• Marc Johnson

Political Tragedy


The Washington Post had a fascinating and yet difficult to read story a few days ago about how an airplane accident shaped the modern political landscape of Alaska. In 1972, then-House Majority Leader Hale Boggs (left) and then-Alaska Congressman Nick Begich, both Democrats, died in a famous Alaska crash. The plane and its passengers were never found.

Boggs was a huge D.C. player at the time, but it was Begich’s death that carved the modern contours of the politics of the Last Frontier. Begich’s son, Mark, is now the state’s junior senator.

In addition to Mark Begich, current Rep. Don Young and former Senator and Governor Frank Murkowski figure in the political evolution that began with the Boggs-Begich tragedy. Young, in Congress since 1972, said of Nick Begich: “He passed on, and I got to be congressman.”

Idaho politics since the 1960’s has been framed, as well, by air tragedy.

Both former Congressman and Senator Jim McClure and Gov. Cecil Andrus can trace the pivot points of their remarkable careers to 1966 and the tragic deaths of rivals in Idaho plane crashes.

McClure was not considered the favorite in a tight GOP primary race in 1966 when John Mattmiller of Kellogg, who had run unsuccessfully in 1964 and was running hard early in the primary season, crashed his small plane into a powerline while trying to approach the fog-bound Kellogg airport. McClure went on to win the primary and defeat incumbent Democratic Rep. Compton I. White, Jr. The rest is history. McClure served three House terms and three more terms in the Senate before retirement in 1990.

Andrus had narrowly lost the 1966 Democratic gubernatorial nomination to Salmon attorney Charles Herndon. Herndon polled 1,277 more votes than the future governor in the primary but, when Herndon’s plane went down on September 14 during a campaign flight from Twin Falls to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho Democrats had to scramble to nominate a replacement. Andrus emerged from a contentious state central committee process to capture the nomination by a whopping two votes.

The party was badly divided after Herndon’s death, but leaders like then-Sen. Frank Church and Rep. White threw in with Andrus. The then-Orofino state senator lost the general election – he still jokes about being the only candidate in America to lose the governorship twice in the same year – but was well positioned to capture the nomination and the big office in the Statehouse when he ran again against incumbent Don Samuelson in 1970.

Andrus went on to become the longest serving governor in Idaho history and arguably one of the most popular and successful.

One other truly promising Idaho political career cut short by an airplane accident was that of State Sen. Terry Reilly of Nampa. Reilly, a big, strapping, handsome, well-spoken Irishman was also the rarest of Idaho Democrats – a Canyon County Democrat. Reilly was seen as a credible statewide candidate for Lt. Governor in 1986, when a plane he was a passenger in went down on a flight from northern Idaho to Idaho Falls in April of that election year. The pilot of that plane was another Democratic wanabee Pete Busch who had lost to McClure in the 1984 Senate race and in ’86 was seeking the 1st District Congressional seat.

I have a distinct memory of getting the news that the Busch-Reilly flight was badly overdue at the traditional Truman Day dinner in Idaho Falls. The dinner is a must-appearance for a statewide candidate and both men had been scheduled to speak. I still remember the gasp in the crowd when it was announced that the plane was overdue and missing.

Then-State Treasurer Marjorie Ruth Moon, a well-known fixture in Idaho politics for years, eventually carried the Democratic standard in the ’86 Lieutenant Governor contest. Moon narrowly lost that year to a fellow named C.L. “Butch” Otter who went on to serve Idaho’s longest tenure in the No. 2 job, win three terms in Congress and the governorship in 2006.

Otter is seeking re-election in November and its is pure, blind conjecture to speculate how his, or the state’s, political history might have been different had Reilly lived, won the Democratic primary 24 years ago and taken the now-governor on in the general election. Had that match-up occurred it would have featured two engaging, charming, talented retail politicians each with a base in the state’s second largest county.

A legacy of Terry Reilly’s too young life taken way too soon lives on in Terry Reilly Health Services, a network of non-profit medical clinics for low income Idahoans. Reilly started the well-respected clinics after his early days teaching English to Hispanic kids had convinced him that often the youngsters needed health and nutrition help side-by-side with language skills.

It has been said – and correctly so – that the great unknown in politics is timing. Fate and tragedy can certainly influence timing. That has clearly been the case when it comes to politicians and airplanes in Idaho and Alaska.

Some politicians, even very successful ones, develop over time a certain air of invincibility. They tend to think they can – indeed must – press ahead against the odds, even against nature sometimes. But it is only an illusion.

Andrus, who knows a thing or two about both flying and campaigning, has often said that no meeting – particularly a political meeting – is worth risking a flight when weather or other conditions dictate that I would be better to be late than to never show up.

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©2019 by Marc C Johnson