By his third presidential bid, Merrill K. Riddick of Philipsburg was a household name in Montana.
His party, not so much.
As Missoulian opinion page editor Sam Reynolds put it following Riddick's death in 1988, "Gone was the founder and probably the only member of the Puritan Ethic and Epic, Magnetohydrodynamics and Prohibition Party."
Magnetohydrodynamics were the major selling point of Riddick's first run for the White House in 1976.
The previous year Missoulian reporter Steve Shirley wrote, "For the spry 80-year-old politician, MHD, or the conversion of coal to electricity in a superheated chamber through the use of magnets (or something like that), is very important."
Last week Gov. Steve Bullock became the first Montanan since Riddick to throw his hat into the presidential ring. His venture promises to be interesting and perhaps more successful than Riddick's were in 1976, 1980 and 1984.
But it'll be nowhere near as zany.
Let's jump on the missoulian.newspapers.com bus, just as Merrill K. jumped onto Greyhounds with two-month passes to cruise down campaign trails, and track a bit of the quirky retired prospector's political career.
Note that Riddick called himself a prospector, not a miner.
"I've crawled into more holes and accomplished less than any prospector I know," he said in 1967, when he was running for governor for the second time.
In 1960 he had finished sixth out of six contenders in the Democratic primary with 1,344 votes. Winner Lt. Gov. Paul Cannon got 44,000.
When Riddick announced his bid for the same post in the 1968 election, against the same number of Democratic opponents, he told the Missoulian State Bureau he was sure he'd do better this time.
Alas, he placed sixth again, this time with 1,052 votes.
In 1972 Riddick switched to the Republican party and ran for U.S. Senate, saying he favored a navigation canal up the Missouri River to Winifred and Fort Benton, and $500 million in dam construction on the upper Missouri River. He took fourth in that race. Out of four.
Montana's resident Don Quixote "parlayed his political interests, optimism and sense of humor into an unbroken string of election defeats," Reynolds wrote after Riddick succumbed to cancer at age 93.
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Carl Riddick represented eastern Montana in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1919 to 1923. His son Merrill was born in 1895 and became a World War I flying instructor by that time. Later he barnstormed with Charles Lindbergh and was one of the country’s first airmail pilots. He rejoined the Army during World War II as a flight trainer.
Such aviation background earned him respect and admiration later in life. Riddick had just turned 81 and was in the late stages of his first campaign for president when the Philipsburg airfield was christened “Riddick Field.” Granite County commissioners had been urged by Mike Kahoe of the Bicentennial Committee to pursue the name. It remains Riddick Field to this day.
Riddick's slogan in that first presidential campaign was "Throw the raskels out!"
"He was a campaigner, not a speller," Reynolds noted.
A Las Vegas television station saw a magazine article featuring Riddick in 1975 and offered him half an hour of prime time TV space — until it found out Riddick had a thing against liquor.
"The minute I began talking about prohibition they decided I wasn't going to get prime time," he told Shirley when he stopped by the Missoulian office in 1985.
"Riddick never deluded himself," Reynolds wrote. "In 1979, he summed up his chances of winning the 1980 presidential election with uncanny accuracy: 'Theoretically absolutely impossible.'"
He threw his name in for '80, by the way, two days after the 1976 election. Riddick made the declaration in an interview with The Missoulian from a pay phone in Philipsburg. It was probably the same phone in the Antler Saloon he'd used two days earlier on election night to talk to reporter Jane Byard.
The Antler was next door to his campaign headquarters, which were downstairs from his apartment. Neither had a telephone.
Long before the final returns were in, Riddick told Byard he thought the Ford-Carter race would “go to the electoral college.” If it did, he said, he would ask Congress to appoint him president.
For whatever reasons, Riddick’s White House campaigns in 1980 and 1984 garnered less attention from the state press. Maybe he stopped calling newsrooms from phone booths. But he still criss-crossed the nation on his two-month Greyhound passes, eschewing contributions of more than $1 and financing his campaign with his Social Security and military pensions.
And Riddick still had delighted fans in the media. In Reynolds' Sunday Ticklers on the editorial page of the Missoulian in August, 1981, he hailed Riddick’s recent announcement of another run for president in ’84.
“What would summer be like without sunshine?” Reynolds wrote. “What would a presidential campaign be like without Merrill Riddick? …
“The general assumption is he will face Republican Ronald Reagan and a Democrat, plus assorted others. Good luck to Riddick. He brings some common sense, plus a sense of the Riddick-ulous, to any campaign.”