A Rendezvous with The Western Governors Association



A public service announcement:

If you have an obligation at noon on Friday, September 25, you’ll be happier if you reschedule it.

In the Center’s “Lunches with Limerick” series, I will be interviewing Jim Ogsbury, Executive Director of the Western Governors Association, in a Zoom Program called “Bipartisanship Happens: How Western Governors Are Setting an Example for the Nation’s Leaders.” You can find information for registering for the session on our website.

If you can’t watch the interview live on Friday, then by all means watch it when it gets posted next week!



Is There A Doctorate-Holder on The Plane?

When flight attendants ask, “Is there a doctor on the plane?” I do not reach for my call button. I am fully aware that I am the wrong kind of doctor, the kind that is no help in a medical emergency.

But in a different kind of emergency, I could be exactly the right first responder.

“We have a crisis and an urgent need for help,” a flight attendant could say. “We have a passenger who has collapsed into life-threatening despair over the state of democracy. Is there anyone with a doctorate in the humanities on the plane who could help?”

I’d reach for my call button in a second.

Let’s stay on board this flight of fancy (or fantasy) a little longer.

The flight attendant tells me that the person in despair is a woman about my age. She seemed fine when she boarded the plane, but after we took off, she started thinking about her children and grandchildren and the world they will inherit. This ignited the firestorm of dismay that is now ravaging her soul.

I sit down calmly next to the afflicted person. I assure her that, even though I don’t have children or grandchildren, I do have hundreds of former students. So I share her deep concern over the fate of democracy and the legacy we are leaving behind us.

But this is an emergency, so that’ll do it for self-introduction. Time to get to work.

“I think I can help, I say. ‘Here’s what we’ll do. I will tell you about the Western Governors Association, and all you have to do is breathe deeply and listen. Democracy is truly in trouble, and the nation is wracked with partisan conflict. But the Western Governors Association (and I am going to start just saying ‘WGA’ to save time) keeps working away to ‘craft consensus bipartisan policy.’ Let’s pause for a moment and see if we can use that phrase, ‘consensus bipartisan policy,’ as a mantra. Let’s sit still, close our eyes and hum for a moment, and then we’ll chant, ten times, ‘consensus bipartisan policy.’ See, just thinking of repeating the word ‘bipartisan,’ you are already calming down!

“At WGA, ‘consensus bipartisan policy’ has not had a restful time of it. The Western Governors do not evade or avoid the hard issues that would fracture any conventional organization. Wildfire, water supply and drought, the divisions between the rural West and the urban West, the allocation of authority between the federal government and the states, and the reform of the Endangered Species Act: these are all issues that, in other venues of discussion, produce a high pitch of partisan noise. But when the Governors deal with these issues, they do not storm out of the room enraged with each other; instead, they stay in the room and figure out responses to these challenges that they can agree on. And then during breaks and during meals, they circulate and mingle and laugh at each other’s jokes (though, as with any human population, the jokes do vary a little in quality), and you cannot tell Democrats from Republicans.

“That insightful Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once said that the states are ‘the laboratories of democracy.’ So if you pay attention to the work of the WGA, you will see that Justice Brandeis got that right, and a good share of the experiments conducted in these laboratories have been maintaining democracy’s heartbeat.”

The agitation of the troubled passenger begins to subside.

And while her world steadies out, I tell her the story of how the WGA changed my life.


Fargo, North Dakota: The Habitat of Miracles

For all its cascade of miseries, losses, and afflictions, the year 2020 is also the thirtieth anniversary of a miracle: a lasting escalation of meaning and purpose in my life, made possible by the WGA.

My use of the word “miracle” may seem like an overstatement.

But it’s not.

The WGA not only confirmed my sense of mission in life, it has never stopped brightening my view of the West.

In 1990, the WGA published a book called Beyond the Mythic West. The contributors to that volume (including the co-founder of the Center of the American West and CU Law Professor Charles Wilkinson) were invited to attend the summer conference and to speak to the Governors at a plenary session.

If I have this right, most miracles make a sudden appearance and then call it a day, ready to yield to quotidian reality. But even though the WGA-sponsored miracle began with a first manifestation that would have been entirely sufficient in itself, this miracle just wouldn’t quit.

On the flight from Denver to Fargo, North Dakota, a glance around the plane revealed that good fortune was exceeding FAA allowable limits: seated a few rows away from me was former Secretary of the Interior Stewart Lee Udall. And there was an empty seat next to him.

I had met Secretary Udall before, but I didn’t know him well. I yearned to occupy that empty seat, but I was starstruck and shy. I knew I should not intrude and impose on his privacy . . . and then, there I was, standing next to the empty seat and asking if it would be OK if I joined him.

It turned out it was OK.

On that day in 1990, the flight from Denver to Fargo turned out to have a problem: it was too short. But it lasted long enough for me to serve (in a surrogate sort of way) on the Supreme Court and to hear the stirring oral argument that Stewart Udall would have made if the cases he filed, on behalf of the downwinders in the path of radioactivity from the Nevada Test Site and the Navajo men who had suffered from the rough health effects of working in uranium mines, had been given a hearing at the Supreme Court. Before we landed, I made a smart move and told Stewart Udall that my father and mother were from Utah, and that my father had been raised Mormon. (At the WGA banquet that night, in our choice of beverages, both Secretary Udall and I revealed that we had parted from the faith of our fathers.)

When we assembled the next morning for the plenary session, I was saddened to find that I was scared to death.

We were positioned on a raised stage in a very, very big room. The speakers and the WGA Chairman, North Dakota Governor George Sinner, sat at a table with our backs to the wall, and no place to hide. To either side of us, two rows of Governors were lined up at two long tables. For a moment, intimidated by the oversupply of dignitaries, I leaned against the table in front of me. But I instantly began to fear that, with my heart beating so hard, Governor Sinner and the other speakers would surely begin to wonder why the table was shaking.

So I leaned away from the table, and I directed my attention to the one point of stability in that whole vast, scary room. Stewart Udall, my friend from the airplane, was seated next to me. He was going to speak first, so I would be able to follow in his slipstream.

Now we reach the second manifestation of the miracle: how I was pulled free of the tsunami of nervousness in which I was immersed.

In his opening remarks for the session, Secretary Udall said, several times, to the Governors and the half-visible, but very sizable audience: “Patty and I come from the same background.” He was from a Mormon community in northern Arizona, and, as I had told him on the plane, my father and mother were from Utah. This evocation of the kinship endowed by our origins in a distinct Western locale pulled me out of the currents of nervousness and permitted me to give my speech without the Governors having to wonder if paramedics should be called.

After the plenary session, the authors lined up at another table to autograph copies of Beyond the Mythic West. Stewart signed first, writing exuberantly and dramatically with a felt-tip pen on shiny paper. This taught me a life lesson (I will not elevate this to the level of miracle): let’s say you are left-handed, and you are autographing a book seconds after a historically significant co-author with a flamboyant signature has used a felt-tip pen on not-very-absorbent paper. If you do not want to disfigure the book, place a sheet of blotting paper on the page, so that you cannot, in your unfortunate lefthandedness, smear your predecessor’s signature into unrecognizability.

At the end of a very stimulating day at the conference, we got on buses and went to a picnic at a city park in Fargo.

The neighborhoods we passed through on the way to the park had immaculate yards and very clean streets. The orderliness of the streets, we learned, did not just happen.

When the citizens of Fargo learned of the route that the gubernatorial dignitaries and the acolytes of those dignitaries would be traveling on their route to the picnic, the citizens realized—to their horror—that it was trash night along that route. So, unless precaution and foresight came into play, the dignitaries would ride a gantlet through trash cans placed on the curb for pick-up early the next morning.

This was an intolerable prospect for the citizens of Fargo. So they organized and orchestrated and communicated, and everyone agreed to keep their trash cans behind their houses and to get up very early to put the trash cans out at the curbside.

Thirty years later, my admiration for the civic spirit of Fargo has not diminished in the least, though I am afraid that I and my neighbors have not always risen to their level of tidiness.

And then we got to the picnic, and miracles of sociability proliferated.

This was my first visit to a Governor-centric environment. There were Governors in any direction you looked—the very same Governors who, in the morning, arrayed in two rows along two tables, had scared me to the point of shortness of breath and an elevated heartbeat. But all of them were now giving every sign of a willingness to chat with whoever came into their proximity. And I was in full operating mode as an autograph-hound.

I plunged into the milling crowd with a couple of pens and my copy of Beyond the Mythic West in hand. And, if you return to the banner at the head of this posting, the front pages of the book came to resemble a high school annual, but with Governors taking the place of the friends who sat next to me to in English and Math Analysis. Comprehensive autograph-hunting was an inspired move; to get these signatures gave me a fine pretext to seize the opportunity to talk with each of the Governors.

After the picnic, we settled in to watch the children of Fargo perform in “Peter Pan.” With all due respect to the children of Fargo, this performance did not entirely rise to the elevation (so to speak) that Mary Martin and her troupe reached on Broadway. I do not remember much about the play, but I do remember watching Idaho Governor Cecil Andrus, a few rows away from me, sit patiently through a rather long performance. The capacity to watch long children’s plays, I realized, figures in the skill set that Governors must have if they are going to perform well at constituent services.


The Flight Resumes: 

Back to Attending to The Passenger in Distress

And now we need to summon back the woman we helped to deal with despair on the airplane.

Stories of the WGA have perked her up considerably, and she is telling me about her young granddaughter who, she is now thinking, has the character traits that would make her a very good governor. But this line of thought has triggered another bout of agitation: she has started thinking about the tense and fractured situation in American race relations. How will her granddaughter cope with an inheritance laden with division and resentment? The flight attendants are getting worried about her again.

But I am prepared to deal with this relapse into despair.

“You are right” I say to her, “in realizing that there is much sorrow, injury, and tragedy in the history of encounters between people of different nationalities and ethnicities. But the American West also has a history of congenial and convivial encounters, a history that gets a lot less attention than the history of dispute and violence. Thanks again to the WGA, I have a way I can help you. Just for emergencies of this sort, I always travel with a copy of my essay from the WGA book, Beyond the Mythic West.

“I feel certain that reading this essay will relieve some of your despair,” I assure the passenger, “and I would be very happy if you were to share some of its stories with your granddaughter. I’ll give you the copy of this essay in a moment, but first, I’ll read you a few passages from my essay, ‘The Rendezvous Model of Western History.’

“I’ll start with a story from Edwin Bryant, who traveled on the overland trail to California in 1846. Stories like this one are not necessarily typical, but they are not rare in the diaries, letters, autobiographies, and memoirs of white pioneers. Here is Edwin Bryant’s story:  One evening, a sociable young Indian man, came to visit Bryant’s camp. The young man was, Bryant said, ‘so eager and earnest in his inquiries respecting every thing appertaining to us, and into our language, that I sat conversing with him until a late hour of the night. From him, I learned the names of many things in the Utah dialect.’ And it wasn’t just Edwin Bryant who reported such an experience. ‘In short,’ another overland traveler wrote, ‘my only happiness on the plains were my meetings with Indians.’”

And at that point, her spirits lifted and her curiosity aroused, the passenger asks for the copy of the essay. and she settles in to read tales of Western adventure where strangers met, nobody got hurt or died, and people took pleasure in meeting each other.

(I interrupt here with a reminder that this tale is entirely a fiction, and, back in the pre-pandemic world, I never once traveled with copies of essays I had written to hand out –or even worse, read aloud—to fellow passengers!)


The Backstory of “The Rendezvous Model”

Thirty years ago, I had reason to be worried about the frictions, tensions, and conflicts among Westerners of different ethnicities and nationalities. So, when Paul Cunningham, Jo Clark, and Chris McKinnon asked me to write an essay for the book that the WGA was creating, it was easy to choose my topic. I wanted to write an essay that would convey the message that Western North America has always been characterized by great diversity of culture, identification, and affiliation. While these varied groups of people often met in conflict and even combat, they also met on terms of collaboration, curiosity, and commerce. In a calculation that could never be definitely proven, it was a tenable hypothesis that Western peoples of the past had spent a lot more time trading, visiting, intermarrying, and negotiating with each other than they spent killing each other.

The history of the Rocky Mountain fur trade in the 1820s and 1830s carries considerable interest for the general public. And so I chose the rendezvous—the annual meeting of fur trappers, Indian people, and travelers—to anchor a persuasive case for the change in perspective I was proposing to the Governors. Rather than a westward-moving advance of a frontier line, I wanted to invoke historical occasions in which people came from all directions. At a rendezvous, people spoke many different languages, and they relied on interpreters and translators to bridge those gaps of language and background. They visited with each other, and they traded with each other, far more than they fought with each other (though that did happen on a few occasions).

I accented the rendezvous, because I wanted the Governors to know that ethnic diversity was a well-established characteristic of their states, and, more often than not, it had been an asset rather than a burden.

Some of the Governors did not need me to tell them what they already knew, and others were unlikely recruits to the Multicultural Bandwagon. But the Governors were tolerant and even enthusiastic when our peppy set of co-authors spoke to them. And all of them wrote very nice comments when I asked them to autograph my copy of the book.  “Patty—Keep pushing us!” one Governor wrote. “To Patricia,” wrote another, “whose vision of the past will hopefully provide a basis for a sound future in the West.” And now the one quotation I particularly value: “Thanks for great historical insight.” Roy Romer

Did my effort change the mind of any Governor?

I don’t know, and I may not care.

What I do know is that the experience changed me. I knew to the core of my soul that I wanted to have more experiences like this.

Back to the main manifestation of the miracle granted me by the WGA: departing from Fargo, I carried two gifts from the conference: a souvenir Theodore Roosevelt Teddy Bear (still in my possession), and a deepened sense of meaning and purpose in life (also still in my possession).


Singing Along with Governors

I was seated near the back of the room during the after-dinner entertainment at a WGA meeting. A genuinely entertaining performer was alternating between telling stories and singing with vigor. Some of the songs were very familiar to many in the audience, and he invited us all to sing along.

Everyone at my table was singing away, but we couldn’t miss the fact that one of our companions had a really good voice. This person was the manager of one of the most important water agencies in the West. The fact that he sang beautifully was catching us all by surprise (not, of course, to suggest that any of us harbored a stereotype of water managers as unable to carry a tune in a bucket).

Up at the front of the room, the entertainer had reached the moment in his performance to share the spotlight. “Is anyone in the audience,” he asked us, “sitting next to someone with a really good voice?”

I happened to be occupying such a seat, so I raised my hand.

A moment later, just as I was thinking that maybe I should have asked for my tablemate’s permission before “outing” him as an impressive vocalist, our water manager was up in front of a big crowd, belting out “Heartbreak Hotel” in a way that would have made Elvis envious. Several years later, I learned that this gifted man hit a very rough spot in his career when he tried to negotiate collaborations between urban and agricultural water users. I ended up wishing I had clapped even harder for him when I had the chance.

The Republican Governor of South Dakota, George Mickelson, was seated at a table up at the front, close enough so the entertainer could tell for himself that a person with an unusually good voice was in his proximity. Without more than a second’s warning, the entertainer, in mid-song, handed his microphone to Governor Mickelson, who continued the song without missing a beat or—perhaps more important—a note.

There were reasons to admire Governor Mickelson that I was not aware of when I heard him sing. I later learned that Tim Giago, the renowned Oglala Lakota editor of Indian Country Today, had worked closely with Governor Mickelson in anticipation of the hundredth anniversary of the Wounded Knee Massacre. Persuaded by Mr. Giago, Governor Mickelson designated 1990 as the Year of Reconciliation in South Dakota. He also worked with the South Dakota State Legislature to recast Columbus Day as Native American Day. “South Dakota has a long way to go yet to really improve race relations,” Tim Giago said, “but the fact that Gov. Mickelson had the foresight and the courage to bring us to this point in our history is reason enough for celebration.”

Governor Mickelson died in a plane crash three years after his Year of Reconciliation initiative. Hence, another manifestation of the WGA miracle: I got to be in the company of the elected official who took Tim Giago’s advice and refused to be trapped by old habits of thinking about Western history.

Three decades later, the chance to sing—and to laugh—along with Governors has not vanished and may even be enhanced in more recent times.

For the WGA meeting in Phoenix in December of 2017, I was given the opportunity to recruit three fellow American historians to join me in a plenary session on the history of federalism. Since the allocation of authority between the federal government and the states has often been a matter of contention in Western history, my historian pals and I mobilized everything we had in the way of diplomacy, determined to avoid any moment when we might inadvertently undermine the WGA’s tradition of bipartisan congeniality. (Leisl Carr Childers, Sarah Elkind, and Peter Onuf, you are my heroes!)

At the banquet the night before our panel, we were lucky to find seats near the table reserved for Utah Governor Gary Herbert, who we knew was to introduce us the next day. Enjoying a lively conversation with him, all four of us took every opportunity to parade our Utah connections.

And, in a first-rate demonstration that humor remains a key feature of the WGA tool kit, this is how Governor Herbert introduced us the next morning.

He had gotten to know a little about us the night before, he told his fellow Governors, and he had been pleased to learn that we all had ties to Utah. Patty Limerick’s parents were from Brigham City and Salt Lake City. Leisl Carr Childers had gone to high school in Utah when her father was stationed there in the military. Sarah Elkind was emphatic in declaring that Utah offered the best skiing. And Peter Onuf, Governor Herbert said, had once met a Mormon.

Governor Herbert certainly held his own with humor, but the very beginning of this conference had achieved a very, very high level of hilarity. At the start of the conference, the Executive Director introduces all the Governors, who are seated at a line of tables on a stage. That is quite a number of bios to present, but, WGA Executive Director Jim Ogsbury had figured out a way to hold the audience’s attention. Declaring that he was about to introduce the Governors, he invited his wife Christine to join him at the podium. She then told us that she and Jim both loved the music of the holiday season. This was nice to know, but none of us instantly guessed why she was bringing this enthusiasm to our attention.

And then it turned out that Jim and Christine had performed astonishing exertions as librettists. They had written the biographical profile of each governor to the tune of a particular holiday song. And, with the lyrics projected on a screen, the two of them led us in singing the gubernatorial introductions.

But before they began this unusual serenade of introduction, Jim Ogsbury shared with us a touching moment of vulnerability. The last time, he told us, that he had tried to sing in public, he had been in elementary school. Things hadn’t gone well, and he had cried.

So I was given another chance to sing along with Governors, as we caroled our way through their educational backgrounds and records of public service.

Here is the limerick I wrote in tribute to this once-in-a-lifetime conference experience:

As we saluted each Guv with a song,

Many of us sang along.

We did not know why,

But Jim did not cry,

and Christine stayed melodious and strong.

The Western Governors Association: refuge for democracy and bipartisanship and—not coincidentally—for humor.

Jim Ogsbury and Montana Governor Steve Bullock
CREDIT: David J Swift

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I like writing ‘Not My First Rodeo,’ but I will not deny that I miss the stimulation of seeing the reactions of audiences in real time. Readers of this blog do write to me, now and then, but I am eager to know more about what people are thinking–and feeling–as they read.

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