The AB turns 40

The late Sen. Lee Metcalf gets high career marks
By: 
Ed Kemmick

Credit: Montana Historical Society Research Center Photograph Archives, Helena, MT

National conservation leaders and Senator Lee Metcalf meet during the week of Aug. 6-12, 1961, to discuss legislative strategy regarding the proposed national wilderness preservation system bill. Pictured in Metcalf’s office around his desk are, from left, standing, Alden J. Erskin, president of the Izaak Walton League; Phil Schneider, president of the International Association of Game, Fish and Conservation Commissioners; Tom Kimball, executive director of the National Wildlife Federation; and Carl W. Buchheister, president of National Audubon Society. Seated from left are C.R. Gutermuth, chairman of the Natural Resources Council of America; Sen. Metcalf; and Ira N. Gabrielson, president of the Wildlife Management Institute.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the final installment in a series about the 40th anniversary of the creation of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness.

Evan Barrett, a former congressional staff member and former head of the Montana Democratic Party, remembered one campaign in which Sen. Lee Metcalf’s opponent showed up for a televised debate with a 3-inch-thick briefing book.

Metcalf walked on stage with only a paper plate in his hands, which he placed on his lectern. Barrett knew Metcalf carried a wealth of detailed knowledge in his head, but he wondered what was on the plate.

He found out afterward that a staffer, not wanting Metcalf to blow up on camera, had drawn a smiley face on the plate, under which was this message: “Don’t let the son of a bitch get you mad.”

Jim Murry, the retired labor leader, said Metcalf could be blunt, to put it mildly, in responding to letters from constituents and others. Sometimes he would write “Wrong” or “Stupid” at the bottom of a letter and mail it back to the sender. If the letter was particularly egregious, he would ink up his rubber “Bullshit” stamp — yes, he really had one — pound it down on the letter and send it back.

But tough and independent as he was, Metcalf was only human. For all his self-effacing modesty, he had regrets about lost opportunities, and about what it had cost him to serve under the shadow of Mansfield, a beloved figure who held the position of Senate majority leader longer than anyone in history.

The New York Times, in a story about Metcalf’s death, said, “He was widely regarded among his colleagues as an outstanding constitutional lawyer who never quite lived up to his potential.”

Murry said Metcalf used to express misgivings about having run for the Senate and often said he should have stayed in the House, where he was thought to have been in line for the House majority leader position. Part of the problem, Murry said, was that Metcalf couldn’t bring himself to care about courting the press — he never had a press secretary — or endearing himself to voters.

His reputation even suffered by the unfortunate timing of his death. He died on Jan. 12, 1978, one day before the death of Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota, a better known progressive and one-time presidential candidate.

The attention of the nation’s press instantly shifted to Humphrey, Roe said, and while “Humphrey was buried amid national pomp and ceremony, Lee’s private funeral service in Helena was attended by his wife, son and niece.”

Roe, having worked closely with both men, continues to think of Mansfield as Montana’s best statesman and Metcalf as Montana’s best senator.

Mansfield himself ranked Metcalf as our best senator. That was in 2002, when he was talking to Marc C. Johnson, former chief of staff to Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus, for an article published in Montana Magazine. Johnson had asked Mansfield to rank the Montanans who had served in the Senate.

“I’d rank Lee Metcalf number one,” Mansfield said. “He was a good partner of mine. He had to operate in my shadow when I was majority leader, but he did a lot for Montana and he didn’t always get the credit. He was the best.”

Mansfield ranked Tom Walsh second and said Burton K. Wheeler and James Murray were tied for third place. He ranked Joseph Dixon fourth and put himself at No. 5. Johnson said he suggested to Mansfield that most people would rank him higher than that.

At that, Johnson wrote, Mansfield “bristled just a bit, straightened himself, and responded politely, ‘You asked for my ranking. That’s my ranking.’”