On a warm fall day 40 years ago, I was stranded on a dusty street in Stanley, in the middle of one of the hottest political stories in the nation.
In 1980, in Idaho, the hot political subject without a doubt was the race for the U.S. Senate between Democratic incumbent Frank Church and Republican challenger (and at the time the first district representative) Steve Symms. This contest had been on for a long time, even before either of the candidates had announced. Not only the candidates’ campaigns but many side organizations were deeply involved. And people in Idaho were deeply interested - more, deeply emotional about it, and you had little trouble figuring out who was where.
It was a nationally-watched race, one of the half-dozen or so state contests with widespread import. National news organizations were in and out of Idaho. And several Idaho political reporters spent a lot of time covering it; I spent most of my work hours during that period on it. I thought at the time it was the Idaho campaign of the century; I still think so.
One Monday in October, I drove from my home base in Pocatello to Blackfoot, then caught a ride to St. Anthony, which is where Symms and his rotating campaign entourage of a dozen to two dozen people - campaign volunteers and staff, reporters, a few stray allied politicians - were at the moment. I had arranged to join the campaign bus for a while and report on what I saw.
Symms was a great campaigner, speaking to groups large and small if there were any, or working the grocery stores shaking hands otherwise. The bus made quick stops in small towns, even places like Howe that didn’t quite qualify as towns, and it didn’t linger long. The bus horn hooted when it was time to go, and wheels rolled within a minute.
At Stanley, I tried to phone in a short news story, and had to call from inside a restaurant, there being no outside phones. I missed the horn, and as I dashed out of the place I saw the bus leaving town.
Well, that was a problem: Not a lot of rental cars available in Stanley then (or now).
The problem was soon solved. Symms’ parents, Darwin and Irene, were along on the trip but driving their own vehicle, and their assignment turned out to include picking up stragglers. Someone on the bus had noticed I wasn’t there, so Symms’ parents were dispatched back to Stanley.
I recalled in a report for the Idaho State Journal how they told me “a few days earlier they’d gone back to Glenns Ferry to find a girl dressed in an elephant costume who had missed the bus. She looked forlorn and lost after they located her. But she was easy to identify.”
Such was politics in the superheated year of 1980.
Idaho in 2020 has no such hot races, not at least on the state level.
But our social environment has become poisoned. We hear of baby-eating sex traffickers as definitions of the opposition, meant to be taken seriously. We’re seeing Niagara Falls quantities of lies, some of them from foreign sources, polluting our political discussion. We’re seeing too many politically active people motivated far more by trying to infuriate - or even destroy - the opposition than we are actually in support of someone, or something.
The seeds of this were sown by the time of that campaign in 1980. But they hadn’t really sprouted yet. If the subject of politics came up, you usually could expect the discussion would be civil, and most people would remain friendly. The opposition consisted of human beings, wrong-headed maybe but not demons from hell.
We can still do this. I’ve occasionally attended a Boise coffee group (not so much in this Covid year) including people from all over the spectrum, and we get along just fine.
But we have to make the effort, and sometimes go back, in a friendly way, to pick up those we have left behind, in one fashion or another.