When Respect Trumped Suspicion

By Beacon Staff

We have moved into October and the throes of this year’s political campaigns: the incessant television, radio, newspaper and internet ads, the charges and countercharges, the doubt, anger and meanness. Some voters seem in the mood to “throw them all out” as if every incumbent is the enemy.

Taking measure of this fairly recent kind of campaigning, which appeals to the worst in people, I have been remembering campaigns from a different time and place. The time was a full 50 years ago and the unlikely place was the Oxford Bar and Restaurant in Missoula, Montana. The election year of 1956 witnessed candidates galore for governor, the Montana legislature and the U.S. House of Representatives.

I was a freshman at the University of Montana and, being from Butte, steeped in political interest. One of the Missoula places to talk politics was the Oxford and I often went to the restaurant for breakfast and coffee talk. One morning in 1956, sitting at the counter, I noticed a few of the customers, one by one, slowly get up from their stools and walk toward the back. Gone only a minute or so they would – again one by one – return to their coffee and meal.

I leaned away from the counter to see what was going on and there at a far table in the back of the room sat Sen. Mike Mansfield, alone. He was in his first Senate term, having won four years earlier with only 50.7 percent of the vote. Mike was back from Washington, D.C., campaigning for Democrats.

Waiting for my breakfast, I continued to watch as customers, one at a time, approached Mike, shook hands, exchanged hellos, and had a short conversation. It seemed to be a quiet example of simple greetings between old friends.

I had met the senator a couple of times in Butte but debated saying “hello” to him that morning. Would he remember me? To avoid embarrassment, would I have to remind him that my dad had passed away a few years earlier? I quickly practiced how I would greet him, got off my stool and strolled toward his table. Mike was reading the morning Missoulian and sipping black coffee. I stood there silently as he slowly put his coffee cup on the table, looked up, extended his hand and said, “Hello, Pat. How’s your mother getting along?”

How is it that now, all these years and millions of campaign dollars later, we do not know our elected officials, nor they us, as we seemed to back then?

I’m not one who ascribes to the mythical “good old days.” Much of our nostalgia is nonsense. But back then our candidates were not spending tens of millions of dollars to convince us of their splendid honesty, intelligence, and work ethic; rather they were unassuming, quiet and simply went about the important task of representing us. They didn’t need campaign advertising to convince us of who they were. The way they lived their lives and accomplished their work was assurance enough.

Be it Mike Mansfield, B.K. Wheeler, Lee Metcalf, Arnold Olsen, J. Hugo Aronson, or Jeannette Rankin, somehow and without hoopla, we knew them and they knew us. We respected both our candidates and elected officials regardless of their party label. Yes, we voted for our favorites, but we did so without denigrating the opposition.

In that different time and place, mutual respect and civility trumped today’s anger and suspicion. Montana and America were better off for it.

Pat Williams served nine terms as a Democratic U.S. representative from Montana.

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