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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

The Lion of Idaho


William E. Borah, U.S. Senate – Idaho June 29, 1865 – January 19, 1940

A little more than 70 years ago, arguably the most famous political figure Idaho has ever produced – Senator William E. Borah – came home for the last time. Following a memorial service in the United States Senate that President Franklin Roosevelt attended, a funeral train carried the “Lion of Idaho” home to Boise.

Borah lay in state in the Capitol in Boise as thousand filed past his casket. Burial followed at Boise’s Morris Hill Cemetery where the Borah memorial sits prominently near the center of the city’s largest cemetery.

Born at the end of the Civil War and coming of age during a time when Idaho was among the last frontiers in America, the brilliant lawyer-turned-politician lived during some of the country’s most turbulent times. Events touched him and vice versa, from the labor violence in the Coeur d’Alenes (Borah prosecuted labor leader Big Bill Haywood for murdering Borah’s good friend former Gov. Frank Steunenberg in 1905), the First World War (he reluctantly supported American involvement), the League of Nations (he helped lead the opposition), the Great Depression and the outbreak of a second war in Europe.

Borah, a progressive Republican, championed non-intervention in foreign affairs and regulation of monopoly at home. He was only seriously challenged for re-election once, in 1936, when incumbent Democratic Governor C. Ben Ross took him on. Allegedly FDR’s political operatives had encouraged Ross even though Borah had remained on friendly terms with the president and supported many of his New Deal initiatives. Borah, drawing on bipartisan support and a well-earned reputation for independence, decisively turned back the challenge and ultimately Roosevelt stayed out of the contest.

In 1937, FDR toured the West and, during a stop in Boise, the just re-elected Borah introduced the just re-elected Roosevelt in front of the State Capitol in Boise. A wonderful picture of that event shows the president seated in the back seat of a big touring car, with Borah standing nearby at the radio microphones.

Borah deserves to be remembered for many reasons. As chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee he advocated naval disarmament and fathered a rather idealistic notion about outlawing war. As a westerner, he championed western reclamation projects. As a classic liberal, Borah, in the style of Jefferson, was a life-long advocate of the small farmer and shopkeeper. According to most accounts, he was also one of the greatest orators – on par with Daniel Webster or John C. Calhoun – to ever grace the Senate.

Most of all, I think, Borah deserves to be remembered – beyond the high school in Boise and the state’s tallest mountain in the Lemhi’s that carry his name- for his sense of what being a Senator is all about. Borah was a jealous protector of the Senate’ prerogatives. He neither took orders from the president, of either party, nor blindly opposed him.

Rather, Borah was a passionate defender of the Senate’s role, unique in the American system, as challenger of all concentrated power – in business or in government. In a lesson for our times, he should be remembered, more than one hundred years after he entered the Senate and 70 years after his death, as an opponent of presidents of both parties that pushed too far the power of the executive.

When Borah died in 1940, the news of his death was on the front pages from Berlin to Bombay, from Buenos Aires to Boise. Idaho has not had since, and the times probably won’t allow again, another such “citizen of the world.”

Ironically, when news of his death was carried in the Idaho Statesman in Boise, it was noted that Borah hadn’t visited the state he represented in the Senate for two years. Obviously, he was loved at home, deeply respected in the Senate and a power in the country and the world.

Further reading on Borah:

Leroy Ashby’s fine book – The Spearless Leader – recounts Borah’s reluctant leadership of the progressive movement of the early years of the 20th Century.

The one definitive biography of the great Idaho senator is Marion McKenna’s 1961 book simply entitled Borah.

Author Stacy Cordery’s recent and well-researched biography of Alice Roosevelt Longworth – Alice – provides, I think, definitive proof of Borah’s long-rumored, long-standing affair with Teddy Roosevelt’s outspoken and independent daughter. Cordery makes the convincing case that Alice’s only daughter was fathered by Borah who had no children of his own with Mary McConnell Borah, the daughter of Idaho’s third governor.

Tomorrow…some additional thoughts on the Lion of Idaho.

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