My many years in Idaho as a journalist, political staffer and consultant on public policy gave me a front row seat to observe and know a lot of politicians. This guy was one of a kind …
The earliest memory I have of Phil Batt, the former Idaho Republican governor who died recently on his 96th birthday, dates to his time as president pro tem of the state senate.
For some reason lost to memory, Batt invited me one afternoon during the legislative session into his inner sanctum behind the Senate chamber to meet his myna bird. It’s not every day a politician introduces a reporter to a bird that can talk. Pretty cool, particularly when you realize the bird had been taught by Batt to say funny and slightly disparaging things about the Democratic governor at time, Cecil Andrus. The bird, of course, was named Bird.
Phil Batt was one of the most accessible, least pretentious, most genuine public officials I have ever been around at close range. He was quick with a quip. Candid to a fault. Honest as the day is long. There was simply no Phil Batt scandal, or even a hint of one.
In those long-ago days, Republicans controlled the Idaho legislature, as they have nearly always in the state’s history, but the partisan margin wasn’t huge. There were conservatives in both parties. And moderates, too. Batt had a skilled politician’s ability to bridge the divides. He wasn’t a divider or a hater or a show horse. Batt was a legislator.
Years after meeting Phil’s Bird, and after both governors wore the “former” title, I had the distinct pleasure of several times playing golf with Batt and his long-time friend and occasional political adversary Andrus. The two men had a genuine friendship never better on display than when one was trying to take a few bucks off the other in a golf game.
On one particularly memorable occasion the golf match was at Boise’s Hillcrest Country Club with Andrus the host. Following the requisite negotiation over strokes, the match proceeded amid much joking and verbal towel snapping. Andrus was waiting for his moment. It came early on the back nine.
Batt had been playing well. He hit a golf ball straight if not long and like his politics his game was consistent. He was clearly headed toward taking a few bucks off the Democrat. As Batt prepared to hit a tee shot, Andrus waited until just before Phil began his back swing to ask the former governor what he knew about love life rumors involving another prominent Republican politician. Batt stepped back from his ball and glared at Andrus – the famous Batt temper – and then smiled. He didn’t say a word. Didn’t need to say a word. The smile was confirmation.
I think Andrus was intent on breaking Batt’s concentration, but Phil was too focused for that. He kept his eye on the ball. He won the match.
The two formers, as history will record, made a powerful team when they combined to protect the state’s position on nuclear waste cleanup, a position made difficult for Batt because many in his own party opposed taking the necessary hard line with the federal Department of Energy. Still, he persisted.
As the tributes to Batt accumulated this week nearly all noted that the Canyon County onion farmer had left an enduring mark with his principled advocacy for human rights, including helping create the state Human Rights Commission and, as governor, demanding workplace protection for farm workers, many of whom are, of course, migrants.
In that courageous and righteous stand Batt bucked a natural constituency – the state’s agricultural interests. It was a fight, and one worth having, and Phil won. So did the farm workers.
But here is the glaring irony in the many deserved tributes to Phil Batt. The party he once led and literally brought back to life after Republicans suffered a political shellacking in 1990 has fundamentally rejected the moral and ethical leadership around human and individual rights that Batt championed for his state.
The Idaho Republican Party is now dominated by the very forces of intolerance and bigotry that Phil Batt spent his career rejecting. The party’s focus on angry White nationalism is about demonizing and marginalizing the LGBTQ community, youngsters and families dealing with gender identity struggles and librarians and teachers who believe that community libraries and a fair exploration of American history are the essence of good citizenship.
The modern Idaho party, by contrast, believes it’s a conservative value to proscribe precisely how their neighbors will live, what they will read and how they will access health care. And if you’re not like them there is simply no place for you.
The current Idaho governor, Brad Little, who clearly counts Batt among his mentors, praised his predecessor as the epitome of public service and integrity. Batt’s “legacy is distinguished by his unrelenting human rights leadership,” Little said, even as the governor hung out at the repugnant CPAC conference in Washington, a pep rally for the alt right White nationalism of hate and division that Idaho’s governor has done next to nothing to challenge.
Indeed, Brad Little’s acceptance of an invitation to address the CPAC grievance fest might well mark the final capitulation by one-time Phil Batt conservatives to the dominant narrative of the modern Republican Party. To praise Batt and his record and also share a platform with Marjorie Taylor Green and Steve Bannon requires a degree of moral compartmentalization that would never have occurred to Batt. Yet, this is the arc of the modern GOP, a party that long ago left Batt and now thoroughly repudiates his legacy.
In fact, the official statement from the Idaho Republican Party on Batt’s passing was a terse three sentences that read like a news bulletin – “Former Idaho Governor Phil Batt has died today at the age of 96. Our condolences to his family. May he rest in peace.” Nothing about the man, his legacy or his contributions to Idaho.
By contrast the Idaho party featured on its Facebook page a shout out to the alt right provocateur Alex Stein, a loud voice for White nationalism who recently appeared at Canyon County’s Lincoln Day dinner. This is the same Alex Stein who recently featured on his television show the founder of the Proud Boys, the neo-fascist hate group that helped mount the January 6 insurrection.
This is in no way the party Phil Batt once built and led. That Batt stood for the opposite of what passes for conservatism today is just another reminder, a very sad reminder, of how the “establishment” leadership of the modern GOP first let this happen, and then after refusing to fight for the decency that a Phil Batt displayed finds itself bottom feeding in a party of sleaze, conspiracy, grievance and malice.
For sure celebrate the Batt Man. The little giant deserves it. Rejoice in his legacy. Mourn him but mourn also the utterly disgusting decline of a political party that has abandoned his kind and what he stood for.
January 6 rioters trashed a GOP senator’s office, and he hasn’t acknowledged it
As suggested above, the Idaho GOP is a shadow – or less – of the party the late Phil Batt represented.
Case in point: the state’s junior senator, Jim Risch.
“A review of Risch’s public statements on the Jan. 6, 2021, riot show no indication that he has ever mentioned what happened to his office that day. Asked this week about his office’s being trashed and told about the new video of rioters in his hideaway, Risch demurred.
“I don’t do interviews on Jan. 6, but thanks,” Risch said.
Asked again whether he had a response to the newly released video, the senator said only: “Thanks for asking.”
NBC has the story of a man so afraid of his own voters he won’t discuss the fact that his own life and property were under assault on January 6.
The drag show bans sweeping the US are a chilling attack on free speech
The proponents of the sweeping bans must never have seen Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot …
“While the details of the legislation may change from state to state, most of these bills represent a broad and dangerous chilling of Americans’ right to free speech. The US supreme court has repeatedly found that clothing choices are a constitutionally protected form of expression under the first amendment.”
Thanks for following along. Be well.