I moved to Idaho in 1995 shortly after Phil Batt took office, so I did not get to experience either of the gubernatorial administrations of Cecil Andrus. And my dealings with Andrus in his post-elected life have been relatively benign — a conversation here and there, mostly by phone.
I have no animus toward Andrus, and he seems fairly personable and likable. But I get a little queasy whenever modern writers take various current or former officeholders and establish them or their myriad policies as “the greatest” anything, as former Andrus staffer Chris Carlson has done in his new book with the gushing and obviously over-the-top title “Cecil Andrus: Idaho’s Greatest Governor.”
The book was released last Monday. No, I haven’t read it, and I’d like to promise here and now that I won’t waste my time because of my disdain for the title (according to one news account, Andrus was a bit leery of the label, too). But I’m a self-professed nerd and I have a fondness for political history, so I’m sure the time will come soon enough that I’ll buy a copy. Or at least borrow one (but not from a public library).
In the meantime, let’s talk about political greatness: Too many politicians and their followers try to write their own history by coloring the value of their political achievements and comparing it to the relative accomplishments of their predecessors. And because people’s political memories are short, they tend to get away with it.
In his second term, Gov. Dirk Kempthorne tried it on us, too, declaring one winter’s legislative session “the greatest in the state’s history.” I frankly can’t even recall what goodness supposedly came from that year’s legislative work, but I remember news reporters dutifully regurgitating Kempthorne’s proclamation as if it was an undisputable fact.
Reporters, unfortunately, tend to summarize Idaho as a state born in 1890 to which nothing of real substance happened until Bob Smylie was governor from 1955 to 1967. They also forget that, until 1946, Idaho’s governors stood for election every two years, not the current four, thus giving us governors with very different levels of influence and outcomes compared to today.
Of course, shortly after Carlson’s book came out, Smylie’s son Steve was quick to tell Idaho Statesman columnist Dan Popkey that while Andrus could be rated among the state’s “greatest” governors, the title of the book is a disservice. Smylie went on to remind Popkey of all the things for which his dad may be credited: the public employee pension system, the sales tax, the university system and so on.
Political greatness, then, and the proclamation thereof, is a measure of the number of agencies created, taxes raised, regulations imposed and the maintenance of the statism that had been imposed before the election of the individual whose “greatness” is being articulated. By that measure, Andrus, a Democrat, and Smylie, a Republican, really do measure up.
In reality, greatness stems from an elected official’s ability to get government out of the way and be invisible to the free market, to businesses, families and individuals.
Greatness should be measured by the number of agencies dissolved, bureaucrats dismissed, regulations expunged, taxes lowered and freedoms restored.
When that happens, political pundits and adherents won’t need to offer self-congratulatory book titles in which to immerse their egos. The greatness will be so abundantly obvious, it won’t have to be stated.