Boxing, Clinton, Foreign Policy, Montana

Shelby’s Folly

Jack Dempsey Tommy GibbonsThe Crowd Went Wild…and Banks Failed

One of the most fascinating stories in the history of boxing was hatched over a several month period in the spring and summer of 1923 in the tiny hamlet of Shelby, Montana.

Jack Dempsey, the heavyweight champion of the world and one of the greatest personalities of that era (that’s him in the white trunks), came to Montana in that long ago summer to defend his title against a tough Irishman named Tommy Gibbons. Shelby barely survived.

The story of Shelby’s brief brush with international sports celebrity is ably told in a new book – Shelby’s Folly: Jack Dempsey, Doc Kearns and the Shakedown of a Montana Boomtown by Jason Kelly. The book was published by the University of Nebraska Press. Kelly’s book is both rich 1920’s American history and a cautionary tale about what can happen when a gaggle of slick promoters, a few local Chamber of Commerce-types and a big-time sporting event converge in a town, well, way out in the sticks.

In 1923, Shelby was a wind swept spot on the Montana map not far south from Glacier National Park. The young town was trying to make a go of it as a center of oil and agricultural production, but Shelby was hardly on the way to anywhere. A wealthy local businessman and his big thinking son thought Shelby had the potential to be “the Tulsa of the Northwest” and they hatched the idea to stage a heavyweight title fight in Shelby in order to put the town on the map. It worked, although not the way they intended.

The Montana hotshots found willing players in Dempsey and his flamboyant manager Doc Kearns. Kearns always sported a wild wardrobe, including dark blue shirts and yellow ties, and he and his celebrity fighter were eager to go anywhere, even Shelby, for a guaranteed $300,000 pay day.

After much haggling the big fight was set for July 4, 1923. Local promoters imported, at great expense, thousands of board of feet of lumber to build a massive, 40,000 seat outdoor arena and arranged for a nationwide ticket sale effort. The idea was that special trains would carry fight fans, willing to pay a King’s Ransom of $50 for a ticket, from as far away as Los Angeles and Chicago.

Tommy Gibbons moved his wife and family to Shelby and set up a training camp. His only compensation – a little cash to offset training expenses and a shot at the champion’s title. Dempsey, after doing a little fly fishing on the Missouri River, set up his camp in Great Falls about 50 miles away.

Meanwhile, the financial plans of Shelby’s fight promoters went seriously south and the locals were having trouble coming up with Dempsey’s upfront fee as ticket sales lagged. At one point Kearns was offered 50,000 head of sheep in lieu of the cash he’d been guaranteed. He replied, “Now just what the hell would I do with 50,000 sheep in a New York apartment?”

Eventually, with Kearns holding the bout for ransom, the fight did come off, with most of the 40,000 seats empty and many fans sneaking in without paying anything. Dempsey, on a brutally hot afternoon, went the 15 round distance with Gibbons who had become a favorite of the local press and public. There is some great film of the bout that gives a sense of the arena and the crowd in Shelby, as well as the brawling style of the two fighters.

When he returned years later to help celebrate the 35th anniversary of the big fight, Gibbons was treated as though he had won the Shelby showdown. “I always get a kick out of those people,” Gibbons said. “To them, I won the heavyweight championship.”

Dempsey remembered years later that the Montana folks hadn’t liked him quite so much.

“For the first and only time, I was more worried about getting hurt by the crowd than by the guy I was fighting,” Dempsey said. “I got a pretty good blast when introduced. The crowd was hollering and raising hell. I looked around for my bodyguard, a colorful New York character named Wild Bill Lyons, who packed two pearl-handled pistols and used to talk a lot about his days in the West. Wild Bill was under the ring, hiding.”

Dempsey retained the world heavyweight title until 1926. He was a sports celebrity to rival Babe Ruth or Red Grange in the sports mad 1920’s and 1930’s and he lived out a long and profitable life as a former champ until his death at 88 in 1983.

Gibbons, like Dempsey a member of the Boxing Hall of Fame, never won the big title, but did go on after his impressive ring career to serve four terms as the Sheriff of Hennepin County, Minnesota where, by all accounts, he was enormously popular and effective.

Shelby didn’t fare so well. As Kelly writes, “For years afterward, people would say to Kearns, ‘You and Dempsey broke three banks with one fight.’ He considered that a misinformed slur. ‘We broke four,’ Kearns would respond, correcting the record.”

The chief local promoter lost thousands of dollars and the merchants who were hoping to make a killing on the big crowd didn’t.

The colorful villain in Kelly’s fine little book is Dempsey’s manager Doc Kearns who the great Los Angeles Times sports columnist Jim Murray eulogized in 1963 as the last of his kind of boxing shysters.

“There must be a no-limit crap game going on in the Great Beyond today,” Murray wrote upon Kearns’ death, “Or a high-stake poker game with a marked deck. Or some kind of graft. Otherwise, Doc Kearns would never have left here.”

Then, obviously with Shelby, Montana in 1923 in mind, Murray added, “Maybe there’s a nice little town that should be bilked. Or a nice little guy whose pockets are leaking money and he trusts people.”

Air Travel, Books, Clinton, Montana

The Red Corner

LeninCommunists in Montana? You Must Be Joking…

See if you can transport yourself to 1920 in extreme northeastern Montana. It must have been a heck of a place; booming settlement, bootlegging, truly radical politics and real support for a guy named Lenin.

Sheridan County, Montana borders on North Dakota to the east and the Canadian prairie province of Saskatchewan to the north. It is about as far removed from Soviet Russia as you can imagine, yet Sheridan County from about 1920 to 1930 was at the very center of the tiny American Communist movement. Led mostly by radical farmers and a bombastic newspaper editor, Sheridan County voters sent an openly Communist state senator and a state representative to the state legislature in Helena. The sheriff and most other county elected officials operated, as they say, under the Red Flag.

The local newspaper – The Producers News – published in the county seat of Plentywood, eventually became an official mouthpiece of the Communist Party USA. The editor, Charles “Red Flag” Taylor, was a brilliant propagandist who, after serving in the Montana State Senate also ran for the U.S. Senate and actively participated in Communist Party activities nationally. Taylor was on friendly terms with William Z. Foster, the perennial Communist Party candidate for president, and brought Foster to Sheridan County in 1932.

This fascinating, and mostly forgotten story, has been well chronicled in a fine new book by Verlaine Stoner McDonald. The book – The Red Corner: The Rise and Fall of Communism in Northeastern Montana – was published earlier this year by the Montana Historical Society Press in Helena. Professor McDonald grew up in Sheridan County and her great-great uncle, Clair Stoner, was elected to the state legislature in the 1920’s. He was a Communist.

One of the most interesting aspects of McDonald’s book is that for decades, as she writes, “during the McCarthy years in the 1950’s and the Cold War, the people of northeastern Montana tried to forget their brush with notoriety.”

McDonald, who graduated from Plentywood High School, “without having heard of the Sheridan County Communists” and knowing that her relative had been a leader of the radicals.

In his review of The Red Corner, Montana historian Donald Spritzer notes that once the New Deal relief efforts of Franklin Roosevelt brought benefits to Sheridan County – the WPA built a courthouse in Plentywood, for example – the county’s Communists faded from significance and the locals seemed more than happy to have the history disappear, as well.

“Today residents are not particularly proud of what occurred in that bygone era,” Spritzer said. “But they are no longer so ashamed that they seek to hide it from their schoolchildren.”

Montana native Ivan Doig, whose splendid book Bucking the Sun, is set in northeastern Montana in the 1930’s gets the last word on the radicals of Sheridan County.

“When there was enough rain,” Doig wrote in his story about the Montanans who built Fort Peck Dam, “the soil of the northeastern corner of Montana grew hard red wheat. When drought came, politics of that same colorization sprouted instead.”

Harry Truman said,“The only thing new in this world is the history that you don’t know” How true.

McDonald’s book tells a great story that has been long forgetten; a rich history of the rural American west and one area’s flirtation with – truth stranger than fiction -Communism.


Clinton, Montana

This House of Sky

white sulphurOn the Road to No Where and Everywhere

In his classic memoir – This House of SkyIvan Doig writes of the country in the very middle of Montana, the country where he grew up, and he celebrates the beauty and the challenges of the landscape.

“The country’s arithmetic tells it,” Doig wrote. “The very floor of the Smith River Valley rests one full mile above sea level. Many of the homesteads were set into the foothills hundreds of feet above that. The cold, storm-making mountains climb thousands of feet more into the clouds bellying over the Continental Divide to the west. Whatever the prospects might seem in a dreamy look around, the settlers were trying a slab of lofty country which often would be too cold and dry for their crops, too open to a killing winter for their cattle and sheep.”

Even after a generation of trying to carve a life and a living out of this rough and beautiful country, Doig remembered, “a settling family might take account and find that the most plentiful things around them still were sagebrush and wind.”

Welcome to Meagher County, Montana.

The county seat of Meagher County – White Sulphur Springs – is close to little that “modern civilization” would value and in the middle of all that is important. The county, current population estimate is 1,868, is named after a complicated (notorious) Civil War general, was birthplace of Doig and once attracted the investment dollars of John Ringling, the circus entrepreneur and railroad builder. There isn’t much in Ringling, Montana (south of White Sulphur) these days, but John – one of the five circus brothers – once dreamed of a railroad linking Yellowstone and Glacier Parks with his luxury hotel at the half way mark. As Ivan Doig says, many came to this rough and lovely land with big dreams and not all made it work. Ringling’s railroad made it 22 miles and the hotel never got built.

Two remarkable people who did make it work in central Montana – Jamie and Jock Doggett – have made a major difference in Meagher County, Montana and beyond. The Doggetts live on the old place that Ivan Doig once called home and they are the kinds of people who make the West – and the world – work.

Jamie has been a country commissioner, organizes the annual – 6th annual this weekend – Meagher County Book Festival and seems to serve as the unofficial hostess of the county. Jock seems at one with this place – hard working, serious, very smart and, even better, wise. He is quick with a quip and quicker with his courteous, yet candid take on all things from the price of lambs to what’s happening at the Senior Center in town. He’s the kind of guy you trust with the keys to the new pick-up or your safe deposit box.

I met Jamie more than a decade ago when we served together on the board of the Federation of State Humanities Councils. She had chaired the Montana council. I’d done the same in Idaho. As two “non-academics,” given a chance to see what the power of “the public humanities” can do to change lives, we found some of the greatest change in our own lives. Both Jamie and I are nuts for history and love to examine the interplay and interdependence of cultures. Continuing her work in the humanities, Jamie is now a presidential appointee to the National Council for the Humanities.

Last Friday night, Jamie helped organize a talk in White Sulphur Springs by a Crow Indian woman and former National Park Service ranger, Mardell Plainfeather, that had a crowd enraptured. Her presentation focused on the tradition of Crow clothing as art, but her real message, as she said gently, is that we are all just people who can learn from one another.

The real power of the humanities is the liberation and power contained in critical thinking, leavened by a dose of history, literature and the other humanities disciplines. If you want to understand the world – and each other – a little better, check out the website for your state humanities council. It just might change your life.

I had never been this far into central Montana until last Thursday when we rolled into the Doggett’s Camas Creek Ranch and spent two unforgettable days beginning to understand how in touch with the land and their neighbors the Doggetts truly are. Living in a city – even a modest sized city like Boise – often precludes a chance to listen to the silence, watch a thunderstorm develop, or simply sit and swap old stories with an old friend. The pace in the Smith River Valley may not be slower, just better.

At the same time, life is demanding on the high plains of central Montana. Lots of folks – This House of Sky is my proof – just couldn’t make it here. It is not country for the uncertain. Maybe that’s why sensible talk about the latest book read, a Friday night conversation about what the Crow culture has to offer to a bunch of late arrivers, or how the high school football team will do this fall seems a little more important and a little more human.

It’s easy to romanticize the American West. It can be, and always has been, a place of conflict and controversy. Nothing comes easy. Not everyone is a saint. Hard work and a few scoundrels built the West. There is no Marlboro Man, never was, only complex people and sagebrush and wind. Still every place – in the West and beyond and Meagher County is lucky – needs a pair like the Doggetts; people who give and care and value history and not just their own.

Like a beautiful book that stays with you forever, good people and good intentions can change a lot for the better.

Ivan Doig’s beautiful book about growing up in Montana is really about the landscapes we all carry around in our minds, forever. I’ve now been to the floor of the Smith River Valley, up the road to Camas Creek, on the road to no where and everywhere. I’ll have those memories of landscape – and wonderful people – with me until the last day and, who knows, beyond.

Tomorrow…some more thoughts from Montana on Doig’s latest book – Work Song.

Clinton, Montana

The Western Industrial Age

smelterAnaconda…Then and Now

It has been said that Butte, Montana is where the frontier intersected with the Industrial Age. If that’s true, then just down the road in Anaconda is where the Industrial Age built its monumental smoke stack.

No black/grey smoke pours from the old Anaconda Washoe smelter these days and the smelter jobs left along with the smoke. The smelter has been closed since 1980, but the history – and environmental legacy – remains, as does the stack. Taller than the Washington Monument and the largest free standing masonry structure in the world, the Anaconda stack still looms over the old smelter town as a constant reminder of what once ruled here – copper and the “Company,” as the Anaconda Mining Company was known.

Today, Anaconda is continuing to reinvent itself as an outdoor recreation center and a tourism destination. The stack is a state park and on the National Historic Register. The Jack Nicklaus-designed Old Works golf course is one of the best public courses in the country. Still, the history of the Industrial Age bumping up against the frontier oozes from the streets here. The Hibernians still have a hall, you can still buy fresh pasties and the high school team is called the Copperheads. Among a few spectacular historic homes, the houses once occupied by the smelter workers stand so close together the eaves overlap.

This past weekend was reunion weekend for some grads of what were once the two high schools in Anaconda. We had breakfast with a couple of the graduates of the Class of 1969. I asked one of them, now a resident of Southern California and wearing a USC tee shirt, when he had left Anaconda. “When I was 18 years old,” came his quick reply. In other words, as soon as he could get out of town.

Another charming fellow – with Anaconda in his blood and memory – quickly added that he had worked his last summer job before college at the smelter. “If you were going off to college,” he said, “they made sure you had a job at the smelter. They were good about that…they just didn’t tell you it might kill you.”

The closing of the Washoe Smelter didn’t kill Anaconda, as some had predicted. The environmental clean up continues, as do the memories of one of the most spectacular and most consequential chapters in the industrial development of the American West. Anaconda is worth a visit to see a survival story and an important piece of American and Western history.

Clinton, Montana

The Creative Economy

General-George-CusterWhat is it About Montana?

A few years ago North Dakota erected some clever signs at its border with Montana. One sign advised anyone headed west to remember what happened to a certain long haired cavalry commander who left North Dakota in 1876 and ended up in a sorry state on the banks of the Little Big Horn in Montana.

With all due respect to North Dakota, given a choice, does Montana sound like a lot more interesting place – to visit, to live, to work?

George Custer didn’t live to contemplate what I think of, and many others think of, as the allure of Montana. It has always fascinated me that the land of the Big Sky has a certain “brand” that states like Idaho, Wyoming and Colorado – not to mention North Dakota – never seem able to match. Maybe its because Montana has been building the brand since that fateful day in June of 1876 when the tourist from North Dakota misjudged his welcoming committee.

I got to thinking about what the Montana “brand” means to the economics and, perhaps more importantly, the image of the state while reflecting on two recent pieces of information.

The first was a program at Boise’s City Club a while back that focused on the “creative economy,” often identified as the critical mass in an area of artists, cultural non-profits and cutting edge businesses. Amoung the laments before the City Club was that 30-to 45-year olds are in danger of – or actually are – picking up and leaving Idaho, while an emphasis on developing home-grown entrepreneurs is waning.

When I first came to Idaho nearly 35 years ago, the Boise economy was largely defined by three amazing, home grown success stories. Harry Morrison had started his construction company – Morrison-Knudsen – in Idaho and shaped t into a world-wide powerhouse that pushed the dirt and poured the concrete to construct Hoover Dam and built a good deal of the American military infrastructure in South Vietnam, among many other big projects. In much the same time frame, Boise Cascade went from a small regional timber products concern to a major national player in the wood and paper industry. Joe Albertson pioneered the modern super market from the ground up with his first store in Boise’s North End and went on to build a national brand.

All three of those home-grown companies are still around, but in much different form than just a few years ago and none has the power or influence in the local economy that the old M-K, the old Boise Cascade and the old Albertsons had. The transformation of those three companies makes one wonder where the next great home-grown business will come from? I wonder particularly were the next great business will come from if we’re failing short, as many smart folks think we are, in encouraging a “creative economy.”

I know a handful of smart and aggressive young Idaho entrepreneur’s in the high tech world Idaho, but many of them will tell you they fear Idaho may not be the place where a new Micron, the last really big home-grown business, gets its start. The outlook is cloudy for a number of reasons.

Idaho has whacked its support for education at every level over the last two years. College is costing more and more and we don’t seem to be producing the workforce we need for a 21st Century economy. Idaho high school dropout rates and the number of young kids headed to post-secondary education is abysmal. As the Idaho Statesman reported yesterday the dropout numbers may be even more dismal – by double – than previously thought.

Bob Lokken, who built a successful high tech business in Boise and sold it to Microsoft, asked at that recent City Club event, “What if we took all the money we spend on K through 12 and create an information-age school system, not one that continues to make a labor pool for an industrial-age economy?” Good idea, but Idaho hasn’t even had a serious debate about what kind of education system we want – or need – for more than a decade. Building a 21st Century creative economy without a genuine strategy – a strategy that really engages the education establishment, business and those young entrepreneurs – is a bound to be about as successful as Custer’s trip into Montana. So, Idaho’s creative economy seems, at best, stuck in neutral.

Which brings me back to the Big Sky state and the second data point. The data came to me in the form of a special four page advertising section on – you got it – Montana that appeared recently in The New Yorker magazine. Before you dismiss an advertisement about Montana in the elitist New Yorker as self-serving fluff, consider the Montana message.

The Montana advertisement – really more an essay than an ad – was all about the creative economy. The piece quotes 20-year Montana resident Walter Kirn – he wrote the novel that became the hit movie Up in the Air – and Alex Smith, a film director, who will be making a film this summer based on a novel by Jim Welch – another Montanan – about life on an Indian reservation.

Montana officials say the piece was aimed primarily at encouraging tourism, but I think it works on a deeper level. It says, in effect: Montana values creativity, smart people like it here and we welcome such things.

The ad, or whatever it is, continues: “Montana captivates the imagination of remarkably imaginative people – writers, yes, but actors, directors, musicians, painters, sculptors – not because of what’s so obviously here or not here. Rather, creative people keep finding themselves amid unplanned moments of clarity that resound through their lives.”

That, my friends, is the language of brand building; not to mention the language of a creative economy of the 21st Century.

The Montana New Yorker piece ends with “few states have their own literature; Montana’s runs broad and deep, reaching far beyond familiar titles like the Big Sky, The Horse Whisperer and A River Runs Through It and into the lives of its people.”

Any ad guy, particularly one with a well-considered point of view, sort of like Don Draper in Mad Men, will tell you that a brand can’t last if its built on spin. It must be authentic and it must be true. Montana, I think, has an authentic brand.

Like Idaho and most other states, Montana also has big troubles with budgets, schools are hurting. What might be different, and it might explain why Montana is perceived differently – why the brand works – is that deep down in the land of the Big Sky they get the fact that captivating the imagination of deeply creative people is the economic road map into the 21st Century.

Baucus, Clinton, Dallek, Haiti, Mansfield, Montana, U.S. Senate

What is it about Montana

MurrayGiants in the Senate

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.

Clinton, Film, Montana, Schweitzer

The Big Man In The Big Sky

schweitzerSchweitzer Does It His Way

While most of the nation’s governors have been serving up heaping helpings of bad news in the form of reductions in education spending, layoffs, furloughs and such, Montana’s Brian Schweitzer continues to blaze his own popular, political trail. While it may be too much to call the Big Man in the Big Sky a political original, the Treasure State Democrat continues to be one of the most talented political actors anywhere.

Schweitzer understands intuitively that effective politics often involves effective theater, particularly when the show involves the ability to pick the right fight. At the presidential level, Ronald Reagan and his advisers understood this basic reality. Remember Reagan’s “I am paying for this microphone Mr. Green!” moment during the 1980 New Hampshire GOP primary?

The Great Communicator understood that politics is performance, even as Democrats derided the one-time B-movie actor as nothing more than, well, an actor.

Elsewhere in the Northwest, Cecil Andrus in Idaho and Tom McCall in Oregon were masters of the art of picking an issue that kept them defined as “outsiders” while appealing broadly to their voters. Andrus took on the federal government over nuclear waste storage and McCall opposed storing deadly nerve gas at the Umatilla depot. Wildly popular stands that defined each governor as a crusader and populist. Andrus has joked during his long political career about being able to “throw an instant fit” to make a bigger political point, grab public attention and earn support.

Schweitzer’s most recent “political fit” generated headlines when the governor showed up at a Bozeman City Commission meeting – when is the last time a governor did that – and gave the city’s leading lights a drubbing before the public and the press. The issue was a decision by Bozeman city fathers to spend 50 grand in stimulus money on reconditioning tennis courts. Schweitzer told them spending the money on water treatment facilities made more sense. Wonder where the voters are on that one?

For students of political theater, the Associated Press account of the meeting is all the proof one needs that the bolo tie, cowboy boot wearing governor is in his element when he’s at center stage orchestrating a good ol’ political fight. Part of Schweitzer’s public appeal is that he appears to enjoy the battle so much.

In a perfect world, all our politicians would be brilliant policy wonks and the best ideas would always win out, but that is most definitely not the real world. Democrats, in particular, often seem to ignore or undervalued the fact that politics is fundamentally about the ability to communicate in a compelling, real way. It also helps to be able to see a good fight that is worth the picking.

Like him or not, you have to agree Montana’s Brian Schweitzer is a Democratic exception. He gets it.

Baucus, Clinton, Montana, U.S. Senate

Montana’s Mansfield

manA Model of the Modern Majority Leader

Next to operating from the Oval Office, the front row desk on the majority side of the aisle in the United States Senate is arguably the most difficult perch in politics. That seat is where the Majority Leader sits – or stands – and attempts to move forward the world’s greatest deliberative body.

Mike Mansfield, by general agreement, did the job better than anyone ever has. Not bad for a one-time mucker from the copper mines of Butte, Montana.

During this holiday season, as the Senate rancorously flails its way to a conclusion on health insurance reform legislation, ol’ Mike is looking better than ever.

Current leader Harry Reid of Nevada will get – and deserve – any credit (or blame) due if Congress does complete the legislation, as is looking likely. But Reid has gotten to the finish line with a much different style than Mansfield would have used and, as a result, he presides over a much different Senate.

As Reid pushes for a bill, difficulties and tempers flare around the leader. His home state situation is troubling, too. Reid trails in the polls in Nevada and his unfortunate comments equating GOP opposition to the health insurance bill to support for slavery riled the Senate.

Mansfield was from a different era, for sure, but his was also a time – like ours – of great divide in the country. Somehow he made the Senate work a lot better than the current model. It is worth pausing for a moment to remember the truly incredible Mansfield and his style in the Senate.

Mike, as his Montana constituents knew him, held the Senate’s top job longer than anyone in history – from 1961 to 1977. His memory is revered in Montana and deserves to be long remembered in the history of American politics in the 20th Century.

Through civil rights legislation, through Vietnam, LBJ’s Great Society, Watergate and investigations of the CIA, Mansfield cultivated an approach to leading the Senate that involved less of him and more of everyone else. He insisted on fair play and dignity. Mansfield once stopped proceedings on the Senate floor in the middle of a roll call vote to demand that an amendment be considered that then-rookie Republican Ted Stevens felt had been given short shrift. Another Senator had given Stevens his word that the amendment would be considered, but then reneged on the pledge. Mansfield made it right. Stevens never forgot the moment and he told me years later that he considered Mansfield the Senate’s greatest leader and an even greater person. No faint praise coming from a highly partisan Republican.

Very late in his life, I had a fascinating few minutes with Mansfield in his Washington, D.C. office. He was long out of the Senate, had been U.S. Ambassador to Japan under both a Democratic and Republican president and was, just shy of 100 years old, still working almost every day as an advisor to Goldman Sachs. He came out of his tidy office in the old Washington Star building to greet me, ushered me to a comfortable chair and proceeded to make me a cup of coffee.

I realized at that moment some of the secret to his success. He was practicing the “servant as leader” approach to personal relationships. He had no need to see me, nothing to gain from offering 45 minutes of his time, and had no doubt answered the same questions that I would put to him a thousand times. Still he displayed for me the same qualities he used so successfully and for so long in the Senate – civility, respect, kindness, attention to detail and candor.

We spoke that day of Montana political history and I remember asking him his assessment of the great Montana political figures. He mentioned Senators Lee Metcalf, Thomas Walsh, Jim Murray and Burton K. Wheeler before allowing that he would rank below all of them in all-time accomplishment. I questioned his ranking and he firmly pointed out that I had asked him for his assessment. “And that is my assessment,” he said.

There is no institution of our government remotely like the United States Senate. It was designed by the founders to be slow. Tradition says that every Senator, no matter how junior or powerful, can bring the place to a grinding halt with two words – “I object.”

The last few weeks have often shown the Senate at its worst, locked in endless parliamentary combat with Democrats seemingly more focused on gathering up the magic 60 votes to stop a filibuster than in producing understandable reform. Republicans have played the obstruction card full tilt, which Senate rules allow if not encourage. The civility and respect that a Mike Mansfield brought to the leadership seems totally lacking on both sides of the aisle these days. It seems like Reid and his GOP counterpart Mitch McConnell are so locked in blind partisanship that they can’t see what the rest of the country sees – legislative chaos and incredibly unproductive gamesmanship.

Contrast that with Mike’s approach to incredibly contentious civil rights legislation in the 1960’s. As Don Oberdorfer writes in his masterful biography of Mansfield, the Majority Leader knew, as he prepared for what turned out to be the longest Senate debate in history, that he first had to deal with southern Democrats opposed to any civil rights legislation. The southerners, like today’s Republicans, were determined to slow and, if possible, kill any bill with the filibuster. In those days, it required even more votes – 67 – to cut off the talking and start the voting.

With great dignity and deference, Mansfield called the cagey leader of the southerners, Georgia’s Richard Russell, to his office and explained in detail the approach he would be taking to the legislation. Oberdorfer writes, “Russell was astounded by Mansfield’s candor and wondered if it were a prelude to some unpleasant surprise – perhaps a discovery of an obscure provision in the rules that had somehow eluded the master parliamentary experts from Dixie.”

Oberdorfer goes on to quote Mansfield: “I kept Russell informed of every move that we made on the civil rights bill. I don’t think he took me too seriously at first, but he did with the passage of time. [There were] no back strokes, no hidden areas.”

Next, Mansfield invited the Republican leader, Illinois Senator Everett Dirksen, into the strategy development – Dirksen produced 40 amendments – and Mansfield insisted that his staff work to get the GOP leader the press attention he coveted and that ultimately lead to Dirksen receiving much of the credit for passing the landmark legislation. When Senators gathered after the historic vote to congratulate each other and claim credit, Mansfield avoided being in any of the photographs. He conspicuously gave away the credit to others.

Still, most Senators knew who had created the atmosphere for progress. Florida’s George Smathers summed up the feeling. “Much of the credit for the fact that [the bill] was disposed of without leaving large schisms was due to the good, calm, patient, magnanimous, long suffering and much admired Mike Mansfield.”

My favorite Mansfield story is told by former Montana Congressman Pat Williams, another wonderful and talented Butte Irishman. Pat had tried and failed, while Mansfield was serving as U.S. Ambassador to Japan, to lure the former leader to Capitol Hill so that he could be feted appropriately for his years of statesmanship. Finally, on a pretext, Mansfield had to come to a reception and be part of a receiving line where he quickly became the star attraction amid much praise of his work in the Senate and the Far East. When Williams reached out to shake hands with the former Senator, Mansfield pulled him in close and whispered, “Pat, what are we going to do about the Berkeley Pit?”

Never one to stand on any kind of ceremony, Mansfield was thinking, even at that moment and far away from Montana, about the massive Superfund site in his hometown.

The U.S. Senate may never see another leader like Mike Mansfield and that is a real shame for the Senate and the nation.

Baseball, Clinton, Montana, Politics

Like Father and Son

BaucusBig Weekend for Baucus and Messina

The Washington Post has a great piece today on Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus of Montana and his former top aide Jim Messina. Messina (left), a former Idahoan, is now White House Deputy Chief of Staff.

The piece is worth a read for several reasons, not least because it illustrates a fundamental rule of politics: personal relationships really matter. As the Senate, home of arcane rules and bound by tradition and history, inches toward critical votes on health care legislation, its worth remembering that the place is often all about “the inside game” conducted out of the glare of C-SPAN cameras.

Critics often demean the relationship side of politics and, of course, that kind of influence can be abused. Still in the best sense – in the human sense – being an insider simply means one has accumulated a lifetime of trust and confidence with lots of people. Politics, and particularly the rough and tumble of a political campaign, breeds a rare kind of relationship that is hard to describe, but impossible to diminish. Most people I know in politics cherish these personal relationships more than they do any sense of power or impact that might flow from them.

In simple terms, the world – and politics – operates on the basis of personal relationships. Or put another way, in politics and life you come to trust people who over a long period of time have proven to be honest, loyal, hard workers who care about the same things you care about.

The Baucus – Messina bond is one of the more important relationships in Washington these days. It is a fascinating study in how Washington works – and always has worked.