Sunday, November 24, 2013

Bellmon Memories

      To use a Bellmon term, in 1960 Democrats “ruled the roost” in Oklahoma. Gov. J. Howard Edmondson was a Democrat, the Democrats had a stranglehold on the Legislature, and most Oklahomans were Democrats.
      The joke at the time was that Republicans held their state convention in a phone booth.
      Republicans were quarantined as much as possible, lest the dread disease spread. It was the day of yellow dog Democrats. The 1st Congressional district stretched from Enid to Tulsa to isolate as many Republicans as possible.
      Into this political world came a big, ruddy, wheat farmer from Billings, Okla. by the name of Henry Louis Bellmon.
The Democrats never knew what hit them.
      Bellmon was elected chairman of the state GOP in 1960 and set to work immediately. His job brought him to Tulsa. He was so lightly regarded that the Tulsa World did not want to waste a real reporter on him, so they sent me.
      That meeting is my lasting impression of him. I don’t remember what I wrote. I just remember telling my city editor that “if this guy can shake enough hands” he will go somewhere. And he did. Governor, U.S. Senator, DHS head, Governor, and then elder statesman.
      I had contact with him in all those phases of his career, but I could never call him “Henry.” It was governor, senator, sir. I always felt like he should have a title. Henry Bellmon was genuine. Honest to a fault. He was so determined to do what he thought right that he commanded respect – and votes.
      He spoke the language of Oklahoma. I owe this story to my lifelong friend and mentor, Alex Adwan: When Bellmon ran for governor in 1962, he was the first Republican candidate ever invited to a big political event of mostly farmers in Sasakwa.
      When it came his turn to speak. He thanked his hosts and said, “you know, in Oklahoma we Republicans have always sucked the hind tit.”
      He wowed that audience. Alex and others decided that if he could win that group of Democrats over, he had a chance to be governor.
      He did, beating millionaire businessman W. P. Bill Atkinson. Remember Bill? We called him Dollar Bill.
      Others will remember far more than I about the first term. My next encounter was with U.S. Senator Bellmon, running for re-election in the troubled year of 1974. You will remember it was Watergate, Richard Nixon, his price controls, busing, and the Panama Canal, all in all a tough year for a Republican in still Democrat Oklahoma.
      Busing children to school was a hot issue. The U.S. Senate would pass an anti-busing resolution before election. A resolution had absolutely no effect in law, simply an expression of the feelings of the Senate. In fact, it was intended to provide cover. It was dishonest, of course. It was a racist signal. So, Henry Bellmon refused to vote for it, leaving his Oklahoma opponent to accuse him of being for busing.
      The issue of turning the Panama Canal back to Panama was heating up. Bellmon thought it the right thing to do even though it was immensely unpopular in Oklahoma.
      Believe it or not, a big issue that year was a lack of baling wire. Price controls stopped U. S. Mills from making it, so Bellmon had to bear the blame for that.
      Bellmon won that close election, largely because he got huge support from black voters.
      Others will detail the monumental 1017 school reform and tax hike. I do remember a “victory” rally at McAlester, featuring the Prince of Darkness, Gene Stipe, and Gov. Bellmon. Gene was his usual funny self. But Bellmon showed a sense of humor and ability to ad lib that equaled Gene that night.
Tax hike? Did you hear me? A tax hike from a Republican! Bellmon did not shy away from tax increases. He wanted to build roads, expand the turnpike system.
      As a senator, he had big plans. He wanted to divert the Arkansas river to provide water for western Oklahoma. He wanted a nuclear reprocessing plant at Fort Chaffee.
      I traveled with him one day in little Dixie. We started with a luncheon at Madill. Former Governor Raymond Gary was there to introduce and boost Bellmon. I am sure most of those in attendance were Democrats in those days. Gary was still a Democrat.
      We headed west from Madill, stopping at small towns and communities. Once we went into a country store. The only person there was the proprietor/clerk.
He turned on the charm. It didn’t hurt that he was a U.S. Senator. Back in the car, he explained his campaigning. He called it the pebble in the pond method.
“Ken, she’s on the telephone right now telling everyone that the senator dropped in. By nightfall, everyone will know that I stopped to visit.”
Bellmon was a Republican but he knew that in a state dominated by Democrats he needed their help to get elected and get anything done. Democrat lawmakers loved him. He also knew that if you wanted to build roads, improve schools or any other public service, it took money.
      Remember, 1017 was passed with Bellmon’s own party opposing it.
      He was so highly regarded that when he left the Senate, Gov. George Nigh asked him to head the DHS. Bellmon wanted to know, the story goes, if he or the governor would be in charge. Nigh, no slouch himself, replied that “you’ve been governor, you know what needs to be done. Go do it, you are in charge.”
      Bellmon did. He would have headed the local dog pound if he felt it was the right thing. It’s hard to imagine that kind of relationship between any other former Oklahoma governors. Nigh and Bellmon; what a pair!
      Henry Bellmon was a big man. I remember that from our first meeting. He had big hands, he was sunburned, a genuine Oklahoma redneck, but behind all that lurked a great mind, great integrity, great courage, courage that made him walk into the White House and ask his own president to resign.
      Critics tried to demean him by calling him the Actor on the Tractor. But Bellmon reveled in being a farmer; indeed he was an Oklahoma Cincinnatus who left the plow to serve the people. And the people loved him for it. Not exactly what the critics hoped for!
            In his book, Bellmon said:
      “Some things that happened (during the canal controversy) disturbed me a great deal. One is the seemingly highly prevalent attitude that I did a sinful thing because I did not vote as the majority of my constituents wanted. I cannot accept the theory that a member of Congress should be elected and then make decisions based on the number of letters and phone calls received on any given issue.   
“I remain committed to the proposition that it is the duty of a legislator to get the facts on issues and then follow the course which is determined to be in the public interest. It is a perversion of the public trust for an elected official to act against the public interest in order to retain office.”
In 1996, Alex wrote a column on the occasion of Bellmon’s 75th birthday.
I thought of simply reading that column as my contribution tonight. Instead, here is the conclusion:
“At the end of Bellmon’s last term as governor, in 1991, I wrote that his poll ratings at that time were not high, but his rating in the history of Oklahoma would be off the chart. That becomes more certain as the years go by.
“So, here’s to Henry the First – and all other men of women of principle in public life who listen to their consciences and try to do the right thing.”
I can’t help but preach a bit here. Would that his views were required of our representatives in Washington and Oklahoma City. But enough! I promised myself and my audience I would not lapse into my editorial writing mode.
Instead, I close with a light-hearted anecdote about Henry Bellmon. During his second hitch as governor, he was known to doze off during a deadly dull meet.
Some wag said, “If the governor tells you he wants to sleep on it, you might get an answer before the end of the meeting.”
Sleep well, governor, sleep well.


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