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John V. Evans: 1925 – 2014

JohnEvans-IdahoHistSoc-photo_t210As Idaho’s political history is written it should be kind, and I expect it will be, to John Victor Evans. Evans, who died on Tuesday at 89, ranks third in the state’s history for length of service in the governor’s office and his accomplishments, not always fully appreciated during his tenure or now, were substantial.

Evans, from a pioneering Idaho family, was both blessed by political luck and beguiled by his political circumstances. It was his good fortune, after a career in the state legislature and as mayor of Malad, Idaho, to win the race for Idaho lieutenant governor in 1974. Then incumbent Gov. Cecil D. Andrus drew a particularly inept Republican opponent in that race and realizing that Evans was within striking distance of winning his own race wisely diverted resources from his final campaign television buy to bolster Evans’ campaign.

The strategy worked and that decision, as my old friend and long-time business partner Chris Carlson properly pointed out in his book Medimont Reflections, made it possible for Andrus to accept the offer made by President Jimmy Carter in 1976 to become Secretary of the Interior. Had Andrus been confronted with turning the governor’s office over to a Republican he never would have made the move to Washington, D.C. On the strength of such details political history is written.

Evans thereafter, and often unfairly, suffered in the Andrus political shadow. He took the reigns of state government and provided a steady and often very successful brand of leadership. During the national economic downturn in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, Evans battled a Republican controlled legislature to prevent deep cuts in education and other critical funding. Three times he worked magic as a Democrat in a state dominated by the GOP to raise taxes enough to prevent the kind of broad scale damage to education that we have seen in more recent difficult economic times. The tax work took both guts and political skill.

In the complicated and acrimonious showdown over water rights on Idaho’s mighty Snake River, Evans helped establish the massive adjudication of thousands of water rights in the Snake River Basin, a vast undertaking that took 30 years and its completion will be celebrated later this summer.

Evans became an early advocate of state-level compacts to help manage nuclear waste and created enough public attention around the U.S. Department of Energy’s dubious practice of injecting Idaho National Laboratory process water into the huge Snake River Aquifer that DOE finally abandoned the practice. I remember the day that DOE finally decided to celebrate the end of the aquifer discharges rather than continue to resist John Evans. A media event was held at INL – I still have the hefty paperweight commemorating the occasion – and a smiling Evans helped seal the injection well.

Evans even had to deal with the aftermath in northern Idaho of the volcanic eruption of Mount St. Helen’s in Washington state.

In 1986, John Evans made his last race for public office, a losing effort for the United States Senate in a bitter race against incumbent Steve Symms. Symms finished out his truly lackluster two terms in the Senate and Evans took on his own second act – growing the family business. Today D.L. Evans Bank has become a community banking powerhouse across southern Idaho in no small part because of the same kind of diligence and hard work that John V. brought to his public life.

On a purely personal note, I’ll forever remember John Evans as a truly kind and decent man, which is saying something in our day of too often cynical meanness in our politics. I think it was 1981 when the region’s governors gathered in Boise to help launch the regional energy planning and conservation effort embodied in the Northwest Power Act. As a producer and television host at Idaho Public Television, I hatched the bright idea of trying to pull off a full-blown half hour sit down interview with the governors of Idaho, Washington, Oregon and Montana. Not only did Evans allow us to turn his office into a make-shift television set for a day, but he personally buttonholed the other governors – Dixie Lee Ray, Bob Straub and Tom Judge – and asked them to participate. It may have been the first and last time such an interview was done and had Evans been any less open or accommodating it simply wouldn’t have happened.

While it is a political fact that Evans reached the governor’s office as an “accidental governor,” it shouldn’t be forgotten that he also won two races of his own to keep the job. He faced a tough re-election in 1982 given the sour economy, a fierce battle over right-to-work legislation, and Idaho’s still unfortunate flirtation with a California-style property tax limitation. Republicans nominated popular Lt. Gov. Phil Batt that year.

The Evans – Batt race may well have turned in the final days of the campaign when an independent expenditure committee produced a comic book-style pamphlet criticizing “Big John” Evans. Evans was portrayed as an inept flunky for organized labor, but the caricature didn’t match the kindly, decent, honest guy who Idahoans had come to trust with the governor’s office. Batt was slow to distance himself from the smear and Evans won with 52% of the vote.

When Evans, somewhat controversially, appointed the outspoken, often caustic former legislator and newspaper editor Perry Swisher to the Idaho Public Utilities Commission in 1979, I sat down with Swisher for an extended interview on the afternoon of the day the governor announced his appointment. Near the end of the interview I asked Swisher for a short sentence to sum up John Evans. With no hesitation, Swisher said of the man who had just appointed him to a very important job, “John Evans is the mayor of Malad who by a quirk of political fate became governor of Idaho.”

A true enough statement, but incomplete. Evans took the small town qualities that make a mayor successful – attention to detail, remembering people’s names and needs, and a focus on practical and common sense solutions – and created ten productive years in the Idaho Statehouse. He should be remembered as one of Idaho’s best governors and, moreover, as a very nice and very decent fellow.


One Year On

A year ago this weekend Tucson, Arizona was at the center of the world. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, a vibrant up-and-coming moderate Democrat, was shot during a saturday morning meet and greet with her constituents at a Safeway store a mile or so from where we retreat whenever we can from southern Idaho’s winter inversions. Six other people who were nearby the Congresswoman that day, including a nine year old girl and a respected federal judge, died. Many others were injured.

Those events just a year ago seem as though they happened last week, and at the same time, they seem – our attention span being what it is – like ancient history.

In Tucson, a genuinely civilized place an hour north of the Mexican border, seemingly everything might have changed and regretably perhaps very little has changed over the last year. Gifford’s remarkable recovery from her brain injury that awful January day seems to me a miracle. She’ll appear with her husband Mark Kelly at a candle light vigil memorial service on Sunday. She is still a Member of Congress, undecided on whether to seek another term in a swing district that both parties would love to have come November. A moving ceremony was held in the Catalina foothills this week to dedicate a monument to one of Giffords’ young staff members, Gabe Zimmerman, who did not survive the attack. A series of other activities are scheduled to mark the events of January 8, 2011.

The Tucson community seems, in many respects, committed to remembering, and finding a way forward from, what is widely called The Event. The University of Arizona, for example, has established The National Institute for Civil Discourse and former Presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush are the national co-chairs.

Still, as the Tucson Weekly notes, so much about the shooting remains either a mystery or unresolved a year later. The shooter, a deeply troubled young man, continues to be evaluated as he waits to stand trial. The passionate discussion in the aftermath of the shooting about the desperate need for better mental health services in Arizona and the nation seems to have passed quietly away. The determined calls for calmer and more civil political discourse, calls that seemed so sensible in the wake of January 8, have been overtaken by another political election cycle that is destined to dump millions of dollars– maybe more – into the dissimination of some of the nastiest, most anonymous political attacks in the history of the republic. Sensible ideas about keeping weapons from the potentially deadly hands of the mentally ill are unthinkable as subjects for debate in the presidential election campaign. The Congressional newspaper, The Hill, reports that security concerns in Congress have largely given way to a return to business as usual.

Life in America goes on and so does the peculiar kind of American death that visited Tucson a year ago.

Last month, according to FBI data, 1.5 million Americans acquired a hand gun. A female U.S. Park Service Ranger, the mother of two young daughers, was shot and killed days ago at a roadblock in Rainier National Park in Washington. The shooter was an Iraq war veteran. Last fall, a mentally troubled faculty member at the University of Idaho shot and killed one of his students. Six police officers were shot, one killed and two are still critical, during a drug raid in Utah in the last week.

Americans have embraced wars on drugs, illegal immigration, radical Muslim terrorists, even wars on cancer and heart diesease, but no war on gun violence. Washington Congressman Norm Dicks, a proponent of a sensible and extremely limited policy to ban guns from the national parks, says such a move, limited as it would be, is impossible given that the “NRA (the National Rifle Association) has a majority in the House and the Senate – that’s the reality of it.”

No tragedy, not Gabby Giffords’ wounding and six deaths in Tucson a year ago, not the senseless murder of a Park Service Ranger, not massacres at Virginia Tech University or Fort Hood, can cause the nation’s leaders to even pause and consider a better course for guns. The public policy response to American handgun violence is simply non-existent and the candle light vigils will continue, year after year.

The Arizona events are remembered this weekend with deep sorrow and with the peculiarly American response to such senseless violence – hope for a better future. Hope, regrettably, is not a strategy. A candle light vigil, as important and heartfelt as it will be, is not enough.

The Tucson dead, nine-year-old Christina Taylor-Greene, Judge John Roll, Dorothy “Dot” Morris, Phyllis Schneck, Dorwin Stoddard and Gabe Zimmerman, along with all the other victims of our unique epidemic of gun violence, deserve to be remembered every day, but they deserve better from their leaders, as well.



Tucson…Two Months

On This city in the Sonoran Desert has been our adopted “second city” now for more than ten years. We have come to love the place, particularly this time of year.

The near arrival of spring brings a huge variety of life to the desert. The birds start talking at first light, the cool mornings give way to progressively warmer days until, as the incredible pink sunsets appear in the darkening, brilliant blue sky, the desert night cools again and one of the greatest star shows anywhere helps remind us how insignificant we are in the grand scheme.

The third annual Tucson Festival of Books has been dominating the city this weekend, particularly the campus of the University of Arizona. Thousands flocked to the campus yesterday to wander among booths, listen to music and celebrate books with a long list of good writers.

I listened to writer Jonathan Eig talk about his latest book on the Chicago mobster Al Capone. As a baseball fan, I’ve admired and enjoyed Eig’s books on Jackie Robinson and Lou Gehrig. He had a big crowd in a big tent laughing yesterday as he disposed of a few myths about Big Al. Capone didn’t order the St. Valentine’s Day massacre, for instance, and Eliot Ness had almost nothing to do with bringing Capone to justice. More plausibly, Capone got crosswise with a smart U.S. Attorney.

Frank DeFord held forth, as did J.A. Jance and Douglas Brinkley. I’m looking forward to seeing a talented historian Annette Gordon-Reed later today and one of my historian heroes, Robert Utley.

NPR’s Scott Simon moderated a fascinating panel with Luis Alberto Urrea – his book The Devil’s Highway is a chilling and exceeding well-crafted account of human trafficking along the U.S. – Mexican border – and T. Jefferson Parker, a novelist who writes about the drugs, money and guns that increasingly define our relationship with Mexico.

Simon seemed momentarily taken aback when a questioneer thanked him for his sensitive and knowing reporting in the aftermath of the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and so many others on January 8. The big crowd in the UA Student Union applauded the remark and the conversation returned to the nature of the misunderstood story playing out daily in the borderlands.

Still, a little over two months on from the shootings, the healing here comes slowly and one gets the impression that a whole city is still processing, reflecting, mourning and trying to move ahead.

Six white crosses still sit on the ground across the street from the Safeway at Ina and Oracle where Gifford was meeting constituents on January 8. There was a big benefit concert this week to raise money to further the healing. A Gifford’s aide, Ron Barber, organized a fund for that purpose and a big car dealer and Republican businessman who had supported Gifford’s opponent last year made a large donation. The UA has launched an institute devoted to civility and a Gifford’s intern-turned-hero, Daniel Hernandez, announced this week that he’ll run for student body president at the University. And, of course, the updates on the Congressman’s condition dominated the news here and got big play everywhere. Life goes on.

The big book festival this weekend made me reflect anew on the power of stories in the hands of gifted storytellers to help us make sense of an often senseless world. Artists simply help us live and cope.

Luis Urrea, a great and gifted writer who straddles at least two cultures, gave me a new mantra while he was talking with Scott Simon. Urrea says he tells his writing students that every day is Christmas or their birthday, they just need to be open to the gifts – mostly little tiny gifts – that come their way every day.

Tucson is finding its way two months on by finding and enjoying the little gifts that come its way every day.

Dumping Dupnik

tea party cartoonTea Party Seeks Tucson Sheriff Recall

It was probably inevitable given our overheated politics. The Pima County, Arizona sheriff, Clarence Dupnik, has become the target – I use that term advisedly – of a recall effort.

The Arizona Daily Star’s talented political cartoonist, David Fitzsimmons, sums up this news item up nicely when he has a cartoon recall supporter say, “It’s really nice to see the community pulling together at a time like this.”

A Tucson Tea Party group claims the sheriff’s post-Gabrielle Giffords shooting comments “were irresponsible and had no basis in any fact. It’s not what law enforcement officers should do when inserting themselves into politics.” No mention of the fact that the sheriff has been re-elected repeatedly since 1980 as a Democrat. By any fair definition, this guy is into politics, but we digress.

Other supporters of the Dump Dupnik effort have charged with sheriff with being a “leftist,” that he intended to protect the “shooter” or that he “hasn’t enforced the law.” Just the kind of broad, sweeping, factless nonsense that so often passes for political debate in America these days.

There is even an Idaho angle to the story. According to the Star, former Idaho Congressman Bill Sali is advising the recall proponents, who are – you might wonder why – being lead by a Salt Lake City talk radio host.

For his part the sheriff is hardly backing down from his basic contention that the vitriol of current political discourse has consequences.

“I’m sure that this demented person (suspect Jared Lee Loughner) didn’t do what he did because of Rush Limbaugh, specifically, or Sarah Palin or … Glenn Beck. But it’s a conglomeration. When people hear this vitriol every day, it has some consequences and I think that’s how the tea party got so darned angry so fast.”

What he does know, the sheriff told the Star, “is that Loughner was angry at government and ‘I think in his demented mind, he saw her (Giffords) as representing government.'”

The interview with the sheriff, printed on February 6, has of this morning drawn 275 on line comments from Arizona Daily Star readers. You can imagine the tone of most of them and a number were apparently so “uncivil” as to be removed by the newspaper.

Two things stand out here.

First, recalls aren’t about removing people from office simply because you disagree with them or with something they’ve said. Recalls should be reserved for malfeasance and, as the Constitution says about misbehaving public officials, “high crimes and misdemeanors.” You find disagreement with a politician, run or vote against them. Sheriff Dupnik has to face the votes again in 2012. He got just over 64% last time and he says he’ll probably run again. Have at it. Beat him at the polls, if you can.

Second, the intensity surrounding the Arizona sheriff just proves the point that we struggle right now to find a way to disagree with each other while not being totally disagreeable. We simply must get better at this and everyone has a role and a stake.

The Christian Science Monitor, in noting Tucson Mayor Bob Walkup’s civility initiative with other U.S. Mayors, printed a short piece called “four ways to kick the polarized partisan habit.” It’s worth a read and a visit to the Public Conversations Project website is worthwhile, as well.

I found one of the four rules particularly appropriate: “Fight for Technicolor – Don’t reduce everyone and everything to black and white. Stand up for the multicolored reality of yourself and others.”

Speaking of Technicolor, the Slate website produced a profile of the controversial sheriff early in January. It’s worth reading. Here’s a key sentence: “a look through Dupnik’s past reveals a much more complex figure than his current portrayal as a liberal Democratic crusader.” Really.

One thing our media often does, and too many public officials perpetuate, is to reduce every issue and every personality to a “black and white, yes and no” equation. In the real world, things can’t be done so simply or so surely.

The real world – and real people – operate in Technicolor. Black and white, except for the occasional Humphrey Bogart movie, really should be obsolete.


Obama mourningA Good Dose of Humility

My favorite presidential historian, Robert Dallek, as well as anyone has, caught the essence of last night’s remarkable speech in Tucson by Barack Obama.

“The president is not just the prime minister, he’s also the king,” says Dallek. “And he has to be a healing force to speak to the grief.”

As a time when pundits, critics and pretenders to the Oval Office were wondering whether Obama had the right stuff to pull off a unifying speech in the wake of the Tucson tragedy, he came up with, I think, just the right tone and several great lines, including this one:

“What we can’t do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on one another.”

TIME magazine has a great take on the demanding, delicate job of the President as Consoler-in-Chief. While it may be hard to make the case that any one speech from any one president really has lasting impact in this superheated media age, think of the lasting impact of Lincoln at Gettysburg, Reagan after the Challenger disaster or Clinton after the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building.

A pitch-perfect, heartfelt speech of mourning, as each of those were, has historically helped define a presidency. Obama’s speech at McKale Memorial Center in Tucson may prove to be the moment when the nation sized him up as a leader and not just as a politician.

The Giffords Story

Mourning GiffordsThe Whole World is Watching

“Anger, hatred, bigotry” – the headline in the Sydney, Australia Morning Herald.

“A disturbing story about American political culture” – said the editorial in the Globe and Mail, Canada’s major national newspaper.

A blogger for the Financial Times writes, “The idea that there is anything in common between the politics of the United States and Pakistan might seem absurd. But both countries have suffered appalling acts of political violence this week. And in both cases, the victims were moderate voices who spoke out for liberal values.”

While the debate continues in U.S. newspapers and over the air about the cause and meaning of the tragic attack on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 19 others in Tucson last Saturday, the press in the rest of the world is watching and commenting. It is a fascinating case study in how the U.S. is seen by much of the rest of the world.

A while back I heard a speaker who had lived in Canada for a number of years quip that “Canada is the place where everyone has health insurance and no one has a hand gun.” There was nervous laughter from the U.S. crowd.

The Globe and Mail’s editorial on the Tucson shootings got quickly to its point: “Start with guns: Legally, they are sacrosanct. And not just any guns. In Arizona, any ‘law-abiding’ person over 21 is allowed to carry a concealed handgun practically anywhere in the state, including into the state legislature, in bars and on school grounds.”

In a round-up of world coverage of the story, the GlobalPost site noted:

“Argentina’s biggest daily, Clarin, published a 500-word piece by their Washington correspondent, Ana Baron, who focused heavily on Arizona’s tough stance on Latino immigration and what she described as the ‘growth of hatred and intolerance in U.S. politics.’ Perhaps tellingly, the story’s first quote was Pima County Sheriff Clarence W. Dupnik’s widely-recounted remark that his home state of Arizona has become a ‘Mecca for prejudice and bigotry.'”

The same site noted that Britain’s politically-oriented print media covered the shootings as political commentary. The right-leaning Daily Telegraph criticized American blogs and liberals for rushing to paint the attacks as a product of a right-wing fanatic despite the lack of evidence that the shooter had anything to do with the Tea Party or any other group.

This is highly inconvenient for certain people on the Left so they ignore it,” wrote the paper’s Washington editor. “They would much prefer the shooter to have been a white male in his 50s.”

Outside of Britain, the GlobalPost site notes, “the story has received slightly less attention. The French press is consumed by the murder of two Frenchmen murdered in Niger by an African subsidiary of Al Qaeda. The German press has major flooding along the Rhine to contend with.

“But the lack of prominence given to the story could be down to this: For many in Europe, violence of the sort that occurred in Tucson on Saturday is almost expected in America.”

Major media outlets in the U.S. provided prominent coverage over the last several days to the assassination – and that word was always used and interestingly has generally been avoided in the coverage of the Gifford’s shooting – of a major political figure in Pakistan, indisputably a country with enormous strategic importance to the United States. The lead in the Washington Post, for example, said of the Pakistani killing, in words that might have been lifted from an article about Rep. Giffords: “an outspoken liberal in an increasingly intolerant nation, was shot…” because of his public stance on a controversial issue.

As the Financial Times writer, Gideon Rachman, pointed out it is not all that comfortable to be compared to the dysfunctional, frequently violent politics of Pakistan, but there we are.

Rachman wrote on Sunday: “Of course, the relative reactions to political violence in both countries show that Pakistan is much, much further down the road of violent intolerance. This profoundly depressing report by Mohammed Hanif illustrates how cowed liberal and tolerant voices now are in Pakistan, where many television commentators essentially argued that the governor of Punjab had it coming to him.

“In the US, by contrast, all mainstream politicians and commentators are united in condemning the attempted murder of Giffords. I suppose we should be grateful for small mercies.”


Tragedy in Tucson

giffordsPolitics, Guns and America

President Obama spoke for most Americans yesterday, as presidents do when tragedy strikes and something truly senseless happens, when he said we “would get to the bottom” of the horrific events on a sunny Saturday morning outside a Safeway store in Tucson.

Get to the bottom indeed.

We all tend to measure the impact of big events by the closeness of personal connection. For me, this one is close and truly does, as Tucson resident and former Bush Administration Surgeon General Richard Carmona said, make your heart bleed.

I spend a good deal of time in Tucson. Our place is less than two miles from where the mayhem that took six lives, including a respected federal judge and a nine year old girl, took place. I’ve been in that Safeway store a hundred times, often on a sunny Saturday morning, to get my daily newspaper fix.

I’ve also followed from a distance the promising political rise of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who now fights for her life not to mention a chance for a further political career. Before going to Congress, Giffords represented parts of Tucson in the state legislature and struck me – regardless of your partisan tint – as the kind of bright, well-spoken, committed young person we want and desperately need in our politics.

While it is much too early to come to judgments about the motive – if any – of the apparently badly troubled young man who is in custody and accused, perhaps with unidentified others, as the murderer. It is nonetheless inevitable that getting to the bottom of this American tragedy will turn to politics and guns.

It is already being asked if our American political culture has become so coarse, so bitter and tinged with the language of violence that such events directed at political people are made more possible. An eyewitness to the Tucson events said there was no doubt the gunman’s real target was the Congresswoman.

The wise and experienced old sheriff of Pima County, Clarence Dupnik – he’s been sheriff for 30 years and is respected for his blunt candor – said it explicitly.

“Let me say one thing,” the 73-year old Dupnik told reporters yesterday, “because people tend to pooh-pooh this business about all the vitriol that we hear inflaming the American public by the people who make a living off of doing that. That may be free speech, but it’s not without consequences.”

Dupnik, in sadness and in anger, said Arizona has become “a Mecca” for intolerance and bigotry.

This much we know. Giffords’ Tucson office was vandalized during the intense blizzard of national vitriol surrounding the health care legislation, she was shouted down at town hall meetings and, by all accounts, the campaign in Arizona’s 8th District last year was bitter and nasty. And, of course, Sarah Palin and others used tough language and imagery, including putting crosshairs over Giffords’ district, to target her for defeat last November.

Giffords made note of the Palin’s actions last fall when she said, “She [Palin] depicted the crosshairs of a gunsight over our district. When people do that, they have to realize there are consequences.” Palin, it must be noted, was one of the first to condemn the outrage.

Ironically, Giffords was a true moderate in the House. She was a “Blue Dog” Democrat who cast a protest vote last week again Nancy Pelosi. She voted instead for civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis, who was himself once beaten senseless in the name of politics. Giffords proudly read the First Amendment on the House floor last week during the reading of the Constitution and she was widely regarded as a calming voice in a divided district.

Consequences. Words are powerful weapons and, at times, the alarming coarseness of American political rhetoric does seem seriously deranged and dangerous. Calls for civility have never seemed more timely or more necessary. The Los Angeles Times editorialized this morning calling out the truly moronic postings – from all points of view – regarding the Giffords shooting. Read it and weep again.

Getting to the bottom also requires a mature society to engage in real and sober self-reflection about our culture of guns. I know, I know, this is the third rail of American politics, but finding the discussion uncomfortable or politically difficult doesn’t make the self-reflection any less important. How can a culture that claims to value the sanctity of life tolerate the level of gun violence we seem to now find tolerable?

Once again American politics intersects with guns and violence. Ours is a great country, but the tragedy in Tucson suggests once more many uncomfortable things about our less-than-perfect Union. We have some work to do to get to the bottom and try to learn from – and rise above – yet another horrific tragedy.