Shaw: There will never be another US senator quite like Quentin Burdick
A look back at Sen. Quentin Burdick's life and career 30 years after he died while in office.
FARGO — It was 30 years ago this month that legendary North Dakota Sen. Quentin Burdick passed away. He represented North Dakota in Washington for more than three decades. Shortly after his death, there was an extraordinary memorial service for Burdick in Fargo. Never before or since have so many powerful members of Congress been in North Dakota at the same time.
“Burdick wasn’t interested in the limelight,” said former North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad, who served with Burdick. “He wasn’t a great speechmaker. He knew the things that were important in people’s lives. He was well-liked and respected by his fellow senators because he conducted himself with dignity.”
Dan Rylance, former Editorial Page Editor of the Grand Forks Herald, wrote a book about Burdick called “Quentin Burdick: The Gentle Warrior.”
“He never had news conferences," Rylance told me in a 2007 interview for KVRR-TV. “He rarely spoke on the floor of the Senate. He never missed a vote unless he absolutely had to. He went to committee meetings all the time. He said he was a workhorse, not a showhorse, and I think that was true.”
“He was friendly, likable and down-to-earth,” said David Strauss, Burdick’s longtime chief of staff. “He signed all of the mail himself. He had all the time in the world for the constituents. His home phone number was in the telephone book. People could call him up, and they did.”
Burdick was born June 19, 1908, in Munich, North Dakota, and was raised in Williston. His parents later divorced. Burdick lived with his mother, brother and sister. With little money, they struggled.
Burdick attended the University of Minnesota, where he played football and was the blocking back for the renowned Bronko Nagurski. Following that, he received his law degree from the University of Minnesota, then joined his father’s law firm in Fargo.
“He grew up in a period of hard times,“ Conrad said. “It shaped his outlook and personality. He was deeply shaped by the hard times of the 1930s and 1940s. He saw farmers fail because of collapsing farm prices. He saw the need for farm programs when prices collapsed.”
I covered Burdick for several years, but it was an embarrassing incident that helped me get to know him a lot better. It was an election night in the 1980s, and I was at Burdick’s house in Fargo covering the election for WDAY-TV.
Shortly before we were to go on the air for a live interview, I sat on a plate of potato salad that someone left on a chair. I didn’t notice it until it was too late. I never did learn who left it there or why it was on the chair.
So, there I was, interviewing Burdick on live television with the back of my pants full of potato salad. Burdick was laughing very hard. He and his family never let me forget about it. It didn’t help that a Forum reporter wrote about it for the next day’s newspaper.
Burdick grew up with politics in his blood. His father, Usher Burdick, was a Republican who was North Dakota’s lieutenant governor for two years and later served as a congressman from North Dakota for 24 years.
Quentin Burdick’s start in politics certainly gave no indication that he would become one of the longest-serving U.S. senators in the nation’s history, with 32 years in the Senate. He lost his first six races for elective office over 22 years. Those races were for Cass County State’s Attorney (twice), state senator, lieutenant governor, governor and U.S. senator.
Usher decided he would not run for reelection to Congress in 1958, so Quentin decided to run for that seat. Also, at that time, the North Dakota Nonpartisan League shifted its affiliation from the Republicans to the Democrats. That greatly helped Quentin, who was a Democrat. He won and became the first Democrat in the history of North Dakota to be elected to the U.S. House.
“History was made in North Dakota,” Burdick said after the votes were counted. “My election to the Congress is a landmark in North Dakota politics. We have now firmly established a two-party system, and that is good.”
Following the death of incumbent Republican North Dakota U.S. Sen. William Langer on Nov. 8, 1959, a special election was scheduled for 1960. Burdick entered the race. To give his campaign some spark, he brought anti-communist charismatic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy to West Fargo to celebrate Burdick’s birthday.
Burdick won that election by defeating Republican Gov. John Davis by just 1,118 votes. He went on to win reelection in 1964, 1970, 1976, 1982 and 1988.
In 1982, Burdick’s Republican opponent was Washington D.C. lobbyist Gene Knorr. When the Burdick campaign found out that Knorr had voted the previous year in Virginia, the campaign blasted the airwaves with commercials that labeled Knorr as a carpetbagger.
At the North Democratic Party Convention, the delegates sang, “Carry Gene Back to Old Virginny.” Knorr never had a chance. Burdick defeated him with 63% of the vote to Knorr’s 34%.
In 1988, then North Dakota Congressman Byron Dorgan strongly considered challenging Burdick for the Democratic Party nomination but decided against it. Burdick’s Republican opponent was powerful North Dakota House Majority Leader Earl Strinden. Burdick was 80 years old then, and his age became a major issue.
“We can’t deny the aging process,” Strinden, then 56, told me in a 1988 interview for WDAY-TV. “I don’t think he has the energy level.”
“I think this is the dirtiest part of the campaign,” Burdick told me. “Never have I been charged with anything like this. They can because they got the figure 80, so they have something to talk about. It isn’t a question of age. It’s a question of ability, and I have the ability.”
Burdick easily defeated Strinden by 59% to 39%.
In the Senate, Burdick was an unabashed liberal. He enjoyed his nickname as the “King of Pork.” As chairman of two committees, Burdick had a lot of power, and he used it for North Dakota projects.
“Burdick’s clout was real,” Strauss said. “He delivered for the state. He passed the highway bill based on land miles, rather than vehicle miles. Guess who that benefits? It resulted in millions of dollars for North Dakota. The Indian Medicine Program at UND was a Burdick earmark. He passed the Clean Air Act and exempted North Dakota’s power plants.”
“He saw the need for government to get involved to help people who went through hard times,” Conrad said. “He was a big supporter of rural electric and rural water. He saw the need for crop insurance. … He had a lot of power, and he used that power for North Dakota.”
“He did well because his colleagues liked him,” Strauss said. “The state benefited enormously from having him there.”
“He was a throwback to an earlier time period,” Conrad said. “He was not a showoff or a showman. People liked him. He was very effective.”
Burdick also had a well-deserved reputation as a penny-pincher.
“He was the cheapest man I ever knew,” Conrad said. “He would wash out his underwear in his sink in his Senate office. He would change the oil in his car in the Senate garage. I will never forget when I was in the garage and I saw a pair of legs underneath his 16-year-old car. Quentin slides out from underneath the car wearing overalls. When he saw me, he said, ‘I just saved 12 bucks.’ He was very proud of that.”
“Burdick would disconnect his refrigerator in his Washington apartment on Friday morning, take out his perishables, walk them over to his Senate office, and put them in his Senate refrigerator,” Rylance said. “When he got back on Monday or Tuesday, he would take them out of his Senate refrigerator, go back to his apartment and put them back in, so he could save money.”
In the summer of 1992, Burdick was hospitalized for several weeks with little word about his condition. I unexpectedly received a call from him on a Saturday night. He sounded weak but wanted the public to know he was hanging in there. It was the last interview he ever did. Two weeks later, on Sept. 8, 1992, Burdick died from heart failure. He was 84.
A U.S. Senator passing away while in office was a big deal, and I asked Burdick’s widow, Jocelyn, if we could have television cameras at the memorial service. Jocelyn, who later succeeded Quentin in the Senate for three months, was a very private person. She declined.
So, I offered a compromise. There would only be one camera taping for all the broadcast media, that camera would be in a fixed position and there would be no use of television lights. She agreed.
I am so glad she did, because the service, held one week after Burdick’s death at the Fargo Holiday Inn, was historic. The U.S. Senate canceled business on the day of the service so senators could attend. As an indication of how well-liked and respected Burdick was, about half the Senate came to Fargo, including the powerful leaders. Roughly half the senators who came were Democrats, and the other half were Republicans.
Kevin Wallevand and I covered the event for WDAY-TV. We wanted to interview the visiting senators about Burdick, but they were kept far away by security. So, I yelled at a few of them to come over, and they agreed. The security detail told me if I did that again, they would arrest me.
“He was one of a kind. He was a great American,” said Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, the longest-serving senator in U.S. history. “We all lost a good man.”
“You could always count on him standing up and doing what he felt was right, and you know that’s all you can say about a good senator,” said Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah.
“When I arrived in Washington in 1959, the first man to greet me was Quentin Burdick,” said Democratic Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii. “I have pleasant and warm memories of him.”
“We had a great many things in common,” said Republican Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska. “I’ve lost a good friend.”
The eulogies were delivered by Democratic Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell and Republican Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole.
“North Dakota is a better place for Sen. Burdick having lived here,” Dole said. “The Senate is a better place for Sen. Burdick having served there. And we’re all better people for having the privilege of knowing this good man from Fargo.”
“He believed and acted as though government exists for the benefit of the people, not the other way around,” Mitchell said. “Quentin Burdick was tireless, devoted to duty. He never saw that duty as a burden. Rather, he saw it as the privilege it is.”
Mitchell told a story of when he was playing cribbage with Burdick.
“Once, I got lucky and beat him, and he demanded a rematch,” Mitchell said. “I got up and told him I had to leave. He said to me, ‘Sit down, Sonny, you’re not going anywhere.’ So, I sat down, and we played again until he beat me. And then he let me go home.”
There will never be another U.S. Senator or person quite like Quentin Burdick.