July 20 marks the 25th anniversary of the death of a governor never elected by the people of Idaho, who nonetheless had a more profound and lasting impact upon Idahoans than many of its elected governors. His name was Forrest H. Anderson, the 17th governor of Montana who, in one term (1968-1972), not only transformed Montana but indirectly helped his colleague, Cecil D. Andrus, to transform Idaho.
Born in Helena on January 30, 1913, he died tragically by his own hand at the age of 76 in Helena on July 20, 1989. He had been in ill health for years, in part due to a hard life consuming too much alcohol (a functioning alcoholic, he allegedly quit drinking during his second term as Montana attorney general, 1960-1964) and too much tobacco, whether cigarettes, a pipe or a cigar.
A short, almost pixie-like figure, he nonetheless towers over most other Montana governors in terms of ability to change the state and turn its government into true and efficient public servants. He could be brusque with people and caustic. A very private person, he was often accused of acting in secret (he did).
Montanans, however, loved him. He was elected three times as attorney general (1956, 1960, 1964), served a term early in his career from Lewis and Clark County in the Montana Legislature (1945-’47), and was twice elected as an associate justice of Montana’s state Supreme Court. He is the only person to ever serve in all three branches of government in Montana.
He could have easily been re-elected governor but his declining health compelled him to step aside after but one term – one, however, which saw Montana’s government truly changed. Two of the three major changes he brought about in Montana had their “successors” in Idaho.
Anderson first met Idaho’s newly elected 39-year-old governor, Cecil D. Andrus, in the summer of 1971 at a Western Governors Association meeting in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. They hit it off immediately, though Anderson was almost 20 years older. Both had reputations for candor and political smarts and both recognized similarities in the other.
While there, Anderson walked Andrus through the intricacies of his successful effort to take Montana’s 160 agencies, boards and commissions, and consolidate them down into no more than 20 state agencies. He packaged it in the form of an initiative that he took to the people for a vote in November of 1970. It passed over whelmingly.
Andrus recognized Idaho had the same need, so lifted the page from Anderson’s playbook, ingeniously added the phrase “one-stop” shopping, and took it to Idaho’s voters in November of 1972 with a similar result.
On another occasion Andrus was complaining to Anderson about the spiraling costs for Idaho in belonging to an interstate compact for higher education services (WICHE) not usually available in states like Idaho and Montana, including various fields of medical education. After listening to Andrus, Anderson said, “Well, Cece, let’s form our own.”
Thus was the highly successful WAMI (stands for Washington, Alaska, Montana and Idaho) program born whereby states like those and later Wyoming, without medical schools purchase seats at the University of Washington’s Medical School. Graduates of the program are encouraged and incentivized to return to their sponsoring state to apply their skills, especially in underserved rural areas.
Anderson also will forever be known as the generator of the modern Montana Constitution. He felt Montana’s original needed a complete overhaul. He spearheaded the successful creation of a Montana Constitutional Commission that sent to the people in 1972 a revised and modernized Constitution which narrowly passed. Recognizing he had more than enough on his plate, Andrus did not follow Anderson’s lead on this.
One story tells much about this “little big man:” While serving as governor he would sometimes spend an evening picking up trash in the fishing access parking lot adjacent to some property he owned on the Missouri River. The story goes that a passerby walked into a nearby bar and complained to the bartender that there was some deluded fool out in the parking lot picking up trash who also claimed to be Montana’s governor. The bar tender replied quietly, “He is.“
Rest in peace, Forrest H. Anderson. Your place in the history of two states is secure.
Chris Carlson was the longtime press secretary for four-term Idaho Gov. Cecil D. Andrus. He also served as the assistant to the secretary and director of the Interior Department’s Office of Public Affairs.