“The truth is,” he claimed, eyebrows arching toward his iconic bare crown, “I’m just a lumberjack and a political accident.” Such words from an Idaho luminary are both startling and comforting. Cecil Andrus completed four terms as a Democratic governor of the very Republican state of Idaho. Between stints as governor, he served as Secretary of the Interior for President Carter. At 83, Andrus is an endearing blend of wit, energy, confidence, wisdom, and he is heartbreakingly humble and self-effacing.
Before an adoring room full of locals, Dr. David Adler probed Andrus about his successes in politics and his opinions about the current state of political affairs. Andrus castigated the willful, partisan politics that hamstring our country today. Referring to ugly, drawn out arguments that rocked the Idaho Statehouse this spring, avid hunter Andrus asked the crowd, “How does legislative debate about guns on campus help the people of this state?” While Republicans and Democrats argue over such nonsense, the real business of leadership slides under the carpet. Education goes unfunded, roads and bridges continue to disintegrate, health and social safety nets grow holes large enough to swallow whole herds of elk.
Andrus’ no nonsense, cut-to-the-chase approach helped him to scale political hurdle after political hurdle to protect the people and lands of this remarkable state. In the early 1970s, Governor Andrus cobbled together a bipartisan coalition to design and pass legislation establishing The Public Employee’s Retirement System of Idaho (PERSI). Bucking the trend of others states that were able to rob their retirees’ kitties after the 2008 crash, PERSI ranks eighth from the top of the healthiest state defined benefit plans in the country.
“We worked together,” he says with a note of pride. Democrats and Republicans talked, negotiated, and bartered until everyone had something important to take home to their constituency. “It takes a lot of people to make something worthwhile come together.” Andrus is also credited with beefing up early childhood education by establishing a “voluntary” Kindergarten program, in which something like 95% of eligible families participate.
Asked how he managed to effect change when the political tables were stacked against him, Andrus reflects that no one wins everything they bring to the table. Good leadership happens when people give and take, adjust and negotiate. Sometimes all it takes is one magical word—like “voluntary” in the Kindergarten legislation—to make a once unpalatable idea digestible.
Another key to Andrus’ success was his absolute insistence upon honesty and integrity. Don’t lie to an old lumberjack. You may think you’ve gotten away with it, but come your next campaign, your folly may well undo your smug satisfaction. Andrus didn’t waste his breath calling people names or making accusations. He simply remembered; and when an opportunity to help a liar came his way, his hands were already busy helping someone honest. He refused to cover for liars and cheaters, even those whom he had hand-picked to work with and for him. This was one of the many ways the man has commanded highest acclaim from politicians of all stripes.
Andrus was unafraid to stand up to big business. In 1973, when Hewlett-Packard was looking for a location to open a new plant, Idaho offered proximity to the head office in Palo Alto, a promising work force, and a fabulous life style. But when asked what financial incentives Idaho would kick in, Andrus reminded the location scout that if he cut a deal with HP now, then its entry into Idaho would be financed on the backs of current business owners. “Then once you’re established and the next big company comes along and wants a free piece of what we’ve got, it’ll be your turn to finance their entry. Is that what you want?” Idaho got Hewlett-Packard and the great expansion that came in its wake, without robbing the state of the funds needed to sustain education, parks and recreation, wildlands protection, and infrastructure.
I could listen to Cece all night long. I could bore you with my shoddy reporting, but what I really want to do is clone the man. Not only does Idaho need his integrity and common sense, but our entire country would benefit from about 100 clones of Cecil Andrus.