"No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying, and which we trust will end in establishing the fact, that man may be governed by reason and truth. Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all the avenues to truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is the freedom of the press. It is, therefore, the first shut up by those who fear the investigation of their actions." --Thomas Jefferson to John Tyler, 1804.

A transformative governor

carlson CHRIS


July 20 marks the 25th anniversary of the death of a governor never elected by the people of Idaho who nonetheless had a more profound and lasting impact upon Idahoans than many of its elected governors. His name was Forrest H. Anderson, the 17th governor of Montana who in one-term, 1968-1972, not only transformed Montana but indirectly helped his colleague, Cecil D. Andrus, to transform Idaho.

Born in Helena on January 30, 1913, he died tragically by his own hand at the age of 76 in Helena on July 20th, 1989. He had been in ill health for years in part due to a hard life consumming too much alcohol (A functioning alcoholic he allegedly quit drinking during his second term as Montana attorney general, 1960-1964) and too much tobacco whether cigarettes, a pipe or a cigar.

A short, almost pixie-like figure, he nonetheless towers over most other Montana governors in terms of ability to change the state and turn its government into true and efficient public servants. He could be brusque with people and caustic. He often swore like a lumberjack and had little use for the press. A very private person he was often accused of acting in secret (He did). A humble man, he eschewed all the trappings of high office.

Montanans, however, loved him. He was elected three times as attorney general (1956, 1960, 1964), served a term early in his career from Lewis and Clark County in the Montana Legislature (1945-47), and was twice elected as an associate justice of Montana’s State Supreme Court. He is the only person to ever serve in all three branches of government in Montana.

He could have easily been re-elected governor but his declining health compelled him to step aside after but one term – one however which saw Montana’s government truly changed. Two of the three major changes he brought about in Montana had their “successors” in Idaho.

Anderson first met Idaho’s newly elected 39 year old governor, Cecil D. Andrus, in the summer of 1971 at a Western Governors Association meeting in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. They hit it off immediately, though Anderson was almost twenty years older. Both had reputations for candor and political smarts and both recognized similarities in the other.

While there Anderson walked Andrus through the intricacies of his successful effort to take Montana’s 160 agencies, boards, and commissions and consolidate them down into no more than 20 state agencies. He packaged it in the form of an initiative that he took to the people for a vote in November of 1970. It passed over whelmingly.

Andrus recognized Idaho had the same need, so lifted the page from Anderson’s playbook, ingeniusly added the phrase “one-stop” shopping, and took it to Idaho’s voters in November of 1972 with a similar result.

On another occasion Andrus was complaining to Anderson about the spiraling costs for Idaho in belonging to an interstate compact for higher education services (WICHE) not usually available in states like Idaho and Montana, including various fields of medical education. After listening to Andrus, Anderson said, “Well, Cece, let’s form our own.”

Thus was the highly successful WAMI (stands for Washington, Alaska, Montana and Idaho) program born whereby states like those and later Wyoming, without medical schools purchase seats at the University of Washington’s Medical School. Graduates of the program are encouraged and incentivized to return to their sponsoring state to apply their skills especially in underserved rural areas.

Anderson also will forever be known as the generator of the modern Montana State Constitution. He felt Montana’s original needed a complete overhaul. He spearheaded the successful creation of a Montana Constitutional Commission that sent to the people in 1972 a revised and modernized Constitution which narrowly passed. Recognizing he had more than enough on his plate, Andrus did not follow Anderson’s lead on this.

One story tells much about this “little big man:” While serving as governor he would sometimes spend an evening picking up trash in the fishing access parking lot adjacent to some property he owned on the Missouri River. The story goes that a passerby walked into a nearby bar and complained to the bartender that there was some deluded fool out in the parking lot picking up trash who also claimed to be Montana’s governor. The bar tender replied quietly, “He is.”

On July 20th take a moment to say a prayer for the repose of the soul of the best un-elected governor Idahoans across the years will continue to be the beneficiaries from his fine public service. Rest in peace, Forrest H. Anderson. Your place in the history of two states is secure.

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