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MATTERS AT HAND: Bill Guy stands out among N.D. political figures

North Dakota produced an abundance of colorful political figures during the 20th century, but Bill Guy was not one of these. In impact and accomplishment, however, he eclipsed them all. Guy, who died Friday at age 93, is easily the commanding pol...

North Dakota produced an abundance of colorful political figures during the 20th century, but Bill Guy was not one of these.

In impact and accomplishment, however, he eclipsed them all.

Guy, who died Friday at age 93, is easily the commanding political figure of the late 20th century in North Dakota. In fact, he pretty much created the state's post-World War II history. He set the course for its future and for its political discourse. He also found and mentored a generation of political actors that is only now passing from the state.

But colorful he was not. Instead, Guy cultivated a completely different image. Historian Larry Remele dubbed it "the charisma of competence," a memorable phrase and a completely descriptive one.

In a state known for the longevity of its politicians, Guy served relative briefly in public office, a single term in the state House of Representatives followed by 12 years as governor, although that stretch remains the longest run by any North Dakota governor.


It's not just the length of time in office that distinguishes Bill Guy, however, it's also the times themselves. He was elected in 1960 and left office in 1972. The Sixties were a defining time in North Dakota history, and Guy's patience moved the state on many fronts. Chuck Haga did a masterful job of detailing these in his obituary published in the Herald on Saturday.

Guy is probably best remembered for championing projects to deliver water from the Missouri River to eastern North Dakota -- an idea that still has not been realized.

He also superintended the greatest road-building project in the state's history, the interstate highways. Innumerable other routes were improved and many highways were paved for the first time. Thousands of people went to work on these projects, including my two older brothers, an uncle and several cousins.

His enthusiasm for developing the state's coal reserves had enormous consequences, too. Working the Kennedy administration, Guy helped fashion the cooperatives that distribute electricity from the state's coal across the nation's midsection.

Clearly, this was a politician who believed in the role of government in the economy.

There were other, less tangible accomplishments, too. Perhaps the greatest of these was to give North Dakotans a sense of pride and confidence. Partly, he did this by loading his family into a motor home and driving the roads he'd helped improve. The message was:

"There's plenty to see in North Dakota."

Guy attracted national attention. Lyndon Johnson sent him to Vietnam as an election observer, an assignment that underscored his prestige. He returned deeply disillusioned with the war -- and Johnson was angry with him.


Of course, a display of independence never hurt any North Dakota politician.

Guy had an exaggerated sense of courtesy and a seriousness that stamped the state's political culture to such an extent that campaigns here remain relatively civil compared to those in other states.

Then, there were his protégés. Guy brought a succession of talented young people into his administration. The best example is Byron Dorgan, whom he named tax commissioner. Dorgan went on to Congress and the U.S. Senate, leaving that office just four years ago.

Guy himself was ambitious for a Senate seat, but he lost the 1974 election by 177 votes, an experience that left him frustrated and disappointed -- disappointed by the loss of course, and frustrated by how it happened.

A strong believer in the positive role of government, Guy faced an independent opponent on the left who saw government not as a force for development but a force for regulation. Ironically, his support of water development, specifically an undertaking called the Garrison Diversion Project, helped doom his hopes.

This didn't stop him from advocating for water development. The last time I saw Gov. Guy, he delivered a thoughtful and passionate plea for the Herald's support of his dream, even though he'd been out of office for almost 40 years.

Guy took himself and his role seriously, but he also had a sense of humor. His autobiography is mostly a collection of anecdotes rather than a serious political tome.

My own favorite memory of Guy dates from the late 1960s, when a group of us marched to the state capitol to protest the war in Vietnam. Gov. Guy met us on the steps of the building, opened the door and said, "Come on in out of the draft."


It was a blustery day, and we took him up on it.

Jacobs is publisher of the Herald.

Related Topics: MIKE JACOBS
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