Lincoln's Long Reach

Idaho attorney David Leroy may be retiring, but he's creating a new nonprofit to keep the 16th president alive

Last month, former Idaho Attorney General and Lieutenant Governor David Leroy turned 69. He has stayed in good shape — he obviously exercises daily — and except for his all-white, perfectly coiffed hair, one might think he was in his late 40s.

With apologies to Irish poet Dylan Thomas, Leroy is not quietly going into the good night, nor with apologies to General Douglas MacArthur, is he like an old soldier fading away.

Still bursting with energy, a ready smile, a sense of humor and just plain smarts, you can see why he came so close to winning Idaho's governorship in 1986.

Early in his political career, the Boise resident idolized former governor and U.S. Senator Len B. Jordan, a principled but reasonable conservative. The Leroys even named their first child, a daughter, after Jordan. In addition, he gave an eloquent and heartfelt eulogy at Grace Jordan's funeral services.

Somewhere along his political path, Leroy became more and more enthralled with the 16th president, Abraham Lincoln. He stumbled, metaphorically speaking, across the factoid that Lincoln had signed the legislation creating the Idaho territory back in 1863. The more he read, the more he became hooked on everything Lincoln. It truly can be said that he is a self-educated Lincoln scholar.

He has traveled the state talking about Lincoln and his impact on Idaho. He easily won a grant from Idaho's Humanities Council to support some of the expenses for these lectures. The grant, however, does not cover all his expenses, so he donates his time as well as his treasure to the cause.

During these past years, he and his wife Nancy accumulated a decent collection of Lincoln memorabilia, which they have donated to the Idaho Historical Library; a wing of the Idaho Archives contains a fine display of much of their donation.

In early September, Leroy announced the formation of the Idaho Lincoln Institute, a nonprofit that will be dedicated to public education, opinion research and presentations taking educated guesses on where Lincoln might be on divisive political issues of our time. Early next year, he intends to announce the formation of an advisory board and to begin fundraising.

With the announcement, Leroy sent out several pages of quotes from Lincoln on issues still under debate today, such as amending the Constitution and holding a constitutional convention.

Oddly, however, Leroy had no quote touching on one of the major issues still dividing Idahoans today — the grants of every other section of public land to the routes railroad companies constructed across the West. The grants were incredibly generous incentives to the timber firms that emerged from these railroad firms — companies such as Weyerhaeuser, Potlatch and Plum Creek can trace their lineage to these grants, which, in places like Idaho's upper Lochsa and the upper St. Joe, have become management nightmares.

This has led to often controversial land swaps in which the public land agencies, such as the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, try to work out land swaps equitable in value and block up holdings for more efficient management.

Leroy does mention Lincoln's equally important signing of the Homestead Act that, especially in southern Idaho, spurred economic growth as settlers received 160 acres of land to farm.

Leroy's selection of quotes does make it clear that Lincoln had no problem with selling public lands to private interests; and he clearly believed in public/private partnerships.

Of course, this stance by Lincoln would put him at odds with the Republican nominee for president today, one Donald Trump. When asked about the selling of public lands to states or private interests at a Sept. 22 fundraising event in Boise, Trump's son, Donald Jr., raised more than a few conservative eyebrows by saying that he and his father have "broken away from conservative dogma a little bit" on public lands. "We want to make sure that public lands stay public," he added. "I'm a big outdoorsman, I'm a big hunter, when I lived out here, that's what I hunted on, public land, and I want to make sure that the next generation has that ability to do that." Trump Jr. said if federal lands were transferred to state control, they could be sold off when a state has a budget shortfall, "and then all of a sudden, you never have access to those lands ever again."

At least Trump has one issue correctly sized up: The more things change, the more they stay the same. ♦

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