Arguably William Edgar Borah – the Lion of Idaho – is the most famous and influential politician Idaho has ever produced. He served longer in the U.S. Senate than anyone from Idaho ever has, was a genuine international figure and regularly confounded what he called “the old guard” in the GOP because of his independence.
One wonders what Bill Borah would have thought of some planks in the Idaho GOP platform adopted last weekend in Idaho Falls? I wonder how many of the delegates know, or care, that Borah fought hard for, indeed was the floor sponsor of, the Constitutional amendment – the 17th Amendment – that changed the way U.S. Senators are elected. Idaho Republicans are now on record favoring repeal of Borah’s handiwork and returning to the pre-1913 days when state legislators elected Senators.
Borah was never a party regular. A reporter made the observation in the early 1930’s that there were four distinct political factions in the United States – Republicans, Democrats, Progressives and William E. Borah.
While Borah never broke openly with the national party, he did refuse to endorse William Howard Taft in 1912 – Borah was close to Theodore Roosevelt – and he couldn’t bring himself to back Alfred Landon in 1936. Pressed by GOP leaders to make a series of radio talks to help Landon, the Kansas governor, in his uphill fight against Franklin Roosevelt, Borah refused. His biographer, Marian McKenna, wrote that “he warned Republican leaders that if they force him to take a stand publicly…he would let it be known that he preferred Roosevelt.”
Borah might have trouble with the “loyalty oath” Idaho Republicans now say will be required of GOP candidates. I doubt he would have approved of the party’s effort to encourage long-time GOP local official Vern Bisterfeldt to withdraw as the party’s candidate for Ada County Commissioner because of his past support for some Democratic candidates. In 1912 Borah challenged state GOP leaders to read him out of the party if they could. They couldn’t.
As to the 17th Amendment – the direct election of U.S. Senators – I think it not an overstatement to say that Idaho’s most famous Republican would have been appalled that modern day GOP adherents would openly call for its repeal.
McKenna wrote in her 1961 biography about Borah’s leadership on the issue: “It was an excellent public service, but few know or remember Borah’s part in it. The fight had been long, cutting across party lines and pitting conservatives against progressives. Borah found this groping of the electorate toward a truer and more efficient democracy most heartening.”
Asked years later if the change in how Senators are elected had improved the Senate, Borah had no doubt. He trusted the popular will. “What judgment is so swift, so sure and so remorseless,” he said, “as the judgment of the American people?”
There were two principle reasons Borah favored the election reform, one very personal another moral. He knew that his Senate career would likely be a short one if he couldn’t appeal directly to the voters and he was genuinely disgusted by the corruption involved when legislators elected Senators.
One of the most celebrated corruption cases involved William Andrews Clark of Montana, but Borah was more familiar with a corrupt 1909 Illinois election involving William Lorimer. As exposed by the Chicago Tribune, Lorimer won his Senate seat thanks to a $100,000 slush fund gathered by Illinois business interests who used the cash to bribe state legislators. The Senate eventually declared Lorimer’s election invalid and Borah used the case to press for his reform.
In the 1930’s, Borah remained fiercely independent and above his party. He supported much of Roosevelt’s New Deal, made common cause with Democrats – Montana’s Burton K. Wheeler, a Progressive Democrat, was a close friend and collaborator – and lamented the GOP drift to the right. In his one rather half-hearted run for the White House in 1936, Borah told a campaign crowd: “If those now in control [of the Republican Party] would wake up some morning and find that I had been nominated for President they would groan, roll over and die.”
McKenna summed up his individualism this way: “He was really an independent with a mystic loyalty to the party which never seemed to live up to the ideals he conceived for it. He was a Republican by inheritance and a Democrat by inclination. He tried to stand for the best in the two parties and was inevitably accused of straddling…it took courage for him to wage an unending battle against the old guard in the party which he really loved.”
Mark Twain once said that, “in religion and politics, people’s beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second hand, and without examination.”
Perhaps political party platforms should be seen in the same light, and, of course, Democrats come up with crazy notions and put them in their platforms, too. Still, some of the positions Idaho Republicans now endorse ignore some of the the country’s history, not to mention the history of the most famous Republican Idaho ever produced.