MATTERS AT HAND: N.D. should bring back its state-issued voters’ guide
Not long before he retired after nearly 36 years in the U.S Senate, Milton Young told the Washington Post, "Senators used to be more dependent on public speaking, on party support and grass-roots support. Now they have to be sophisticated and loo...
Not long before he retired after nearly 36 years in the U.S Senate, Milton Young told the Washington Post, “Senators used to be more dependent on public speaking, on party support and grass-roots support. Now they have to be sophisticated and look good on TV.
“There is too much telling people what they want to hear. It’s easier to fool the public over TV than going out and mingling with the people.”
Of course, Young knew what he was talking about. Although he was initially appointed to the Senate, he held on to it through six elections. The first five were landslides; the sixth was decided by less than 200 votes.
Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that television was a big factor in that last campaign. Young wasn’t good on TV. If North Dakotans hadn’t known and trusted him for three decades, he probably wouldn’t have won.
Earl Strinden, a Republican legislative leader and a Senate candidate himself, has often said that Young could not have won election in a modern Senate campaign.
Young stuttered badly. When he prepared a speech, he made certain to begin with a word that he could pronounce easily. In interviews, he often stopped to rework his phrases so that he could express himself more clearly.
Young’s statewide political career began in 1932, when he was elected to the state House of Representatives. He published a single newspaper advertisement, a letter to voters in which he laid out his priorities, stressing agriculture, and in which he said -- at the very end of the piece - that he was running as a Republican.
Young also relied on newspapers to communicate his with voters about what he was up to in Washington. His column, “On Capitol Hill with Sen. Young,” appeared pretty consistently in most of the state’s weekly newspapers for almost his entire career.
The senator wrote well. His ideas were clear, and his arguments were forceful. He didn’t patronize readers. He assumed they were smart and would appreciate the full complexities of the issues he wanted to address.
It’s different today, of course. Sound bites are the stuff of today’s political advertising, and even issue statements are little more than a few seconds on the evening news.
North Dakota campaigns emphasized print in another way in those good old days gone by. The state published a voters’ guide. Candidates could submit biographies and statements of their positions. Most of them did, often at considerable length.
My parents looked forward to these. My mother had very definite opinions -- she had followed the Nonpartisan League into the Democratic Party and loyally served as a precinct clerk and election judge.
Dad, on the other hand, liked to mull over what candidates had to say. He relied on the Minot Daily News, the Mountrail County Promoter and the voters’ guide to provide the information he wanted about candidates and issues.
Thus equipped, he would cast his ballot with confidence -- and not always the way my mother hoped he would.
Both Mom and Dad encouraged me to read the voters’ guide and to make my own choices. Both of them quizzed me about the candidates I preferred.
No doubt that experience cemented my interest in politics and probably my choice of career.
It seems to me that North Dakota should bring back the voter’s guide. In fact, I think candidates should be required to provide information for it. I also think it should be distributed in daily newspapers, but of course that’s a self-interested idea.
Political candidates have suffered from abandoning newspaper advertising. Many publishers have retaliated by not printing material that office holders provide. There’s nothing similar to Sen. Young’s columns being printed in today’s newspapers.
Even so devoted a newspaper fan as Young did turn to television in his last and most difficult campaign. His critics had said he was old and lacked the energy and vigor to serve as a senator.
Young’s response was a memorable gimmick.
He bought a television ad in which he broke a board with a karate chop.
That just might have provided the votes he needed to win the election.