Having worked for U.S. Sen. John Melcher through his first four years in the Senate, beginning in 1977, I believe you missed something in your coverage of his recent passing that Montanans — and, indeed, all Americans — should know. While many are jaded today by our public affairs and the dangerous tone of our political discourse, 40 years later I remain inspired by John Melcher. Here’s why:
His predecessor, Mike Mansfield, was the longest-serving Senate majority leader in history, and used his unparalleled power to the benefit of Montanans. Melcher knew that would be a tough act to follow. But rather than try to fill Mansfield’s shoes, he consciously decided to make tracks of his own. So he worked furiously on behalf of Montanans, and demanded the same from his staff.
He studied the issues of his time and armed himself with an impressive level of detailed knowledge. He was a maverick scrapper for positions he advocated, but strived to get the compromises that created real solutions. In short, he was a real work horse, in an arena that today has a lot of show ponies.
But he respected others, so there was never any malice.
Two examples of Melcher’s energy and industry as a U.S. senator still stand out to me: His D.C. staff virtually never came to the State in those earliest years simply because he needed the limited travel budget to return to Montana almost every weekend himself. Back when congress actually had a five day work week, he still made that flight almost every Friday afternoon, maintaining an exhaustive schedule of interaction with constituents across the State.
More telling, though, was that he spent those flights — like many of his early mornings and late evenings — reading, signing and sometimes re-writing constituent mail. His entire professional staff probably spent 40 percent of their time drafting detailed responses to every issue anyone wrote to him about, and looking into what help he could provide on any legitimate request. It was the best way to understand the issues, he said, and Montanans’ views and genuine concerns. So his rule was firm: “If someone writes John Melcher, they get a good answer — on every issue they raise.”
Sure, there were a few canned answers that went through the signature machine. But they were used only for the canned input, such as 10,000 identical incoming post cards from a coordinated campaign.
So I’ve always remembered Melcher, bucking back drafted constituent letters he didn’t care for with more edits and details on the issues raised. He’d often fill up every margin and the entire back of the page re-writing.
In these contentious times of this grand experiment we call a democratic republic, few who represent us seem to care as much as John Melcher genuinely cared about the people he represented. America could use more like him today.