Many of us complain a lot about many of the people populating American politics, but in doing so we often miss half of the equation. We see what we don’t like, but we don’t stop to consider the qualities we should be seeking out.
Here’s someone in whom you can find a great many of those positive qualities: Phil Batt, former governor and legislator and still an Idahoan concerned about the way things are going.
When I first encountered him long ago, via phone interview as a college newspaper reporter, Batt already had been around state politics for a decade and was then state Senate majority leader. He also had, already, developed a reputation in those circles as smart, trustworthy, a natural leader other people turned to, hard-working and, despite all that, not too full of himself. He was confident while stopping short of arrogance. And he could be fun to talk to. (When occasionally, back then, he’d send me a short hand-written note, it was always signed with a scrawled drawing of a bat.)
You can encounter Phil Batt in a new book called Lucky: The Wit and Wisdom of Governor Phil Batt, just published by Caxton Books. It is based around a series of interviews with Rod Gramer, who was a journalist in Idaho for many years, and includes essays from about a half-dozen people who got to know Batt. (Disclaimer: I was one of them.)
After those earlier years I alluded to, Batt went on to become lieutenant governor and, a dozen years after that, governor of Idaho. He served one term in each office, and generally made a practice of serving no more than a half-dozen or so years at a stretch in the legislature. Serving the people wasn’t about himself, he reasoned; it had more to do with staying close to those people, and not losing their perspective.
There is something to be said for accumulating experience in office, too, and I continue to think that the state missed out from not having a second Batt term; he was just hitting his full stride as his first came to an end. At a recent University of Idaho panel about this book, I made that point and was seconded by a person who in a way should have an incentive to the contrary: Dirk Kempthorne, the former senator and interior secretary who replaced Batt (who likely would have won easily) as governor instead. He recalled that at the time, he tried to talk Batt into running again.
Phil Batt remains a solid Republican - the former chair of the Idaho Republican Party (which he rebuilt in a bleak period for the organization) could hardly do otherwise.
But how many Republican leaders today would say something like this, as Batt did in a newspaper column from 1975: “Of all mankind’s baser modes of behavior, I believe that racism is the worst. It is the prime cause of a majority of wars. It causes fist fights, murder and fear. Perhaps worse, it causes millions of people to live in degradation and hopelessness.” That was no aberration, either; human rights have been a driving force throughout his public life.
What, you might ask, does Batt think about the current state of politics?
Here he was a little more guarded in his remarks. At one point, asked about Donald Trump, he replied - uncharacteristically - “Got to be careful of what I say,” and more or less walked around the subject.
He was more bluntly concerned with the anger and bitterness in politics these days. “The current political climate is a shameful thing,” he said in the book’s interview. “I don’t have an answer for it, but it has damaged our country worldwide and can get a lot worse.” His usual political optimism seems more muted here.
But I do have an answer for it. We can elect people who approach their public responsibilities - and we can act as responsible citizens - in many of the ways Phil Batt has. That would mark a definite improvement over a lot of what we have now.