Back in 1976, when I started work at the (then) daily newspaper at Caldwell, one of the regular visitors to the newsroom was a bolo-tied local businessman named Ralph Smeed. He came for several reasons. One was to drop off a copy of his weekly column. Another was to visit with his friend the managing editor. But he didn't rush, and he generally made a point of visiting with other people too, such as the just-out-of-school new local government and cops reporter.
Smeed was what might now be a true oddity, not because of his politics but because of his person. He was a man of very specific political philosophy; it could fit easily on a bumper sticker, or even in a single word: anti-government. It did not adjust to facts; the world, rather, bent around to the philosophy. At the time, the young reporter suspected for that reason his views would not have an especially long shelf life. And the views Smeed held from the 1960s right up to his death yesterday in Boise, at 88, seem to have changed not in the slightest over the course of a half-century and more.
In fact, they have had a lot of impact. By 1976, Smeed's good friend and co-philosopher Steve Symms already had been elected to the U.S. House, and four years later he would reach the Senate. In 1974 the third man in the Caldwell libertarian troika, Bob Smith, had given Democrat Frank Church a strong run for re-election in a Democratic year. Much more would come. Smeed was a strong influence on a long roster of libertarian-oriented Republicans, not limited to but especially around the Canyon County area, for three more decades. They include, not least, the present governor of Idaho, C.L. "Butch" Otter.
That would make Smeed part of a large Idaho crowd these days, but only a small one back then. And this is what would make him unusual now: Smeed was a happy warrior, a smiling missionary, not an angry man. (For all the large philosophical overlap, it's hard to imagine Smeed at a Tea Party event.) You might guess from his billboards and from many of his writings that the man was a flinty, suspicious, angry dude. But he wasn't; he seemed to enjoy just fine talking with any number of people who didn't agree with him, and he did not often leave a negative personal impression. He maintained a lot of friendships for many years, an unusual thing for a hard-core ideologue, which he certainly was.
Idaho has been moving in a conservative direction for some decades, and no one person made that happen. But Ralph Smeed provided a critical bit of leverage as some critical change was happening; he and some of his early compadres effectively bought low and sold high. If you look at the list of people most influential in Idaho over the last 50 years and extract from it those who have held public office (which if memory serves Smeed never did) or got them elected, who have run major businesses, who have run major religious or non-profit organizations, you might have to put Ralph Smeed at the top of the list. A pretty powerful result for a guy who, 35 years ago, seemed to be part of a remote fringe group shouting in the wilderness.