The late Sen. Conrad Burns was an inspirational public figure.
He inspired roughly half the population to love him and the other half to hate him. The thin margin between love and loathing was never more apparent than during his fourth and final Senate run, which he lost by just a few thousand votes.
Burns, who died last week at 81, rarely inspired feelings of ambivalence. But allow me to attempt a level appraisal of a man I never admired or voted for but whose political skills and accomplishments need to be acknowledged.
On the negative side of the ledger are all the cruel, stupid, offensive things he said over the years, most of which have been exhumed and republished in recent days. Exhibit A was his offhand comment to an editor during a visit to Bozeman Chronicle newsroom in 1994.
Referring to a rancher they both knew, Burns related how the old boy had asked him, referring to Washington, D.C., “Conrad, how can you live back there with all those niggers?” Burns replied that it was “a hell of a challenge.”
The very casualness of it was telling. If that was the kind of thing Burns assumed would amuse a newspaper editor, what did he say over drinks with like-minded compatriots? It was an embarrassment to the state of Montana, and I remember thinking at the time that every reference to our senator should include the words, “Burns, a native of Missouri.”
It’s tough to qualify such a crudely racist remark, but with Burns it was part of his shtick as a hillbilly raconteur. He was the sort of man whose first impulse was to reduce every situation to an obscene or off-color quip, as when he said most environmentalists “aren’t worth piss on a snowdrift.”
He seemed genuinely confused to discover he’d crossed the line, as with his “nigger” comment and his reference to Arabs as “ragheads.”
But he did actually apologize, for those remarks and others. How much worse is the calculated, unapologetic racism and xenophobia of Donald Trump, another politician lauded for plain-speaking? Burns used language he mistook for being commonly accepted; Trump deliberately uses worse language to fire up the incipient brownshirts at his rallies.
You also have to keep in mind that the handful of Burns’ truly despicable utterances were part of a flow of words that never seemed to end. I sat behind him on a passenger plane decades ago (he flew coach!) and listened to him charm the hell out of an old hippie couple sitting next to him.
He could joke and spin yarns and opinionate with the best of them, and nobody enjoyed laughing at Burns’ stories more than he did. In his heyday, half the photographs of Burns caught him in mid-guffaw.
Now, what about those accomplishments? Oddly enough, all the things he was best at would earn him only scorn among the most rabid members of the Republican Party today. That’s because Burns was a master at the ancient political art of bringing home the bacon.
I’ll never forget covering him at a press conference at the Billings airport back in 2000. Flanked by city officials and bursting with pride and feelings of power, Burns announced that he had secured (as I recall) $23 million in federal funds for improvements to Airport Road.
He was everything a small-population state wanted in those days: a shrewd, horse-trading wheeler-dealer with a good seat on the Appropriations Committee. Need money to restore the old Northern Pacific Depot, build a Skypoint in the heart of downtown or a new interchange at Shiloh Road? Who you gonna call?
And that was just for Billings. He labored mightily to shower the whole state with such largesse, and he looked out in particular for agricultural and natural-resources interests in the eastern half of Montana.
It was all that old-school finessing of the system that ultimately doomed Burns. He was never charged with any crime related to the multiple scandals involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff, but he and some of his staffers were so deeply entangled in Abramoff’s webs that Burns’ official “innocence” hardly mattered.
As with his words, so with his actions: Burns seemed honestly baffled that he might have crossed the line. He was just doing what you did in Washington to get the job done. The fight against that style of politics is a large part of what animates the campaigns of Trump and Ted Cruz.
That’s not the only way Burns differed so radically from what today’s Tea Partiers profess to want in a politician. He was also a believer in bipartisanship, and he was pragmatic in a way that would get him shot for treason in some GOP circles these days.
Scott McMillion, editor-in-chief of the Montana Quarterly, wrote a story about Burns’ “surprising conservation legacy” in the fall 2013 issue of the magazine (not available online, alas. Wrong. I was sent a link, which is here). I’ll admit much of the article surprised me.
It turns out Burns worked hard to secure millions of dollars for conservation projects, wildland protection and wildlife research. He once steered funding to a project to closely monitor grizzly bear populations through the analysis of DNA in hair samples. Senatorial colleague John McCain singled the project out as an example of wasteful spending, but Burns defended it as only Burns would do.
“If we have to live with them damn things,” Burns said, speaking of grizzlies, “let’s find out where they’re at.”
The other conservation efforts he backed were chosen just as pragmatically, as part of an effort to aid ranchers and farmers, maybe, or to give Burns leverage on another project closer to his core concerns.
Burns was only 81 when he died and it’s only been 10 years since he ended his career in the Senate, but it already seems, for better or worse, as though we’ll never see his kind again.