Idaho History

Idaho's influence in the White House: Part II 1975-1986

In 1970, two freshman Democratic governors, Cecil Andrus and Jimmy Carter, were taking office in their respective states, and forming a friendship that would shape the second half of the decade.

The men first came to know each other through the National Governor's Association.

Then, when Carter was elected to the presidency in 1975, his relationship with Andrus, and Andrus's stature as a western Governor, led to Andrus's appointment as the Secretary of the Interior, making him Idaho's first Cabinet official.

Andrus, with one act, doubled the size of federally protected lands. The Alaska Lands Bill (formally the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act) would even outdo the efforts of legendary conservationist Teddy Roosevelt.

The act included 55 million new acres of protected wilderness — including the now famous Alaska National Wildlife Reserve, better known as "ANWR."

When pitching the idea of protecting so much land, Andrus recalls Carter lighting up and asking, "Can I do that?"

Back in Idaho, the natural resource economy flourished and one of its leading executives decided to retire and seek a position in federal service.

However, Peter Johnson, the former CEO of Trus Joist, did not know how to go about taking a position with the federal government. "I went to (Senator) Jim McClure and asked how I might get a federal appointment, and he told me to do whatever I could to help Ronald Reagan."

Johnson coordinated efforts by Northwest businessmen, to help Reagan get elected.

Upon Reagan's victory, Johnson joined the Presidential Transition Team, staffing positions in the federal government.

He recalls vetting candidates for sub-cabinet level positions — the same positions that Bill Eberle had warned him off of: "Bill told me not to take a deputy secretary level position — too much political wrangling. He told me to look for something with some autonomy, and outside of Washington."

That opportunity soon came calling.

McClure called Johnson and told him that he was in the running for the job as the administrator of the Bonneville Power Administration — the agency that markets power generated by 31 dams along the Columbia River system.

Johnson took the helm of the agency and its 8,000 staff members in 1981.

After a career in business, Johnson was well trained for eventualities, but he says the construction of the Washington Public Power Supply System (WPPSS) at Hanford created some surprises: "One day I get a phone call from the project administrator, and he tells me he needs $100 million overnight if he is going to make payroll!"

Johnson was able to make payroll after the agency quickly purchased $100 million of nuclear fuel owned by WPPSS.

Eventually, Johnson had to preside over lay-offs at the Hanford facility, and "they actually burned me in effigy to protest," he remembers.

Johnson left what is considered to be the Northwest's top political job in 1986. The population of Boise was just over 100,000.

With Boise being a relatively small city during that time, there are theories on how four Boiseans achieved such senior positions in government.

"Those were heady times in Boise," explains Peter Johnson, describing the success of companies such as Boise Cascade, Albertsons, Morrison-Knudsen, and Trus Joist — companies that attracted attention across the United States, and the world.

Johnson also notes that many Northwest politicians held positions of power such as Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield from Montana, Washington state Sens. Henry "Scoop" Jackson and Warren Magnuson, Oregon Sen. Mark Hatfield, and Idaho Sens. Jim McClure (who was chairman of the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee) and Frank Church.

Bill Eberle confirms the political clout of the Northwest, saying he knew many people in the federal government throughout his career in Idaho, and that it was in the 1960s that people started paying attention to Boise.

Walt Minnick, who hailed from eastern Washington, explains that he chose to live in Boise after leaving White House service because of Boise's reputation as a corporate town. "I was unemployed for about six months until Peter Johnson hired me (at Trus Joist, where Minnick too would become CEO), but Boise had everything: a vibrant business community and economy, excellent air service, and easy access to the outdoors."

Andrus says that in his case, a Westerner historically filled the Secretary of the Interior spot because most federal lands are in the West.

However, Andrus observes that Westerners are particularly suited for business and government because, "they get up every morning and give a full day's work for a day's pay — or maybe not even a full day's pay."

For the former governor and Interior secretary, the frontier work ethic constitutes an important component to the success of Idahoans in senior federal positions.

Whatever the reason for Idaho's extraordinary run in federal service between the years of 1970 and 1986, Idahoans contributed to policies that shape our nation today, and we have not seen a decade like this since.