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It only took 20 years


When I last covered an Idaho legislative session as a reporter, in 2001, one of the legislators I was following closely had a bill proposal that seemed, on the surface, to have everything going for it.

He was on the House Agriculture Committee, a member of the majority caucus (Republican, of course) and allied with the chair of the committee, and this was a bill aiming to deregulate an agricultural practice - to free up the marketplace. He had significant support for the idea around the state, and the proposal he had was making strides around the country. And it allowed only for limited, narrow usage.

This should sound like a prescription for easy passage in the Idaho Legislature. But the legislator was Tom Trail, who was considered suspiciously centrist by some in his caucus, and the deregulation - actually, legalization - was of the crop called hemp.

Trail delivered an entirely compelling argument for the bill at House Agriculture. He got no traction at all. There were no strong arguments against his bill, just a lot of shuffling of feet and a bunch of (semi-embarrassed?) “nay” votes.

He would go on to try again. No luck. The votes just weren’t there.

After Trail left the legislature, others would pick up the effort. Occasionally someone would find a way to score a few more votes, but never nearly enough to actually pass the bill.

This went on for most of the last 20 years.

Hemp, which is related to but different from the cannabis plants that produce marijuana, was swept up in the 1970 federal controlled substances act. In the new century, however, states began experimenting with allowing the crop under state laws. They had motivation: Hemp has been a cash crop in America since the time of the Revolution. You can make clothes, paper, rope, paint, animal feed and much more. Many other countries around the world make plenty of money from it.

When Republican Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell went to bat for hemp, one think-tank report noted that he “understood much about this issue. First, he knows hemp doesn’t get you high and that the drug war debate that swept up hemp was politically motivated, rather than policy-oriented. Second, Kentucky—the leader’s home state—is one of the best places to cultivate hemp in the world, and pre-prohibition the state had a robust hemp sector. Third, the grassroots interest in this issue was growing in Kentucky …”

After a 2014 change in federal law allowed for pilot programs in hemp manufacture, states nationwide swept into the field - in 2016 alone, states from Alabama to Colorado to Hawaii eased back or reversed completely their rules on hemp. In 2018 Congress essentially legalized commercial hemp production, drawing a distinction between that product and psychoactive cannabis. By last year, every state but Idaho and Mississippi - which relaxed its rules somewhat too - allowed for hemp as a crop.

Idaho now seems on the verge of hemp legalization. Last week, a hemp bill cleared the legislature and is headed for the desk of Governor Brad Little; his signature seems more likely than not.

So what has been Idaho’s problem with hemp all these many years?

In short: It’s a culture war thing. One year momentum seemed with with the crop, but then a retired prosecutor declared, “The culture of hemp is the culture of marijuana,” and, well, that was all it took. No legislator wanted to be identified with the “culture of marijuana,” and actual facts became irrelevant.

Legislation, rules that help people and communities thrive or fail, these days live or die in many legislatures, Idaho’s not least of them, depending on where they seem to sit in the culture wars. Actual benefits and harm seem seldom considered with any seriousness.

That doesn’t mean you can’t pass actual useful, as opposed to culture war, legislation.

But on the evidence of the hemp bill, you might figure on it taking you 20 years.

The new news


Four decades ago at this time of year, the Idaho Legislature was, as it is now, nearing its close. It was a different legislature then, and a different corps of news reporters covered it.

My legislative directory from the 1981 session (yes, I’ve kept it after all these years) included, as the directories have before and since, lists of the news organizations accredited to cover the legislature. The 1981 list included two wire services, nine newspapers (Moscow, Idaho Falls, Nampa, Pocatello, Lewiston, Twin Falls, Meridian and two from Boise), four television stations from the Boise area (including Idaho Public Television) and four radio stations.

The directory from this year’s session includes fewer in each of these categories (except television stations, which are organized and affiliated differently). Fewer reporters from these organizations are full-time at the Statehouse, and overall probably spend fewer reporting hours there.

Except . . . I left something out of that newer listing that wasn’t in the old one, a new type of news organization: The non-profit.

The Idaho Statehouse for some years has seen energetic work from the Idaho Education News, a web-only news service which specifically covers education issues in the state but also keeps a close eye on legislative activities. A nonprofit organization staffed by experienced journalists, it has done a highly creditable job. Skeptics at the start noted that major funding came from the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation, which had an interest in a number of education issues. But the IEN operation has proven itself as reliable, independent and a highly useful information source. (Disclosure: I make use of some of its reports for one of my publications.)

It offers some precedential hope, for people interested in seeing more public affairs reporting in Idaho, and for another non-profit news organization that started just last week, in time to catch the tail end of the current legislative session: The Idaho Capital Sun.

Allied with a group of nonprofit state-level news organizations around the country, the Sun describes itself as Idaho’s “newest nonprofit news organization delivering accountability journalism on state politics, health care, tax policy, the environment and more.” Its editor is Christina Lords, who until not long ago edited the Idaho Statesman daily newspaper, and others on staff also have newspaper backgrounds. Lords described the organization as “a small — but mighty — team of experienced Idaho journalists interested in diving into these issues and more as Idaho’s newest nonprofit online journalism outlet. We’re a part of our parent organization, States Newsroom, which has outlets in 20 other states, including our neighbors Montana and Nevada.”

This Idaho development is part of an under-reported national trend. Non-profit news gathering is growing, while for-profit news gathering has been shrinking in size (notwithstanding recent expansions in some places, like the Adams newspapers in southern Idaho). That carries pluses and minuses, but the differences can be subtle. Both are reliant on their income sources - chiefly donors for one, advertisers for the other - and could be subject to external influences.

But the new organizations also come with a lot of potential. The Sun, for example, gives as its purpose “relentless investigative journalism that sheds light on how decisions in Boise and beyond are made and how they affect everyday Idahoans.” That’s specifically what the people who set it up and lead it expect of it, which is much more ambitious than most of Idaho’s (or other) traditional news organizations can say.

A lot will depend now on how many people read it and contribute to it. The Sun and its kin have a significant challenge.

The press corps is changing, but some of the changes may help make up in years to come for some of what we’ve lost. At least, we have some improving grounds for thinking so.

Universities, ethics and social justice


In 1976 Harvard University President Derek Bok wrote an article asking, “Can Ethics Be Taught?” Concluding that it could and should be, about a decade later (no point in hurrying these things) he asked a new hire to set up a system of "problem-oriented courses in ethics" covering a range of disciplines.

The ethics center at Harvard grew rapidly, as a history of it recounted: “The Center's accomplishments have multiplied exponentially, but so have the complexities of modern life. As the need for leaders who can make sound moral judgments in public and professional life increases, the wisdom of establishing a Center with the mission of promoting ethics teaching and research is more apparent today than ever.” There is some logic to that - to at least developing thinking, not necessarily prescription - to the subject, because our knowledge so often outruns our moral wisdom.

Ethics instruction in American colleges, and even in public schools, goes back many years, but it has expanded into practical ways in recent years. One website noting some of the courses available listed, for example, Moralities of Everyday Life (Yale University), Ethics, Technology and Engineering (Eindhoven University of Technology), Data Science Ethics (University of Michigan), and Effective Altruism (Princeton University) among many others.

Might this become a subject of controversy? Easily, and has at Boise State University. There, a couple of weeks ago, the institution suspended its main set of courses in the area, under the grouping of University Foundations 200: Foundations of Ethics and Diversity, after “We have been made aware of a series of concerns, culminating in allegations that a student or students have been humiliated and degraded in class on our campus for their beliefs and values.”

There was no further explanation. About the same time, the Idaho Legislature took the unusual step of budgeting for each individual higher education institution - instead of, as traditionally, leaving the higher education split to the state Board of Education - and cut $409,000 from the Boise State budget … with the intent of slicing into any nefarious “social justice” activity.

This week (with the legislature in recess?), the university reversed and said UF200 “will resume immediately online and asynchronously. Students will engage with faculty, receive and submit assignments, complete the course, and achieve their learning outcomes online …”

Why was any of this controversial and a reason for a slashed budget by the legislature? In the rhetoric of today’s culture wars few phrases evoke more visceral disgust than “social justice,” unless maybe “diversity.”

To get more specific, we can look at what’s under this University Foundations 200 umbrella. How radical is it? Look for yourself on the university’s UF200 webpage, which describes the course options (students can choose up to a few among several dozen).

The summary says, “Ethics guide how we ought to live, and we live in a diverse society with other individuals and groups. UF 200 courses help students investigate how we practice our ethics together as engaged citizens creating an inclusive community.” That sounds not far off from the kind of university ethics courses higher education students have encountered for hundreds of years.

The various courses cover such topics as hospitality, community, “refugee immigrant,” moral courage, technology, film/literature, social inequality, and moral issues that crop up in specific places (such as a course looking at morality in the Harry Potter books). The idea, in a well-taught course (and some may be better-taught than others), is to open students’ minds to a range of ideas and perspectives they might not otherwise have encountered. Could this be the legislator’s real problem with the whole enterprise - by which I mean higher education?

Some course elements - a few among the many options - do get into contentious terrain. The course on intersectionality, for example, is described this way: “we first delve into intersectionality, a lens coined by Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw. We then begin to explore how power and privilege impact the way we live our lives and what we have and don’t have access to (i.e. healthcare). Once we have a solid understanding of identity, power, and privilege, we explore different families of ethics: the ethics of the person, the ethics of happiness, the ethics of virtue, and the ethics of relationship.”

The key to something like this, as with many university courses, is in the specific approach: Offering exposure to new ideas and challenging minds to critical thinking, as opposed to insisting upon the rightness of those ideas.

The fact that there’s a public controversy about this proves the need for it.

Evidence the pandemic isn’t over


We’re all looking ahead eagerly to pocketing those masks and getting back to social lives and places, and we ought to be able to do most of that as we get toward mid-year.

In the “ought to” lies a catch, which is this: We need to put in the effort to get it done.

It isn’t done yet. In Idaho, as this is written, of the 176,802 Covid-19 cases reported so far, most happened last year - but 14,120 of those have been reported just since January, a rate not far short of the virus explosion last spring, with significant recent spread around Idaho Falls and Boise.

The arrival and use of vaccines and effective tactics like masking give us the opportunity to arrest that growth in the season ahead.

But it’s just an opportunity. We can blow it. Even now, we can see new superspreader events spreading cases once again.

Just look at the Idaho Legislature, which seems more interested in stopping anything that might end the pandemic than it does in, well, ending it.

Last week as I tended to tasks around central Boise, I remarked to a few people that I would be avoiding virus hot spot locations like the Statehouse. It was only a half-joke then. It’s not a joke at all now.

The Idaho Statehouse really is high-risk: Seriously, you shouldn’t go there if you don’t have to.

The last week saw a string of Idaho House members catching the bug (the Senate has not been immune in recent months either). As this is written, four House members are staying away from the Statehouse (as they should) because of positive Covid-19 tests.

The Associated Press reported, “All four lawmakers out with the illness are Republicans who rarely or never wear masks.” To judge from streaming video, that assessment could apply to most Idaho legislators, who gather and talk in close quarters with many people, inside and outside the Statehouse, and then travel to and from their districts across the state on, frequently, a weekly basis.

That quote came before the report on Thursday about two more House members testing positive. One of them, the usually-masked James Ruchti, remarked, "It feels like it's getting out of control here. Which I guess is the definition of a pandemic, huh?"

This is a legislature where, as the AP also notes, “A major goal of GOP lawmakers in the Legislature this session has been curbing the emergency powers of the Republican governor to respond to things like pandemics.”

This is not how you get a pandemic under control; in fact, a better superspreader could hardly be devised. Legislative leaders would be wise to insist on Covid-19 testing of all members on a regular basis; while four House members are reported as ill, many more could be asymptomatic carriers. At least one of those four House members almost didn’t take a test, after a physician initially had diagnosed her coughing as resulting from seasonal allergies.

House leaders appear to have opened the possibility of calling a pause in the session; probably they’re hoping the session will end on its regular schedule without having to do that. It’s a high-stakes gamble.

Another question that ought to be put to Idaho’s legislators - all of them - is: Have you taken or scheduled your vaccination yet? They all should do so, immediately, because the risk to themselves and to others is significant, and they should be encouraging, in strong terms, their constituents to do the same thing. (Disclosure: I’ve taken my first shot and my second is scheduled.)

The sooner we do what we must get the pandemic past us, the sooner it in fact will be past us. The people most eager to pretend we don’t need to do that, are the people who will slow us down.

Remember that the next time you see your friendly local legislator, and be sure to ask whether they personally are part of the solution or part of the problem.

Degrees of loyalty


Putting aside the Covid-19 relief bill and Dr. Suess, the big news in Washington this week - among close watchers of politics - was the surprise announcement that Republican Missouri Senator Roy Blunt, who had been expected to seek re-election next year, will instead retire from Congress.

There is an Idaho connection here. Bear with me.

Blunt has been a Capitol Hill mainstay, a two-term senator (first elected in 2010) and seven-term House member (first elected in 1996). He has been a leading figure in the Republican caucuses in both chambers, more or less toward the philosophical center of each. His 2010 and 2016 elections were relatively close, but Blunt has had a strong electoral record in a state which has been trending toward his party, and was widely favored to win next year.

Is there some political reason he might want to opt out - some reason why he is not the first but rather the fifth Republican senator to opt out for 2022, a mid-term year in which candidates of the party not holding the White House usually do well?

Could be. Blunt has not been one of the members of Congress known for criticism of Donald Trump and voted for him twice in impeachment cases, but he has offered a few tart comments here and there. He is maybe a 96 percenter, not a 100 percenter, not a full-throated all-the-time and every-hour lay-down-my-life defender of the former president and all the various conspiracy theories and cultural battles associated with him; he has tried, in other words, to take the job of senator seriously. You could also say that he is in no sense an outsider; he is very much a part of the Washington establishment, and - here’s the point - in some places that’s a significant negative mark.

In today’s environment that may be enough to generate a primary challenge from the hard core.

Now: Does the description of Blunt remind you of anyone in the Senate from, oh, Idaho?

Senator Mike Crapo, who is up for re-election next year, and has given some indications that he will run again, matches up with Blunt in a number of ways. He too served first in the House (first elected there in 1992) and has been in the Senate for a while (first elected in 1998); 2022 will mark three full decades in Congress for Crapo. He is part of the establishment; he cannot plausibly be regarded as an outsider insurgent. Much of what you could say about Blunt (like him or not) you could also say about Crapo, and for that matter about the other four senators announced for retirement: Richard Burr of North Carolina, Rob Portman of Ohio, Richard Shelby of Alabama and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania. One news story remarked, “Each is the kind of legislator out of fashion in the party today.”

So, assuming Crapo runs (which for now looks to be the case), might he draw a challenge from within the party?

He hasn’t done anything to go out of his way to draw one, but in today’s environment Republican loyalty isn’t a matter of checking off the boxes: It’s also a matter of culture and intensity.

That’s what’s been bouncing against Governor Brad Little, who seems highly likely to draw a challenger from the activist wing of the party, someone like Lieutenant Governor Janice McGeachin or former Representative Raul Labrador or maybe someone else. The atmosphere will almost guarantee significant support - maybe enough to win, maybe not - for any serious challenger to the governor, and he may not be the only office holder so targeted. (Attorney General Lawrence Wasden comes to mind too.)

Might Crapo draw someone like that as well?

That’s not a prediction such a challenge would necessarily succeed. A de facto slate of activists ran for a bunch of major offices in Idaho in 2014, and hit a wall. That may happen again.

Or maybe the environment will be different.

One year from now, the 2022 primary election will be deeply underway. We’ll know in a few months what the current political environment in Idaho generates for that round. But it may be more worthy of close watching than is now apparent on the surface.

Turning point


Not so many years ago, House Bill 226 probably would have passed with a unanimous vote and likely no contrary debate at all in the Idaho House.

The reason - and the reason comes down mostly to just one - it failed, can be pinpointed. The debate on the main floor vote, lasting roughly an hour, is well worth watching, and you can see it for yourself.

The bill was floor sponsored by Representative Paul Amador, R-Coeur d’Alene. (In fact all of the main floor debate featured only Republicans.) The bill involved renewal of about $6 million in pass-through funding, a continuation of a program the state has participated in (without controversy), in the form of a federal grant - from the outgoing Trump Administration - with favorable comments from Idaho’s two Republican senators. The money would be under control of the state Board of Education.

The $6 million would go to local organizations, many of them in Idaho’s smaller and rural communities, to “provide education resources for children ages birth through five - in multiple formats - and support locally-controlled, high-quality, and family-focused programs and educators that support the optimal growth and development of young children.” The local programs would be designed and run by local committees made up of local people. An in-state non-profit organization called Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children would, under the state board’s oversight, distribute the money and provide assistance to the locals. The program had plenty of support from parents and educators around the state, and a number of state representatives had been personally involved and vouched for it.

Amador delivered a clear, airtight case for the bill.

But its chances of passage fell apart as soon as he finished his debate and Representative Priscilla Giddings, R-White Bird, stood up.

She had been doing some “digging,” she said, and found the Idaho nonprofit was linked to a national organization, on whose website she found documents with some worrying language. “I don’t understand a lot of what is going on in our education system,” she said, but opined: “It is a world wide battle, it is so imperative that we fight for the hearts and minds of our little ones.”

Specifically, even watching the debate online, you could tell the atmosphere in the House changed when Giddings said she had spotted the phrase “social justice curriculum” and “critical race theory” and references to racial and gender equity. “I do not believe you are privileged based on your gender or your race,” she said - in an efficient but sharp turn into culture war - and adding, “So what is social justice and why are we teaching it to our children?”

“Please let’s not indoctrinate our kids,” she said. The state and local control over the structure and content in the actual Idaho program were all but forgotten the minute she waved the red flag words.

The red meat catchphrases - those with some juice this year, which will be different from those magic incantations next year - opened the door for the negative debate following.

Representative Ron Nate: “Can you see the forces lined up against Idaho choosing education for itself and for its preschoolers? Can you see the forces lined up against families and against communities? We think federal money is free. But it's not. It comes with controls. … the control is absolute, and the cost of freedoms lost is unaffordable. Say no to social justice being taught in Idaho preschools.”

Representative Barbara Ehardt spoke about a conference in New Orleans on early childhood education she attended, and said she perceived that motherhood was being denigrated there: “I don’t think for the most part these women and I shared very much in common, anyway I’m going to vote ‘no’.”

Representative Charlie Shepherd: “Any bill that makes it easier or more convenient for mothers to come out of the home and let somebody else raise their child – I just don’t think that’s a good direction for us to be going. I realize this bill is trying to help with early childhood care but are we really hurting the family unit in the process?” (After public uproar, he tried walking some of this back the next day.)

The bill failed 34-36; House Speaker Scott Bedke, by the way, voted in favor of it.

Going to show how you can use the magic culture war incantations, to defeat practically any bill at all.

Welcome to what passes for deliberative decision making in the Idaho Legislature in 2021.

The important people


The theory is that public officials are supposed to stand up, and work on behalf of, the whole public - everyone in their area: The people of the United States for a president, the people of Idaho for a governor of Idaho, and so on. We all should be considered equally important to the officials we elect.

Of course, things aren’t quite that simple. Smaller groups of people can petition to their government for laws they think beneficial for them, too. Such laws are passed on a regular basis, and often create no real controversy. But what about a proposed law that pits a small minority against the clear, significant, definable interests of a much larger majority?

Then, apparently, it depends on who that minority is. And you can tell a lot about a Congress, or a legislature, when you observe who it caters to.

This brings us to Idaho House Bill 140.

Proposed by Representative Priscilla Giddings of White Bird, it would add a new chapter to Idaho law called the "Medical Consumer Protection Act." This sounds good, except that protecting medical consumers is quite a reach from what it does; very much the opposite, in fact.

Its core language is simple, and says this: “The state of Idaho and any political subdivision in the state may not enter into a contract with an employer or company that engages in discrimination against un-vaccinated persons. No employer or company having entered into a contract with the state or any political subdivision in the state may engage in discrimination against unvaccinated persons. An employer or company that violates this section is in breach of its contract with the state or respective political subdivision in the state.”

In other words, any company doing business with the state or any local government would run into legal trouble if it tried to require that employees, even those dealing with people who are at risk for serious illness, be vaccinated. The Covid-19 pandemic and restrictions related to it clearly are the trigger for the bill, though they aren’t mentioned and the bill would apply much more broadly.

Giddings said the bill “just takes taxpayer money out of the equation, so taxpayer money isn’t being used to endorse 100 percent compliance (with vaccine mandates).” Combatting life-threatening pandemics evidently is, then, something governments shouldn’t be in the business of doing. It would also, as Representative Fred Wood of Burley (a physician, and a no vote on the bill) said, create a new class of protected people under civil rights law . . . and not a very good choice for one.

Putting that aside, there are practical issues.

Representative Lauren Necochea of Boise, cited one of many: “Imagine a cancer treatment center, where everyone who comes in for care is immuno-compromised. That’s a place where you want to make sure employees are vaccinated during a bad flu outbreak.”

Or imagine an assisted-living or nursing center - the kind of places where Covid-19 gained such purchase - or even prisons.

Giddings’ bill is a response to the anti-vaxxer groups who, not content with putting their own lives at risk, want a legal guarantee that they can endanger the lives of anyone else they choose.

It pits one small group determined to make a point against the well-being and lives of lots of other people.

The Idaho House has passed this bill, 49-21, and it goes now to the Senate.

You will be able to learn a lot about the Idaho Senate, and maybe the governor as well, and about who and what they consider important, from what happens next.

In a round about


Boise is definitely hitting the big time - even the international big time.

One of the single best pieces of evidence of that, and one of the most indisputable, and an area where Idaho might draw some lessons, may be in its traffic.

An organization called Fleet Logging, which tracks road traffic, especially commercial and electronically tracked traffic around the globe, has evaluated the cities with the worst traffic in the world. (Yes, you can guess where this is going.)

Unlike the informal measures most of us do, complaining about how bad the traffic is wherever we are, this group used a relatively objective approach: “FleetLogging wondered whether it really makes so much difference to plan travel in and out of a city at off-peak times. We decided to find out. First, our researchers identified 141 of the most congested cities in the world. Then, we used the TravelTime API to calculate how far from each city center you could drive in one hour, both on- and off-peak.”

What they found was that the world city with the worst traffic, in peak rush hours, was Marseille in France. The next two cities were also in France, and the fourth-highest (Monaco) is adjacent to France. France apparently has a traffic problem.

Fifth-ranking world wide, and by a substantial lead in the United States: Boise, Idaho.

So if you live in or around Boise and you think the traffic is awful, well, you’re spot on.

The other cities in the United States top 10, in order, are: Philadelphia; Albuquerque; Oklahoma City; Houston; Kansas City; Denver; Columbus, Ohio; Little Rock, Arkansas; and Jackson, Mississippi.

That list shows you don’t have to be gigantic to have a city traffic problem. Neither Portland nor Seattle, which definitely have serious traffic issues, made it to the top 20.

Exactly how seriously to take this single specific measure may be a fair question, but before the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic, and surely again after it, traffic flow generally was and will be a major issue in the Boise area.

Traffic planners obviously are aware of that, and they’re trying some new things. The roundabouts that popped up around the state in congested places in the last few years have been one effort, limited as they are.

So is an intriguing redesign, just announced in the last few days, of one of the state’s worst intersections, at Eagle Road and Highway 44 (at Eagle). There, planners are developing what’s called a “half continuous flow intersection,” which re-routes the way left turns are made and diminishes their slow-down effect on other traffic.

It looks like a good idea, though one project manager cautioned, "The new design does require drivers to pay attention and think ahead, especially on Idaho Highway 44." (Might that be the glitch in the system?)

These efforts are worthwhile, and they’re what traffic planners can do, but the issues involved are a lot broader.

In France, one traffic analysis group said, “the fact that eight of Europe’s Top 10 worst bottlenecks are located in Ile de France shows that traffic has a significant impact on the French economy, the environment as well as the mobility of its citizens.”

Likewise in Idaho. Idaho’s fast metro growth is the main reason for its metro traffic jams, and you have to wonder if, as word of Boise’s unexpectedly difficult traffic seeps back to California and other places, it may not have the effect of dampening some of that growth.



In 1980 Idaho, the big story - I don’t think you need limit that to the political - was the U.S. Senate race between incumbent Democrat Frank Church and Republican Representative Steve Symms. I was covering politics for the newspaper in Pocatello then and it dominated my attention for a year and more, and used a lot of oxygen for other people then too.

There were many elements and aspects to it, but one that was noticed but probably got less attention, in the news reports of the time, than it should have, was that race’s connection to a group of other U.S. Senate races around the country.

On election night, many national news reports noted the loss by Church, alongside losses by other Democratic senators including George McGovern of South Dakota, Birch Bayh of Indiana and John Culver of Iowa. But again, an important piece of context mostly went missing: The extensive links between non-candidate organizations involved in those four races. The fact that they all lost that night was more than coincidence, and not dependent exclusively on that year’s Ronald Reagan sweep.

Some of this we did know about then, but not until the just-published book Tuesday Night Massacre: Four Senate Elections and the Radicalization of the Republican Party, by Marc Johnson, have the pieces of this connection been properly brought together and into context. It fills a significant gap in recent writing about American politics, and it’s well worth reading.

(Disclosure: I’ve known Marc for many years, and his column runs regularly on my website at

What happened then wasn’t a conspiracy in the proper sense, in that it wasn’t secret, and its organizers didn’t especially try to keep it quiet. But it was a broadly-organized national effort, something new at the time and prompted specifically by changes in campaign finance law and other developments. And there was a dark side to it, evident to people in the states. Johnson points out that the incumbents “endured months of sustained attacks on their character, their patriotism, and their honesty. The four incumbents began their reelection campaigns with favorable assessments from voters, but the attacks eroded that standing, and by November, each was viewed as unsuitable, indeed even dangerous.”

Most people in Idaho and the other states probably assumed the source of much of this was local, among the constituents. In large part, though, it wasn’t, and the Republican campaigns weren’t part of it either (a deliberate effort to keep the challengers’ hands clean). Several national organizations took part in the effort, but the main effort and the book’s focus was on the National Conservative Po­liti­cal Action Committee, or NCPAC.

In Idaho the effort was started locally by an experienced Republican campaign manager named Don Todd - a likable guy and good source for me back in the day - who started a state organization called Anybody but Church but soon affiliated with (was absorbed by) NCPAC. (Todd himself would be deeply involved with the famous Willie Horton TV ads in the presidential campaign eight years later.) Todd’s group would fire vicious personal shots at Church, who was stuck dealing with the fallout, while Symms’ campaign could and did (accurately) say, “hey, it wasn’t us.”

That was one of the many tactics the national groups - which launched similar campaigns against McGovern, Bayh and Culver - used across several states. The idea was not to boost the Republicans in the race but rather to tear apart the incumbent Democrats; to, as one activist said, get people to despise the person without even really knowing why.

It was successful. In Church’s case, his polling numbers were significantly higher before the campaign then they were afterward.

Why this is worth reviewing now should be clear enough. Politics these days tends to revolve more around who you hate than who you support; it’s a politics of destruction and not improvement. NCPAC did not long outlive the 1980 campaign but its spawn are all over the political landscape, responsible for much of the civic destruction we see around us.

Marc Johnson, by going back to the early days of this form of negative politics as we’ve come to know it, shows in Tuesday Night Massacre just where these efforts come from and how they work, and by writing about the cases at a historical remove, allows us to view them fresh, without the distraction of current passions. It offers a passel of useful reminders as we observe the turbulent politics of today.