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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

John Melcher, Former Senator, U.S. Rep For Montana Dies At 93

Former Montana senator and U.S. Representative John Melcher. Melcher died at age 93 on April 12, 2018.

Former Montana Democratic U.S. Senator John Melcher died Thursday.

Melcher’s daughter Joan, says her dad died peacefully at his home in a chair overlooking Missoula’s Rattlesnake Creek.

His 35-year political career included seven years in the House and two terms in the U.S. Senate.

Former Montana Representative, Democrat Pat Williams, says his friendship with Melcher lasted 42 years.

“I am very, very, sorry to know that John has passed," he says.

Williams describes Melcher – a veterinarian by trade – as a fierce advocate for Montana agriculture. That allegiance to farmers and ranchers early in Melcher’s career sometimes led to friction with more conservation-minded members of Congress.

Here’s former Montana Senator Max Baucus.

"People, when they met John Melcher, spent time working with him, remembered him very well. He was unique," Baucus says.

"Yeah, we had a bit of a different view on wilderness legislation in our state, but we worked pretty well together. I remember – good God – pouring over maps rolled out on top of a table. My gosh, John loved to have his thumbprint on everything. I thought it could get a little bit extreme."

Pat Willams says Melcher could be remarkably stubborn.

"Senator Melcher could be very obstinate; extraordinarily obstinate. If he believed something was right, he was for it until hell froze over. If he thought something was wrong, he would never be in favor of it, even as a compromise."

But Melcher’s position on wilderness legislation would eventually soften. In 1988 he co-sponsored a bill to set aside over 1 million acres of public land as wilderness. That bill would also have opened some 4 million acres to natural resources extraction activity and recreation. President Ronald Reagan would veto the ’88 wilderness bill just days before the election; an election Melcher would narrowly lose to Republican Conrad Burns.

Melcher believed Republicans intentionally held up the wilderness bill’s progress to keep him off Montana’s campaign trail and in Washington D.C. to safeguard its passage.

In this archived tape courtesy of the University of Montana Maureen and Mike Mansfield Library, Melcher told interviewer Don Spritzer that Reagan’s veto was a "small" and "cynical" act.

“It was a political decision on his part, thinking it would hurt me and I think it did,” Melcher said.

The status of public lands remains a political hot potato even 30 years after that veto. Despite the rancor, Melcher was confident in that interview from 2007 that Montana would eventually get a wilderness bill.

"I would add this word of caution to whoever drafts it. Pay attention to the corridors that wildlife use. Make sure those corridors are not interrupted to the extent that it’s detrimental to the wildlife."

Melcher will be remembered for many things, including blocking final passage of a Farm Bill in 1985 because he felt it didn’t offer adequate subsidies for Montana farmers.

But in the end,  longtime Montanans will probably associate John Melcher most with a silly – but now legendary – 1982 campaign ad featuring - yup - those talking cows answering his opponent, Larry Williams’ charge that Melcher was out of step with average Montanans.

Cow 1:“Did’ja hear about those city slickers out here badmouthing ‘Doc’ Melcher?

Cow2: “One of ‘em was steppin’ in what they been tryin’ to sell. He kept calling me a steer.

Cow1: “That’ll come as some surprise to Junior there."

Pat Williams says that ad was noteworthy in two ways.

“First, it did break new ground on using humor and animals in a political commercial.”

And second?

“It was the worst commercial I ever saw in my life! (laughter),” Williams says.

Senator Jon Tester today released a statement saying, "John Melcher never stopped fighting for Montana," adding that his legacy will be felt for generations to come.

Ambassador Max Baucus says they don’t make politicians like John Melcher anymore.

“John was John. John was agriculture. He’s Montana. He’s basic. He was just a guy.”

John Melcher was 93. Memorial service arrangement have not yet been announced.

Edward O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the UM School of Journalism. He covers a wide range of stories from around the state.  
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