Press "Enter" to skip to content

Carlson: The dangling conversation

Chris Carlson
Carlson Chronicles

Former Idaho Supreme Court Justice Byron Johnson has written a wonderful, colorful, interesting and entertaining personal memoir, entitled Poetic Justice, that is a welcome addition to all those interested in Idaho history.

He tells a good, though incomplete, story about his youth, his years at Harvard and Harvard Law, his practicing law in Boise for many years, and an abortive run for the U.S. Senate in 1972. He also provides some remarkably candid insights into the operation of Idaho’s State Supreme Court.

All this candor made it all the more remarkable that he skipped over the mid-50’s hysteria that gripped Boise over an alleged homosexual ring scheme later captured in the classic The Boys of Boise. Except for citing the book’s reference to his opposition views on capital punishment there is nary a mention.

There was much I could identify with and some uncanny similarities.

Shortly after joining Governor Andrus’ staff in late 1972, I would hustle down to the YMCA to play noon-time basketball. Among the regulars besides the future Justice Johnson, were Jim Bruce, the chairman and CEO of Idaho Power, and a young state representative from Caldwell who had sharp elbows and wasn’t afraid to throw them by the name of Butch Otter. A guy named Mike Gwartney from Salmon kept feeding Otter the ball—some things don’t change. A couple of other fine attorneys, Howard Humphrey and Mike Southcombe, and a young state employee the Governor ended up tapping to help with his Idaho’s Tomorrow program, Dave Alvord, from Twin Falls, rounded out the regulars.

Other similarities include a love of politics, a joy in frequent backpacking trips with family and friends, mountain climbing, much pleasure in cross-country skiing, and a burning desire to make a difference. We both also accepted scholarships to and matriculated from Ivy League schools, he at Harvard, and me at Columbia.

We both constantly ask lots of questions and are not afraid to challenge our beliefs. We both love literature, history and poetry as well as enjoy writing. We both have had fascinating perspectives and involvement in helping make Idaho history in our own respective ways.

We both are managing as best we can the onset of late life Parkinson’s disease and cancer and we both penned memoirs with our grandchildren in mind.

There are some major differences, however, and therein lies the rest of the story.

In politics I chose to hitch myself to the rising star of Cecil Andrus and stay in the background. Byron ran for and lost races for state representative and for the U.S. Senate. Also, initially he was attracted to another Harvard-educated lawyer, Lloyd Walker, who Andrus defeated in a gubernatorial primary. And when Byron ran for the Senate he in the eyes of some was challenging an early friend, Tony Park, who as Attorney General could make a better claim.

When he lost, Byron attributed his loss to factors external to himself rather than recognize the voters are pretty discerning.

They saw quirkiness in his nature exemplified by his temporarily withdrawing from the 1972 Democratic primary before re-entering. To his credit though he candidly admits his driving ambition and desire to succeed contributed heavily to the collapse of his first marriage.

This quirkiness is also reflected in his poetry selections which, though interesting really did not resonate with me in a lyrical way one hopes poetry will. He’s poet who conveys conviction but I couldn’t help thinking about a couple of lines from the Simon and Garfunkel song “The dangling conversation.”

Like a poem poorly written/

We are verses out of rhythm/

Couplets out of rhyme/

In syncopated time. . .

The poetic song also captures the distance that grew between Byron and his wife which he is painfully honest about:

And you read your Emily Dickinson/

And I my Robert Frost/

And we note our places with bookmarkers/

That measure what we’ve lost. . .

The most lyrical writing comes when he quotes a truly great graph he wrote for his eulogy to Idaho City Mayor John Brogan, a much beloved figure to all who knew him. Built around the theme of a play they’d all been in, Our Town, it was truly moving.

This is one of those books though that leaves one thinking long after he has put it down. As a remembrance for his children and grandchildren it is a wonderful gift of love and it is a great gift to people who care about the people and politics of Idaho. An honest, intelligent, informative perspective on many events and people who have helped to make this state, I for one want to thank him for putting his story in writing.

Here’s hoping others follow his lead.

CHRIS CARLSON is a writer at Medimont, Idaho.

Share on Facebook