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On Cecil Andrus and selfless politics

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One of the many charming anecdotes in the new book Cecil Andrus: Idaho’s Greatest Governor takes place in tiny Eden, Idaho, during one of his campaigns. Andrus jumped off the bus and into a nearby tavern: “I’ll be right back after nailing down a few votes,” he told his staff.

“I got four of seven,” he told them as he climbed back aboard. “The rest are undecided.”

The book is by North Idaho’s Chris Carlson, who served as Andrus’s communications director for nearly nine years. Even as we’re stuck in this go-nowhere state of political affairs, Carlson’s memoir reminds us that that we have produced great leaders — especially right here in the Northwest.

Too often, Carlson says, the kind of face-to-face politics that pushed Andrus into that tiny bar in that tiny town is missing today. It reminds me of old Walt Horan, the congressman who represented Eastern Washington before Tom Foley. He carried around a little black book, and he would write every issue of every constituent he met in those pages. Back in D.C., he would try to solve even their smallest problem.

Carlson is a former Washington, D.C., journalist who went to work for Andrus; he later founded the Gallatin Group. Today he’s a retired cancer survivor who feels the need to share some wisdom with an increasingly jaded America. He says the problem with aspiring politicians today is that too often they are running on ego, and that’s created a class of leaders more interested in keeping their jobs than fixing America.

“Governors are elected to solve problems and help people,” Carlson recalls Gov. Andrus saying many times. “That’s what it’s all about.”

The best path, Carlson adds, is to start at the local level and pay your dues. Even the legendary Washington Senators Henry Jackson and Warren Magnuson started out as county prosecutors. Oregon Senator Mark Hatfield first served as a state Rep.

Carlson also says money is hurting democracy, as the rich — “often people who’ve never really had the experiences that allow them to truly relate to people in their daily struggles” — can simply buy their way into office. Humble beginnings seem to make for great leaders. Mike Mansfield, the legendary Senate Majority Leader from Montana, started his career running ore in the Butte mines. Walt Horan grew up in a log cabin with no plumbing.

“The parties want telegenic people and simplistic ideology,” Carlson says. “But this should be a calling and an obligation. I’m a great believer that the past can be very instructive.”

Chris Carlson will read from his new book and deliver a short lecture on the state of American politics at 1 pm on Saturday, Nov. 12, at Auntie’s Bookstore.

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