real difference in the lives of tens of millions of Americans.”
Now, it is Baucus’ turn to have his role in the passage of the health care legislation fiercely debated in Montana. Perhaps as as indication of the intensity of the furor, Baucus, who was re-elected just last year, has gone up on television in Montana today seeking to explain why the legislation that he had a major hand in creating and, that dates back to his Senate predecessor, is good for Montana.
Each of Montana’s most influential U.S. Senators were controversial in their day. In my read of the state political history, Murray and Baucus properly join Sen. Tom Walsh, the investigator of the Teapot Dome scandal; Sen. Burton K. Wheeler, the man who lead the fight to turn back Franklin Roosevelt’s assault on the Supreme Court in 1937, and Sen. Mike Mansfield, the longest serving majority leader in Senate history, as Montanans who have made a lasting mark on the Senate and on the nation’s business.
Few states can claim a larger collection of truly influential – or controversial – U.S. Senators. Big names, indeed, from the Big Sky State.