HELENA – Former U.S. Sen. John Melcher, a Montana Democrat who narrowly lost a bid for a third term in 1988 just days after a wilderness bill he championed was vetoed, has died. He was 93.
Daughter Joan Melcher said Melcher died peacefully in his home in Missoula on Thursday afternoon.
Melcher’s 35-year political career included seven years in the U.S. House and then two terms in the U.S. Senate.
During his time in Washington, Melcher largely stuck to bread-and-butter issues for a farm-state lawmaker, such as crop subsidies and overseas trade. He was a stout defender of federally funded food programs as a way to fight hunger.
“We produce so much in the United States that if we don’t have markets overseas, we’ll have a glut. It’s a continuous struggle to get to those markets,” he told The Associated Press in 2002.
A liberal on hunger issues, he was conservative on other issues, supporting Reagan’s 1981 tax cuts and opposing abortion rights.
In 1988, he co-sponsored what might have been his greatest legacy for Montana — a heavily-debated bill to permanently set aside 1.4 million acres of public land as wilderness, while opening an additional 4 million acres to logging, drilling, mining and tourism.
President Ronald Reagan vetoed the bill just days before the election, an action Democrats called politically motived. Melcher lost to Republican Conrad Burns, who captured 52 percent of the vote with a campaign that portrayed Melcher as a big-spending liberal.
Melcher backers said his desire to reach a compromise between opposing forces made him vulnerable.
“People on the political extremes, right or left, would not be comfortable with John, who sought the middle to get stuff done,” Evan Barrett, a former Melcher aide, said Friday. “He vigorously fought for everything he wanted to get done and would work with anybody to get it done, which is something we don’t see much of today.”
Melcher attempted a return in 1994 but was trounced in the Democratic primary for the nomination to challenge Burns. Melcher remained in Washington, working as a lobbyist, notably for the American Veterinary Medical Association.
Burns, the first Republican that Montana voters sent to Washington since 1946, was re-elected twice before narrowly losing in 2006 to Democrat Jon Tester.
Melcher blamed himself for his 1988 defeat. In a 2002 AP interview, he estimated that he was so busy in Washington that he had spent only 18 days on the campaign trail that year.
“I was back here trying to get a wilderness bill passed,” Melcher said. “When I was defeated, I was a victim of my own lack of form and direction in the campaign.”
Melcher started out as a veterinarian in 1950, opening a practice in Forsyth, Montana, among the wheat farms and cattle herds of eastern Montana. Three years later, “Doc” Melcher was elected to alderman in Forsyth, the seat of Rosebud County, and later served as mayor.
Humble enough to mail Montana $50 every year to maintain his vet’s license, Melcher was a robust defender of the state’s interests.
He kept the Senate in session until 4 a.m. in 1985, blocking final passage of a farm bill because he wanted higher subsidies for his Montana farmers.
Though he preferred to keep a low profile, Melcher was also considered something of a maverick. He was one of only two senators who voted against the Omnibus Drug Bill of 1986, one of only three who opposed the 1986 tax overhaul bill, and one of only three who voted against a U.S.-Canadian trade agreement in 1988.
“If what I get done is beneficial, then that’s how I should be judged,” he says. “There are very few people in Congress who understand what the West is all about.”
One of the things that Melcher knew about the West was cattle — and cowboys. Once, to answer criticism from a state conservative group, Melcher ran TV ads with talking cows saying they “know bull when they hear it.”
And during congressional inquiry into the Iran-Contra affair, Melcher complained about the description of Reagan staffers as “White House cowboys.” That, Melcher said, was “mighty degrading to the cowboy profession.”