Marc C. Johnson — former chief of staff to Gov. Cecil Andrus, retired partner at Gallatin Public Affairs, and someone with a longtime involvement with the Idaho Humanities Council — also has a background as a broadcast journalist and communication and crisis management consultant.
He writes on politics and history and has been published in the New York Times, the California Journal of Politics and Policy, and Montana the Magazine of Western History. He appears regularly on the blog and podcast “Many Things Considered,” and writes a weekly column on politics for the Lewiston Tribune.
Two years after his first book came out, he has published a new one. I recently was able to chat with Johnson about the new book and life in general, via email.
Jeanne Huff: Your first book, “Political Hell-Raiser,” published in spring of 2019. Now here you are publishing another book almost exactly two years later. Can you talk a bit about the genesis of your new book, “Tuesday Night Massacre?”
Marc Johnson: Like many people, I have been thinking for some time about a fundamental question about our politics. How did we get to this place? Why all the harsh partisan division? Why all the anger and grievance? What happened to bipartisanship? Why have slogans and “beliefs” replaced almost any serious discussion of issues? What happened to facts? How did we get to the point where an insurrectionist mob, incited by the president and other politicians, attacked the Congress and tried to stop the routine certification of a free and fair election? The answer to that is, obviously, complicated, but I have written what I think of as one chapter in the long radicalization of much of the conservative wing of American politics. The election of 1980, and particularly several Senate campaigns that year, represent, I think, a hinge point where things turned. You can trace a great deal of the current state of American politics to 1980.
JH: The book is about politics in Idaho in 1980 and the U.S. Senate race between Steve Symms and Frank Church. What was the compelling pull for you to tell this story?
MJ: Well, I covered that campaign as a reporter for Idaho Public Television. I knew both of the candidates pretty well, interviewed both many times and knew people who worked for them. I moderated both of the television debates during the 1980 Senate campaign. It was a huge story, a national story, and for a journalist interested in politics it was a great story. I like to think that I knew at the time that something important was happening, but as is often the case with history it takes a long time to see just what did happen. I have thought for a long time about trying to revisit the story. When I began doing some initial research several years ago I found that there were many primary sources — the archives of Church and Symms, the Carter and Reagan presidential libraries (and really rich sources for the other campaigns I write about) — and I thought, maybe with the benefit of 40 years of perspective, I could write something original and, I hope, significant and analytical about why these elections remain so important, and how they shaped conservative politics and ultimately the Senate.
JH: Can you talk a bit about the gist of the story?
MJ: At one level it’s a story of traditionalists versus radicals. Politicians like some of those I write about, including Frank Church, South Dakota Senator George McGovern and Indiana Senator Birch Bayh came of age during the civil rights era and when American politics was dominated by the war in Vietnam. These guys were liberals who fervently believed government could be an instrument to make people’s lives better. The Senate they revered was partisan to be sure, but also featured tremendous bipartisan support for civil rights and Medicare and the Wilderness Act and many other things. McGovern worked with a conservative Republican, Bob Dole, to create the food stamp program. He dedicated much of his life to eliminating hunger. Bayh authored two Constitutional amendments and Title IX, which is enduringly important to women in higher education, including sports. Church was an early opponent of the war in Vietnam. He managed the Senate debate on the Wilderness Act. Church conducted the most significant congressional investigation in American history of the nation’s intelligence agencies, and it cost him politically. Each of these guys was beaten by an opponent with a much different view of government, a much different idea about how the Senate should work.
Most of the conservative class in 1980 and after came to the Senate to stop things, to say NO, or even HELL NO, to rollback the general political consensus that existed since the New Deal. This new breed of conservative had a harder, more ideological edge and sharper elbows. They were often mad about things and willing to upend the system, which I argue they really did after 1980. So, this contrast between “traditional” and “radical” is at the heart of the story. The 1980 election also featured what was then a new element in American politics: the independent expenditure campaign. People in Florida or Texas or Virginia fueling a campaign to defeat a senator in Idaho. That was new 40 years ago and it is now an absolute feature of American politics.
JH: Was it a difficult /challenging book to write?
MJ: Yes and no. As I noted earlier there are great archives at Boise State University, at Princeton, at Indiana University and the University of Iowa. The presidential libraries are a national treasure. So, for a guy who loves to go searching in those archives for insights and facts it was an absolute joy and voyage of discovery. Other material, like the archives of the National Conservative Political Action Committee — the group that targeted Church and the other incumbents in 1980 — are either not available to researchers or don’t exist. Curiously, Dan Quayle, who defeated Birch Bayh in Indiana in 1980 and later became vice president, has not made his Senate or vice presidential papers available to researchers, which is unfortunate. I had lots of help and encouragement from wonderful librarians, like the great Cheryl Oestreicher who runs the special collection at Boise State, which is a joy for anyone writing history.
JH: Most of us have never written anything as ambitious as a book, let alone two. How do you approach taking on such an undertaking and how do you maintain your commitment, especially in light of a pandemic?
MJ: I consider myself truly blessed. I have longed to have the time and freedom to research and write. Now, I have the time and the opportunity and it has been absolutely a wonderful late in life development. Writing for me is a very solitary pursuit. I lose myself in the work, as I think most writers do. And, again like most writers, I have a great support system — friends and family who tolerate happily my obsession with history and politics. My editor-in-chief, my wife and principal cheerleader, who has read and constructively commented on everything I have written is an absolutely indispensable sounding board. I know if I can interest her and make a case that she thinks is solid, I must be doing something right. Finally, I have to acknowledge my publisher and the really good people at the University of Oklahoma Press, who have now published two of my books, and I hope will publish another before long. Academic publishing is a hard business, demanding of rigorous scholarship and seriousness of purpose, but not a lot of money in it. As a non-academic historian I feel so blessed that these serious people have worked with me and allowed me to write history that they publish in such an impressive form.
JH: Did your experience in writing “Political Hell-Raiser” inform your experience with “Tuesday Night Massacre?” How or how not?
MJ: “Political Hell-Raiser,” my biography of New Deal era Montana Senator Burton K. Wheeler, spanned two-thirds of the 20th Century, so it was a big job of sorting and organizing a lot of source material. The new book was easier in a way since it deals with a more compact period of time. Having said that, I learned a lot about myself and my ability — or not — to organize from the first book to the second. The process I just outlined is, I think, going to be my process from now on. I was inventing a means to research, organize and write with the first book. Now I have a process that seems to work.
JH: What is most strikingly different from the political landscape of the ‘80s to today when everything political seems incredibly divisive?
MJ: So much is different. Politics has always involved the rough and tumble. It’s ain’t beanbag, as the old saying goes. I came of age politically, however, when politics, in Idaho at least, was still a very retail business. You went to county fairs and rodeos, shook every hand in sight, visited weekly newspaper editors and literally campaigned on main streets in small towns. There was no Internet, no cell phone, no Twitter. Politics was a more tactile experience and many voters actually knew the candidates. Now so much is done remotely or via social media. Even before the pandemic, politicians were pulling back it seems to me from actual direct engagement with voters and that is a real loss, I think. And it is truly sad that almost any sense of bipartisanship has vanished. When I worked on Cece Andrus’s 1986 campaign for governor, I remember going to Owyhee County one day and seeing a pickup truck with an Andrus sticker on one side of the rear bumper and a Steve Symms sticker on the other. That seems almost inconceivable today.
JH: Most of us took to solitary activities during the pandemic, including writing or journaling. Since that was your main focus, how did you entertain yourself? Did you take up cooking (sourdough bread maybe)? Painting? Jigsaw puzzles?
MJ: I participate in a lot of community activities where we live now on the north coast of Oregon. I chair the local library friends group and sit on the local health district board, an interesting experience during a pandemic. Being involved, even by Zoom, is good for the soul and can be very satisfying. I enjoy cooking and lord knows we’ve had time for that. If I do say so, I make a pretty decent pie. I read a lot and I’m well into another book project. I’m really fortunate. It’s a good life.MJ: You noted that I was long involved with the Idaho Humanities Council, a great organization by the way, so let me just put in a plug for the value of understanding and appreciating American history, which is one thing the Council encourages. We’ve never before needed more people to understand how democracy works, or doesn’t work. That facts matter. That journalism, including especially local journalism really matters. I can get on a soap box to advocate for more humanities education, more teaching of basic civics, more understanding of government and the Constitution. Read things. Lots of things, including from people you don’t always agree with. Search out facts, not just opinions. Support newspapers. Be a good skeptic about what you read and hear and register and vote. That’s my platform. Thanks for your interest in the book. Keep up the good work.