There’s a standard - a standard courtesy, maybe - that when people are mentioned in public accounts after their death, what’s said are almost entirely good things, however controversial the person may have been in life.
The commentary on Phil Batt, a public Idahoan of many decades’ standing who died on March 4, was not much different. The former governor, lieutenant governor, legislator, state party chair and more was widely praised. But what may have been less obvious to many people, at this late date, is that much the same was said during his lifetime, many years ago.
Most Idahoans. Not necessarily all.
When I first heard of him, in the mid-70s, everyone from conservative Republicans to liberal Democrats seemed to agree that this was a smart, ethical, public-spirited guy with an interest in both economy and fairness. And he was only a decade into his years of service back then, which in hindsight was remarkable since learning this about him could take a little time and observation. He wasn’t the world’s best self-promoter. Though for a time also a newspaper columnist, he never was more profligate with words than with money; the quotes in his column are about as loquacious as he got.
Back in 2012, Martin Peterson and I included Batt in our book about (in our opinion) the 100 most influential Idahoans in the state’s history. Here’s part of what we wrote:
“Batt had a long history in Idaho politics from his first election to the Idaho House in 1964 until he departed the governor’s office after 1998. He was a legislator for many of those years, a lieutenant governor and chair of the state Republican Party, which he helped put back together after its disastrous 1990 election (the most recent bad one that party has had).
“Partly because his credentials in all those areas are so unquestioned, and partly because he chooses his moments carefully, Batt is listened to closely when he does speak.
“One of those occasions in 2014 came after state legislative leaders declined to consider ‘add the words’ legislation on gay rights. Batt responded with an impassioned newspaper column which concluded, ‘I would like to have somebody explain to me who is going to be harmed by adding the words to our civil rights statutes prohibiting discrimination in housing and job opportunities for homosexuals. Oh, I forgot, that might hurt the feelings of the gay bashers’.”
“The column generated a lot of discussion.”
Batt went where the facts and humanity of a situation took him. That might mean questioning the guilt of a murder convict (as he did as governor in one memorable case) or supporting rights for farm workers, both times putting him at odds with his natural political allies. And those cases were not unique.
He was a partisan - you don’t get to be chair of a statewide major party if you’re not, and Batt was an unusually successful chair - but while Batt never broke from the Republican Party (and his views on public affairs were not greatly different from decades ago), he seemed distinctly uneasy with some of the more recent trends and currents in it.
And some Republican factions, in a party which has changed a lot over the last few decades, became uneasy with him.
In an interview with Rod Gramer for the book Lucky, Batt spoke of that: “I have been a Republican all my life. I have done a lot of work for Republicans because I believe that they have the best theories toward addressing the needs of national, state and local questions for the benefit of the citizens. I’ve been called a RINO, and I’m not particularly offended by that. But I plead not guilty.”
It depends, presumably, on what “Republican” means. What it meant for Batt involved public service, efficiency, effectiveness, fairness and other virtues. They’re enough for a lot of Idahoans of widespread political persuasions to call him their own, and to wonder where the next generation of people like Phil Batt will come from.