Writings and observations

carlsonlogo1

Every Idahoan who cares about this state and how it came to be should read two relatively obscure books and be grateful the authors lived and worked here.

Through their writings and teaching these two left an indelible imprint on Idaho. Though they labored in obscurity, the political cognoscenti in Idaho know them well. Though they are fading into the mist of history, their contributions should be remembered. Any Idaho history is incomplete if it does not acknowledge their roles in shaping modern Idaho.

One book is a delightful novel, a murder mystery in fact, but chock full of the author’s knowledge of Idaho government, politics and public affairs. The other is a wonderful history of the major environmental issues that transformed and dominated much of Idaho’s political debate for fifty years, from the late 1930’s to the late 1980’s.

The novel, The Unlikely Candidate, is by the late Syd Duncombe who for 27 years taught government and political science courses at the University of Idaho. He was an inspiring influence to an entire generation of Idaho’s political leadership. Among those influenced directly by taking a class or indirectly by being drawn into out of class discussions prompted by his teachings were future U.S. senators and/or governors like Dirk Kempthorne, Jim Risch, Larry Craig and Steve Symms or future attorney generals like David Leroy. Then there are the “behind the scenes” political practitioners also influenced by Duncombe’s passion for politics, people like Phil Reberger, Robie Russell, Marty Peterson and Roy Eiguren.

Many of his former students could recall how he brought politics to life by brinigng different hats to class and then switching hats as he switched roles in the lessons he was bringing to life. His knowledge of politics was not just academic either. Before coming to Idaho he had worked in state government in New York and had been Superintendent of the Budget in Ohio.

He cultivated political office holders on both sides of the aisle. One of his great fans was Cecil Andrus who made Duncombe his Acting Director of the Budget Office upon his first election as governor in 1970. Duncombe put together Andrus’ first budget and Andrus always acknowledged his debt for Syd showing how a governor could truly shape policy if he understood how to put together a budget.

The novel’s hero is, surprise, a retired state budget director. Duncombe, however, wove into the text the kind of authentic details and knowledge that rings true with any who have been drawn into politics.

Syd had been working on the novel for several years. His beloved wife, Mary, died in 1997 but before doing so insisted Syd finish the book which he did in 1998. His passages on cancer are poignant as his writing was obviously one way of dealing with his grief.

He died at the age of 78 in Idaho Falls in late September of 2004. His legacy should live on beyond the life span of the hearts that were directly touched by his zest for life and politics.

The second book, Defending Idaho’s Natural History, is by former journalist and nine-term State Representative Ken Robison. He was born in Nampa in 1936, received his B.A. degree from Idaho State in 1957 and began a 30 year career in Journalism in 1959 as a copy editor at the Idaho Statesman. He was both a reporter and editor for the Statesman and from 1977 until his election to the Idaho Legislature in 1986 from Boise’s 19th Legislative District was the editorial page editor.

When it came to handing out charisma Ken missed the session. He always came across as a thoughtful but calm, dispassionate and objective – the journalistic version of Joe Friday – “just the facts, Ma’m” To the surprise of many though he turned into an outstanding legislator, one who always did his homework and when he spoke people listened.

He loved the Legislature, so he was one of those bulldog campaigners – knocking on every door in his district every year. Not surprisingly, his diligence and had work was rewarded by re-election eight times.

Robison brings this same diligence to his history of Idaho’s major environmental battles. He recognizes the truth in the old expression “success has a thousand fathers and mothers; failure is an orphan.”
He knows too that it is “citizen-activists” who bring change about and the parade of the involved changes inasmuch as some battles are decades long.

He does justice though to the many key folks who put forth time, talent and treasure. His account of the behind-the-scenes maneuvering is fascinating, and he exhaustively documents his sources. From the battles to restore salmon and steelhead runs, to the fight to protect the White Clouds, Hells Canyon and the Sawtooths to the creation of the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness and the Selway/Bitteroot Wilderness its all there.

Robison has done an invaluable service in documenting the fight and the fighters.

Like Duncombe he too has labored in obscurity, but all Idahoans owe them both a tremendous vote of thanks.

Share on Facebook

Carlson

Two exceptional reads to recommend today, both providing some explanation and understanding of one of the opposing sides of the great divides in American culture and politics.

One is personal, or from a personal angle, and ought to be read by anyone on the other side of the fence – though it likely won’t be, since it would be too disturbing. On the surface, it was a first-person story about a woman, a mother of two, who recently decided to have an abortion. Her reasons why, and her description of life on the front lines of the culture war, make for some raw reading.

Previously she had written a piece on line, which got some attention, “about what it was like to be exhausted and hopeless and be told that you simply needed to work harder or give up more. It was about my life, and the lives of millions of others.” It generated violent reaction including plenty of threats against her – and her children.

She wrote about “the worry that I, and millions of women across America, have felt is the only rational response to life in a country where it’s perfectly legal to scream epithets like a banshee inches from a woman’s face simply because she wanted another Depo shot. We all have to think about that, about the fact that any one of those people might be homicidally misinformed, that one of them might decide that today is the day to martyr themselves or us.”

The other article helps make some sense of where some of that anger and violence is coming from by looking at a symptom of the problem from a non-political angle: From that of health.

Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo writes about a study that’s been out for a few weeks – you may have have briefly seen a headline about it – the finding of an unusually high death rate, since the late 1990s, of middle-aged and non-college educated non-Hispanic white people in America. The death rate in the last 15-plus years in other sectors in the American population (and in that sector in other countries) has been gradually falling, but among white middle-aged non-college people, men and women, it has spiked upwards sharply, a great contrast to everyone else. One more thing: The specific cause of death driving that spike is this: “drug and alcohol poisonings, suicide and chronic liver disease. In other words, either literal suicide or the slow motion suicide of chronic substance abuse.”

Why is this happening? Marshall starts by noting “On the one hand, the correlation with lower education levels points us to a phenomenon we’ve known about for years: the declining economic and life prospects of less educated, less affluent Americans who are taking the brunt of the great divergence between the ten percent or so of the population that is getting ahead in today’s economy and everyone else who is just struggling to hold their own or falling behind.”

But why are other ethnic groups – Hispanic, black, others – not spiking upward as well? Marshall suggests “the stressor at work here is the perceived and real loss of the social and economic advantages of being white.”

Marshall couches this in terms of theorizing, not a finally established conclusion. But I’d be surprised if he’s not at least mostly right: It makes so much sense of why so much destructive, and self-destructive, activity is happening in America.

The plus side of the picture may be that younger cohorts seem not to be reacting this way – they may have grown up with a different social view and set of expectations. That might mean we will eventually grow our way out of this. But it may take a long time. – rs (photo/Dave Pape)

Share on Facebook

First Take