Racicot to Deliver Inaugural Mansfield Lecture at FVCC

A conversation with Montana’s former Republican governor about FVCC, Mansfield’s legacy and the current political climate

By Dillon Tabish
Marc Racicot. Courtesy Photo

When Marc Racicot completed his second term as Montana’s governor in January 2001, he was one of the state’s most popular politicians in recent history and a rising star in the Republican Party. Over his eight years in office, his success — defined by turning a $200 million deficit into a $22 million surplus within two years and several reforms, including the workers’ compensation system and welfare system — vaulted him into leadership roles at the national level. He led the campaign that re-elected George W. Bush in 2004 and served as chairman of the Republican National Committee from 2002-03. One of Bush’s closest friends and advisors, Racicot was the president’s top choice to serve as the nation’s attorney general but the Libby native turned it down.

Since that time, Racicot has quietly stepped out of the political spotlight and rebuffed numerous opportunities to run for office, either as a U.S. senator or congressman. He and his wife, Theresa Barber, live on Swan Lake.

Racicot is stepping back into the public eye for the first time in years to appear at the inaugural Mansfield Lecture at Flathead Valley Community College in Kalispell. Racicot is speaking Monday, Sept. 18 in the Arts and Technology Building on campus, starting at 7 p.m. The event is free and open to the public.

A graduate of Libby High School and the University of Montana’s School of Law, Racicot had the opportunity to get to know Democratic Sen. Mike Mansfield, who served as a U.S. representative from 1943-1953 and as a U.S. senator from 1953-1977, including a tenure as the nation’s longest-serving Senate majority leader. He later served as ambassador to Japan and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

As part of his lecture on “The Meaning of Leadership,” Racicot will share some of the lessons he learned from the legendary statesman.

Leading up to the event, Racicot spoke with the Beacon about Mansfield’s legacy of leadership, the current political climate and whether he thinks about returning to public service. This conversation was edited for length.

Flathead Beacon: You have stayed out of the limelight for several years. What made you want to give this public speech at FVCC?

Marc Racicot: I remember when Flathead Valley Community College was in a single floor in a single building in downtown. (President Jane Karas) and so many good people in the community and the valley have done such an extraordinary job of creating a culture there — an academic and community culture — that I think is extraordinarily beneficial to the entire area, from my hometown of Libby all the way to Kalispell and down the Flathead and Swan valleys. It’s become a very prestigious institution with a wonderful faculty.

I’ve known Jane for a long time … I’ve always admired her diligence and her capacity for hard work, and her intelligence. So when she called it made me feel a little bit like I owed her one.

Finally, I was one of the blessed people on the planet who knew and spent time with Ambassador Mansfield. We used to have lunch when I was serving in office and he had come back from his ambassadorial stint in Japan.

I just so deeply admired him and thought and still think he was such an extraordinary human being and extraordinary teacher and extraordinary public servant.

Beacon: What stood out to you about Mr. Mansfield? What qualities made him such a legendary statesman?

Racicot: First of all, he was genuinely a humble man. The fact is, he started from very humble beginnings. He had a huge number of challenges as a very young man. And he constantly kept his focus upon service. He started when he was 14 years old joining the Navy. Then after they found out he was only 14-15 years old, he was now old enough to join the Army, so he joined the Army and served. Later he joined the Marine Corps. I don’t know of another person on earth who served in three different branches of the armed services and he did so as a matter of choice. I think that is the beginning reflection of what kind of man he was and what kind of citizen he was.

Second, he had an extraordinary appreciation of his life partner and wife, Maureen … He always focused on her and their daughter. I thought that was another marvelous aspect of his character.

Then, being the longest-serving majority leader in the history of the Senate — that occurred not by accident. It was by service and by earning it … He was courageous. Because of the way he led with such humility and a quiet thoughtful touch with those he served with, he was able to accomplish extraordinary things. But he never would take credit for it. That was probably one of the secrets to his success. He always tried to put people in a position where they could succeed.

As a result of that, he went down in history as one of the most extraordinary public servants of our republic

Beacon: How do you feel about the current political climate? How do you feel about the way things are going now for our country and with the Republican Party and President Trump? Just over a year ago you stated you wouldn’t support or endorse Donald Trump. How do you feel about his presidency so far?

Racicot: I don’t know how we have come to this point. I don’t think it’s the cause or fault of one individual nor one party. I think there’s enough responsibility for where we are to go around and be shared by virtually all of us. I don’t know how it got so complicated and how the system and communications became so difficult and paralyzed in some respects, and incapable of focusing on issues even if they had a high degree of difficulty.

The fact of the matter is, our history has had constant examples of where decision-making was difficult, but it always seemed we had people with very divergent and serious commitments to ideology find a way to bring about a solution, even though it may not have been satisfactory in every detail — nonetheless listening to one another and trying to distill a policy that would serve the people of this country in a way that was in their best interests. That was ultimately the bottom line for making a decision.

Ronald Reagan most certainly felt that it was better to have 70 percent of what you thought was right than nothing at all. I think now it’s an all-or-nothing mentality frequently and maybe always. That’s the model that our segmented society tends to focus upon these public policy questions.

I can’t understand why we can’t come to a conclusion on a variety of different issues. I’m a bit saddened by where we are right now. And I’m also hopeful because I know the people of this country are resilient and I believe they are people of good faith.

I do think we have some challenges to overcome and some ships that need to be righted before we will be in the posture to see some movement from a whole host of national and international problems.

Beacon: Any issues or problems in particular that give you heartburn?

Racicot: The issues of the day are always difficult. But this all started to change and this was not how it was when I started … It was not so edgy and not so difficult. And there was much more of an inclination to begin with a presumption of good faith. I think that a large part of this is attributable to the speed of our communications, the permanence of them, the spontaneous way that we communicate, our expectations of constant and instant gratification. They have changed dramatically the way political activities unfold.

It’s hard to keep up with the volume. And everybody can have a publication now. There’s some wonderful things about that but the flipside is, what if they’re wrong or what if they have an ax to grind? It’s changed the integrity of our communication.

The second thing: We don’t spend any time together anymore. When I was involved in politics in Montana and D.C., you spent a lot of time with other people involved in the public affairs of the people of this country and you talked. There were committee hearings and they weren’t staged and you didn’t just go and attend when your 5 minutes on C-SPAN was made available. You actually talked with and listened to your colleagues and tried to get something done.

Sen. Mansfield would on occasion invite his best friends in the Senate to lunch. That was Sen. Matt Mathias, a Republican from Maryland … I would suspect that both would roll over in their graves if they were to experience what it is that goes on presently.

I think the issues are complex. I think we as a country have come to expect that politics is a process of “my way or the highway.” We’ve come to be unwilling to compromise. We’ve become angry. Frankly, that threatens the republic because people can’t remain united if they can’t even talk to each other.

I’m concerned about the process and then about issues. I think that some of that is reflected in the way we presently do business.

Take the issue of “Dreamers.” It’s a difficult issue on the one hand. On the other hand, it’s also one that has some exceedingly sensitive touch points that the decency of the people of this country have engaged to make hard choices like this.

The fact is that an executive decision absent the will of Congress — because Congress was incapable of dealing with the issue — sometimes can overreach. There are arguments to be made that President Obama’s decision in this regard exceeded the authority granted under the Constitution.

The flipside is that all of us are heirs of immigrants, and that is virtually everyone other than our native tribes. We wouldn’t be here were it not for the fact that this country welcomed others from all over the planet to be part of this glorious experiment called democracy. These young people who did not come here as a matter of their own free will are contributing in significant ways all across the country. And they did not ask for this to be the stumbling block as they strive to be productive members of society. And they have absolutely no choice in this decision.

Frankly, I have found the president’s treatment of this issue — and there are numerous others — to be a bit confusing. I don’t want to use angry rhetoric either. That kind of confusion coming out of the chief executive’s office, it creates confusion and it creates trepidation and it creates anger … You just can’t lead that way and be effective.

We’ve got to have people who are willing to risk their previous positions or their reputation or their election when they know there is something that’s right and it should be done.

I think if Congress cannot muster the kind of humanity and decency to deal with this issue in a thoughtful way that it will tear away at the fabric of this country. It takes an exercise in leadership to do the right thing for the right reason even though they will suffer the slings of arrows that will be shot at them.

Beacon: One issue that is especially relevant to Montana right now involves forest management. It’s something you dealt with and raised concerns about during your time as governor. We’re debating the same things that were being debated when you were in office. Why? Why hasn’t this debate made progress?

Racicot: You’re exactly right. I think it’s a perfect example of how, until there’s absolute catastrophe, we cannot sometimes seize a collective prediction and agree that we’re headed for catastrophic trouble.

I just think what we have is a situation where we all love it here or we wouldn’t be here. And we all have a great commitment to the stewardship of these extraordinary resources in our state, our majestic forests.

We’ve tried different kinds of things an infinite number of times but haven’t been able to come to any conclusion with them. I’m hopeful that the evidence of what we’re experiencing now can lead us to think about different ways of approaching management because you can’t just have everything you want every day. None of us can.

It’s just an absolute shame that because everyone doesn’t get everything they want in terms of managing the lands, we can’t eliminate the ruin of the land. It’s unfortunate that we can’t come to a better agreement for how we manage something we care for.

Beacon: Do you think the state could do a better job of managing a larger section of public forest?

Racicot: From a management perspective, yes. From a political perception, it’s probably very difficult to ever believe that could happen.

Even if you did nothing but try to focus on keeping forests healthy through the removal of brush and debris, which would cost some money, even that’s worth the effort. If there’s never a log taken off the landscape, it would still be worth it to invest in the careful management of those lands.

The hand that’s dealt to the state and federal government is different because they have the burden of proof and rightly they should, but at the same time management actions shouldn’t be allowed to be immediately thwarted just simply by filing legal action and having it lie in the judicial system for years. The balance has not been achieved … As a consequence there is no considered commitment to get a different management regimen in place.

Beacon: You grew up in Libby and now live in the Flathead Valley, two places that once had vibrant wood-products industries. Do you think we’ll ever get back to those days when the wood-products industry will be as strong an economic driver as it was a generation ago?

Racicot: I don’t know that we ever get back to the same presence. The industry was present virtually in every place in western Montana. In Lincoln County there were maybe four mills when I was a child. I can remember in grade school planting trees in an effort sponsored by the mills.

But the practices are different now. I just witnessed a logging operation where other than the trucks that fell the timber, it took them four people to manage the project. In the old days, there may have been 30-40 people. I don’t know that we ever return to the same level in terms of employment. There certainly is room for us to be processing more materials for the country, needed and necessary materials, without damaging the land and without compromising the long term health of our forests.

We won’t see the landscape left the way it was left in the olden days and we shouldn’t.

But we should see more of a presence (for the wood-products industry) to keep our forests healthy. If we could ever get past these processes that give us gridlock.

Beacon: Another issue that is at the forefront of discussion in Montana that was significant during your time in office involves infrastructure. You were a big proponent of infrastructure investment as governor. How do you feel about the recent struggles in Helena to get deals done with infrastructure?

Racicot: I can’t understand how there really is a disagreement over the need for safe roads and infrastructure. It was true for many decades — Montana had more roads per capita than any state in the nation. As a consequence of that, building highways and secondary highways ended up being a great benefit to the state of Montana … At the end of the day, we can’t be competitive with the rest of the world and the other 49 states if we don’t have the infrastructure to support not only our way of life but the commerce in our state.

That’s a central responsibility of central government. I can’t imagine why it is that there cannot be agreement on an infrastructure bill when there is universal agreement that our infrastructure is in very sorry shape … I don’t think there was a problem with popular sentiment. Why they didn’t seize on that popularity and deal with other issues simultaneously, I don’t know. But it absolutely confounds me why it is we can’t come to a conclusion about what we do with our infrastructure. (Infrastructure) benefits all of us.

Beacon: Have you ever thought about coming off the sidelines and becoming involved again as a public service?

Racicot: When you hear the fire bell ring, you run for the truck. And the stimulation and sense of satisfaction that comes from working with others and creating something that is important to the people you live with, those are always an incentive. I still feel urges to try. I keep thinking, “I wonder if there is some way that I could help?” But I’ve never gotten past that question. I haven’t thought about seriously being a candidate for a long time. But every once in awhile, I surely do.

Beacon: I’m sure the peaceful, quiet nights on Swan Lake make it hard to imagine leaving that setting.

Racicot: What happens is, as you get older, the time that you have becomes smaller. When you have five children and eight grandchildren and a spouse, you have to make some value choices about where should you try to do the most good and where can you do the most good. So that’s always the battle. I’ve wondered to myself, “Even if you could win, how would you fix things? Would there be enough time?’”