A model of decorum (3/2/2011)

The late United States Sen. Jim McClure of Idaho was a rare politician from a bygone era, writes David Gray Adler.

On June 22, 2007, Jim McClure, in one of his last public appearances, shared with the City Club of Idaho Falls, in its inaugural meeting, his deep disappointment in the United States Senate that he loved, but now barely recognized, a body characterized by stridency, extremism and intolerance.

He bemoaned the unwillingness of members to surmount a partisan divide that blocked compromise on the crucial issues and challenges that confronted the nation. There was in his heartfelt plea to the Senate and, by extension, to Americans everywhere the voice of a man who exuded a sunny optimism and expected more from his countrymen.

Of his many distinguished contributions to Idaho, his commitment to civil discourse and political civility — the engines of the republic — and his sense of decorum in the arena may well be his finest and most important legacies. There is hazard in this estimation, of course, for a man as unpretentious as Sen. McClure may not have devoted much time or energy to thoughts about his legacy.

Assessment of his legacy is made more difficult by the fact that he was widely admired as a champion of Idaho’s industries — mining, timber and agriculture — and exalted, as a pragmatic chairman of the powerful Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, for his earnest pursuit of a coherent national energy policy, one grounded in energy independence for America, which he rightly perceived as critical to our nation’s economic and security needs.

There is no denying, moreover, the achievement of a rich and diverse legacy measured, in part, by the deep loyalty that he inspired in his legions of former staff members — “McClure Staffers” — who, despite the years that had passed since they worked at his side in Washington, remained, in the eyes of this newcomer, a vital part of the extended McClure Family.

His decision — really a joint resolution undertaken with his wife, Louise — to create the James A. and Louise McClure Center for Public Policy Research at the University of Idaho will entail a long-lasting contribution to the state and the nation as it pursues workable solutions to those policy and public affairs challenges that confront the American citizenry.

The human qualities that defined Jim McClure — including his wit and self-deprecating humor, his basic humility, decency and sincerity, his kind and generous nature, and the courtesy and respect that he extended — were all part of his constitutional design. These fine qualities were in evidence in the last days of the life of his colleague, Sen. Frank Church, when Sen. McClure rose on the floor of the Senate to persuade the chamber that all the valued work Sen. Church had undertaken to preserve in Idaho millions of acres of wilderness should bear the name of his friend. With that gesture, the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness was born.

Jim McClure was a man of deeply conservative political principles. He stood his ground and defended his principles, but he was also pragmatic and understood that in a democracy, the path to policy solutions and good governance required negotiation, compromise and bipartisan cooperation. Humble enough to know that he didn’t have all the answers, he was a good listener, soaking up facts and information, as well as the views and opinions of those with whom he disagreed. He could look beyond political differences, as he did those that on occasion separated the two of us but that did not deter him from offering either praise for a lecture well-delivered or encouragement to join the University of Idaho.

In a political climate marred by stridency, threats and volatility, and by growing disinterest in facts, evidence and tolerance, and at a moment in our nation’s history when the need for civil discourse and political civility has never been higher, there is much to be learned from a man whose life in the arena was a model of decorum.

Adler is professor and director of the James A. and Louise McClure Center for Public Research at the University of Idaho. He has lectured nationally and internationally on the Constitution and the presidency.