I worked for many years for a politician of the old school. Former Idaho Gov. and U.S. Secretary of the Interior Cecil D. Andrus practiced what is now clearly an old-fashioned version of politics.
Andrus could be, and often was, a tough partisan. Yet as a Democrat who served more than 14 years as governor during four terms spread across three decades, Andrus never once had a Democratic majority in the Legislature. He had to practice the art of the possible and that almost always involved give and take and compromise. It is an old school notion to believe that it’s not a political disaster when you have to settle for half a loaf.
Andrus had political adversaries but few enemies. He counted among his closest political friends an old golfing pal, and frequent partisan adversary, Phil Batt, the conversative Republican who followed Andrus into the governor’s office in 1995. A longtime Republican state senator from Boise, H. Dean Summers, was on Andrus’ speed dial. Back in the day when Democrats had greater numbers in the Legislature, if never a majority, Summers often helped Andrus pass his priority legislation. They were friends who could also make a deal.
In 1974, when Andrus was trying to get a controversial nominee confirmed to the state Public Utilities Commission (PUC), a project requiring a handful of Republicans votes, Summers convinced his friend the governor that another Boise Republican, Lyle Cobbs, might be persuaded to support the controversial Democratic candidate, but only if the conditions were right. The condition that became persuasive for Cobbs involved his enthusiastic backing of legislation to make then-Boise State College a university.
As luck would have it, or perhaps it was a matter of exquisite timing, a bill to rename the college was sitting on the governor’s desk when the PUC nomination came to the floor of the state Senate. During the debate, Andrus, on a signal from his friend Sen. Summers, placed a call to Sen. Cobbs’ desk and reminded the Republican that his important Boise State legislation was awaiting executive action. Andrus hardly needed to say he was watching how Cobbs voted on his PUC candidate.
Later, after Bob Lenaghan took his seat on the PUC and while Andrus was signing the legislation to create Boise State University, Cobb jokingly asked: “You wouldn’t have vetoed this bill would you, governor?” Andrus smiled and said, “You’ll never know will you, Lyle?”
The two politicians had effectively made a bargain. Andrus got what he wanted; Cobbs got what he needed. They trusted each other.
For a politician like Andrus, there was no higher compliment to be paid to a fellow pol than to say, “his word is good.” I heard him say it a thousand times. It was one of many reasons he got along so well with Batt. They could trust each other to stay “hitched,” as Andrus would say. You make a commitment to do something, you do it. You shake hands on a deal and then you never renege. You give your word and stick with it. Even if it becomes uncomfortable.
I’ve thought a lot about this old school approach to politics as I’ve watched Senate Republicans this week literally twist themselves into partisan pretzels in order to go back on commitments they made in 2016 not to consider, let alone vote, on Barack Obama’s Supreme Court candidate in that election year.
No matter how they try to spin it, from Lindsey Graham to Mike Crapo, from Lamar Alexander to Mike Lee, they simply aren’t keeping their word. Every Senate Republican save two has now said the principle they staked out then when a Democrat was in the White House doesn’t apply when their party controls who gets nominated to the high court. All are being accused of hypocrisy, but that word hardly does justice to the lack of character that allows politicians to do one thing when they want to prevent something from happening and the exact opposite when that position becomes convenient in order to arrive at a desired outcome.
Graham, the slippery South Carolinian, will become the poster boy for the current Republican double-dealing. He is actually on tape on at least two occasions saying that the pledge he made not to consider Obama’s appointee in 2016 would apply to a Republican in exactly the same circumstances. “You can use my words against me,” Graham said. And then he went back on his word.
Crapo and Graham and so many others have done the same. You’d be right to wonder if you could ever again trust their word on anything.
Some years ago, I wrote a remembrance of Montana Democrat Mike Mansfield, still the longest tenured majority leader in Senate history. I’d heard a story that Mansfield had once helped a freshman Republican, Ted Stevens of Alaska, as tough a partisan as ever prowled the Senate floor, get a fair shake on a piece of legislation. I wanted to confirm the story and arranged to speak to Stevens.
In a nutshell, Stevens had been promised by a senior Democrat that an amendment he wanted to offer to legislation particularly important to Alaska would be considered. But Stevens was busy in a committee meeting when the time came to offer his amendment and the courtesy of informing him was ignored. In short, a bond had been broken.
Stevens, a man with a hair-trigger temper, confronted the majority leader complaining — justifiably — that he’d been purposely snookered. As Stevens told me, Mansfield asked for a copy of the amendment the Alaskan had intended to offer, got recognized by the chair, interrupted the roll call and offered Stevens’ amendment as his own. It was adopted. Mansfield, one of the most respected men to ever serve in the Senate, was not going to let a colleague down. The substance of the issue was entirely unimportant, but the principle that your word is your bond was absolutely sacrosanct.
Ask yourself: Would you buy a used car from these guys whose word is so fungible? Would you trust a handshake deal with a Lindsey Graham or a Mike Crapo? When your word is worth so little, your character is worth even less.
Johnson served as press secretary and chief of staff to the late former Idaho Gov. Cecil D. Andrus. He lives in Manzanita, Ore.