For those a long time around Idaho, losing Cecil Andrus is like losing a member of the family.
When I first arrived in Idaho in 1973, his was one of the few Gem State names I’d ever heard. He was then well into his first term as governor, following his second run for the office. At his death this week he had been a well-known Idahoan and a representative leader of the state for longer than just about anyone I can think of; statistically at least, he was governor longer than anyone else, and never was he a mere caretaker.
But it was a while before this point about him came clear to me: He didn’t get there by dint of deep Idaho roots; he didn’t, in a phrase I’ve heard elsewhere, live on a road named for his grandparents. At the time he first ran for governor, in 1996, he’d been in the state little more than a decade, moving to Orofino from Oregon in the spring of 1955 as a logger. He was elected to the state Senate only half a decade after his Idaho arrival. (Barely a decade after that, he was United State Secretary of the Interior.)
That alone speaks to something unusual about his capabilities in politics. Too often the word “politician” is used as a derogatory; it ought to be a term of praise, and as a natural politician Andrus stands as a good demonstration of why.
Those reasons weren’t immediately obvious back then, and have little to do with his charismatic presence, though Andrus was one of those people whose presence in a room is immediately felt. His urbane surface with well-chosen words and that smart you-know-and-I-know wink developed over time, and his entry into politics famously was said to come in a fit of anger. (A local Republican apparently taunted him that it was a good thing he didn’t run for the legislature, because he would have been clobbered; Andrus took the bait and defeated the Republican incumbent.)
But his instincts about how to run for office and about how to act and govern once there seemed to come from somewhere deeper; seem almost to have been there all along. They seemed rooted where they should, in an understanding of human nature stronger than most people have.
He also had a deep understanding of Idaho, and in turn he helped change the way Idahoans thought about themselves.
When Martin Peterson and I some years back published a list of the most influential Idahoans in state history, we ranked Andrus at 16, and the main argument about that was the contention he should have ranked higher. We did rank him higher than any other governor, and his long-time associate and columnist Chris Carlson built a book about him around the title, “Idaho’s Greatest Governor.” His effects on education, environmental protection and economic development in the state have been enormous.
Peterson and I suggested, “One of Andrus’ greatest impacts may be psychological: He added in 1970 a new dimension to the way Idahoans think about their state, when he campaigned in part on ‘quality of life’ as an important ideological consideration.” It had not much been part of the way Idahoans thought about their state before then, but it has been ever since.
Andrus left the governorship in 1995, and has not sought or held office since. But he has been visible through the years, taking a role on issues, mentoring people and helping candidates, building community activities such as the foundation started under his name.
That’s his role in the family. He carried it superbly.