"I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions. But laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors." - Thomas Jefferson (appears in the Jefferson Memorial)

Review: McClure of Idaho

McClure of Idaho, by William L. Smallwood, Caxton Press, Caldwell ID (2007).

reviewIn thinking back on James McClure, who was a senator from Idaho for 18 years through 1990 and a U.S. representative six years before that, you don’t recall either an overwhelming personality or riotous controversy; the mental picture can seem a little blurred, some of the normal shorthand – that he was a “conservative Republican” – doesn’t quite seem to cut it, especially for what the terms mean in this decade.

McClure bookThe new – release is set for September 1 – biography, McClure of Idaho, brings some focus. Get hold of two basic points and you have a fair sense of this guy who, improbably in some ways, has been one of Idaho’s most successful politicians.

One is this: He never really left the small, socially conservative, rural town of Payette where he grew up and established himself professionally. Politicians like to say such things about themselves, but in McClure’s case it seems generally true, generating the range of positives and negative you get from that background.

The other, less obvious to most of the public but clear to those who worked around or across from him, is implied by this passage: “You need to know that Jim McClure fancies himself as the consummate do-it-yourselfer. He did all the wiring and plumbing and heating installations in his Payette house during the years when it was undergoing remodeling, and he did the same thing in his cabin on Payette Lake outside of McCall. There isn’t anything around a house that he thinks he can’t install or repair.” McClure was (is presumably), to a degree unusual for a legislator, a highly focused detail man, happier working on the precise language of legislation or on a stubborn electrical wiring job, than in blasting off on the ills of the world.

Put the two pieces together, and you have a basis for evaluating McClure. This book, too – in an analogous sense, it too has these qualities. It is very much an “authorized” biography, and its mood and attitude is suffused by McClure’s and the community of family, friends and associates around him. But its 485 pages are also packed with loads of detail, and it’s an easy recommended read for anyone interested in one of Idaho’s leading political figures and the impact – considerable – he has had on the state.

Your writer should note here some background. I covered McClure as a newspaper reporter and editor during his last dozen or so years as a senator, and held him in some regard (and still do) as a highly capable public servant. (Should note too that the publisher, Caxton Press, also published a book I wrote called Governing Idaho, which can be located on the right-hand column of this site’s main page.) Linda Watkins (the managing editor here) worked at his Boise office as an intern for several months in the early 80s, and left with a favorable impression of both the senator and the office.

Externally, McClure was a classic example of “working up the steps” in politics: From Payette County prosecutor, to state senator, to Senate leadership, to the U.S. House, to the U.S. Senate, and came respectably close to becoming Senate majority leader. All of this suggests a grasping ambition, and in many politicians it would be, but you never got that sense from McClure. From him you got interest and energy about the job, but also an amiability that almost seemed diffident. You can imagine him walking into a room filled with people and just handing out by the wall, waiting for someone to walk up and talk; that’s not really an accurate image, but mainly because he trained himself to push out and campaign. Not many politicians clearly understand their personal assets while maintaining genuine humility and a personable style; McClure was a rarity in that. (Another way of putting it is to say that he had no personal charisma, an assessment he’d likely accept.) While a senator, he never seemed so smitten with the Beltway as to have any trouble giving it up, which he did in his mid-60s. (A fourth term in 1990 would have been his for the asking.)

That may be in part because he was always, in some important part of his mind, a small-town lawyer in a conservative, insular, religious community that viewed a lot of the outside world with some suspicion. For example. The upheaval of the 60s can be described in many ways; when writer William Smallwood characterizes much of it as a period of runamuck federal regulation and spending as the streets ran foul in unkempt hippies (all of which, he writes, was “generating outrage among the concerned citizens in the hinterlands” – so that we know which Americans were the concerned citizens and which were not), we’re getting a sense of many of the people of Payette, and McClure and the people around him, saw it. And how he saw the world, in the big sense, didn’t seem to change enormously however much detailed knowledge he accumulated (which he did) or however much he traveled around in it.

All of this alone might have made McClure a so-so legislator at best, but he also had this gift for detail, and that was transformative. Possibly no other member of Congress from Idaho has ever had it the way McClure did, and it gave him real value in every legislative job he held, and he held them continuously for three decades. Occasionally, the big picture notwithstanding, it would lead him into interesting places, such as his long-running enthusiasm for electric cars, one of which he owned for many years. Detail is the underappreciated heart and soul of legislating, and McClure was a natural at it; this book has the level of specificity to tell what that meant, on a range of levels.

In several ways, this book’s approach is entirely appropriate for McClure. It is thorough, but not to the point of obsession; it is cleanly told, and the key episodes are rendered well. We’d question emphasis and characterization in some places (and there are a few niggling errors), but no glaring omissions.

McClure of Idaho has the kind of plain title that ordinarily seems offhand, but actually earns itself (as, say, Borah of Idaho never did or could have) from the narrative. If either of those subjects are of interest, it’ll repay reading.

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