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A Brother

Robert E. “Rick” Johnson, 1945-2012

Here is hoping those of you who read here with some regularity will endulge me a very personal piece today. My brother died Monday, much too young and, as is so often the case, without me – and others I suspect – saying all we might have said while he was alive.

Rick was a classic big brother, smart, cool – always had a girlfriend – the guy everyone wanted as a friend. I was in awe. He excelled in high school as a four-sport jock. Held school records in the long jump, quarterbacked the football team, got his little school to the state basketball tournament. I tried, with no success, to emulate his athletic prowess and he was always encouraging my efforts even when, as I now know, he knew it wouldn’t be. He went off to college while I was still in junior high school and, in a way, we lived a generation and a world apart. He became a coach and teacher and later worked very successfully in the lumber and construction materials business. My path was journalism, politics and public affairs.

University of Nebraska football coach Bo Pelini may not know it, but he has lost his number one assistant. Brother Rick bled Husker Red. As season ticket holders, he and his wife would six or seven times a year make the extraordinarily long drive from Bismarck to Lincoln for a Nebraska home game. That, my friends, is a devoted fan. I remember growing up in western Nebraska and later South Dakota and Rick driving his old Chevy out to some high hill trying to tune in on the car radio a game on a fall Saturday afternoon. This guy loved his football, but even more his family.

We would talk on the phone and generally set the politics aside – Rick was just a bit more conservative than his brother – and catch up on the latest sports and family news. He always had a story about one of the kids doing something special or, more recently, the grandkids. It will be cold comfort to them for a while, but they will always have a life-time of memories of a truly great Dad and Grandfather. He’ll be the talk of every future family gathering. We’ll be telling Rick stories for as long as there are Johnsons.

Friends have been extraordinarily kind when hearing the news about my brother this week and one inquired, in the most gentle way, about my family and faith traditions. The question, coming just at the right time, caused me to really consider an answer. All of us, intellectually at least, know that death is a part of life. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. But until death comes knocking we – at least me – rarely confront the ultimate reality. My faith is summed up by the Sermon on the Mount and in the profound belief that love is all we really have. If love were not the ultimate gift from God why would such a hole exist in your heart when death comes calling?

I’m off to North Dakota to wear some Husker Red, celebrate a very good, but too short life, and to bask in the love that my brother left behind.


Ralph Smeed

smeedOne of the Characters

My dad loved to say that every town had a “town character,” but that in his hometown the characters had a town. If the same can be said of a state, then Ralph Smeed, the crusty, 88 year old libertarian who died yesterday, was one of Idaho’s true characters.

I don’t remember when I first met Ralph, but I do remember it was at the other end of a telephone line. I had just finished what I am sure was another fairly routine half-hour on Idaho Public Television interviewing a panel of guests on some political or economic subject. The phone rang and Smeed boomed down the line: “Johnson, your idea of a good show is getting two liberals to disagree…”

Hello, Ralph Smeed.

Over time the phone calls became more frequent and I came to know Smeed for his unflinching brand of libertarian politics and his political quips delivered almost always with a smile and genuine humor. He was the bane of all liberals, the mostly cheerful opponent of “government TV” – his term for PBS – a champion of Adam Smith, fierce opponent of “statism,” and one of those guys who if not always right, was never in doubt. I have no idea about Ralph’s religious views, but God rest him. I suspect, if he gets a chance, he’ll be engaging St. Peter over the unfairness of the inheritance tax.

Ralph Smeed is one of those characters who can’t help but enrich our political system. As a learning journalist, much younger and, I’m certain, much more sure of myself than I had any right to be, Smeed taught me a lesson. He would argue that his brand of libertarian, unfettered free market politics rarely, if every, received the time that news organizations routinely devoted to more conventional conservative vs. liberal debate. He was right then, of course, but that pendelum has swung.

I would argue back in the early 1980’s that when Smeed’s essential views gained a larger following they would be featured more prominently. He would respond that it would be hard for the libertarian point of view to gain a greater following if the so called “main stream media” didn’t interview their spokesmen. Touche. I think we both had a point.

I like to think I became more open as a result of this running dialogue and I did have the pleasure of reminding Ralph a time or two that he had to watch “government TV” in order to hear Milton Friedman or William F. Buckley.

Ralph may have warmed a little when I had the chance to interview Buckley, an encounter he helped to arrange, while the then-host of the PBS program “Firing Line” made a visit to Caldwell. It was one of the better, more interesting interviews I ever did and I happily came away with an autographed copy of Buckley’s then-latest book, ironically not about politics, but sailing.

You have to like a guy who stood for his beliefs. Not always right, in my view, but never in doubt and someone who could – and would – good naturedly debate his views with anyone. In a way, I envy a guy like Ralph who could be so completely confident in his world view. I don’t think life – or politics – is ever quite so black and white, but as I said, we need the Ralph Smeed’s to enrich the great debate.

College of Idaho political scientist Jasper LiCalzi summed up Smeedism in a comment to the Idaho Press-Tribune: “Smeed has been very vocal. No one has ever questioned where he stood. If anything, from where he started, (Canyon) county and I guess the state are closer to his ideology.”

Whether you believe that is good or bad, it is a true statement.