Although I wrote thousands of words about Senator Conrad Burns on this site, I met the man exactly one time, for about 19 seconds, in 1988. I was at the Montana Fair in Billings, taking a quick break with my friend to walk the midway on one of those scorching August days that so often happen during fair time in Billings. My friend and I were volunteering for Buck O’Brien, who was mounting his second run against Ron Marlenee for Montana’s 2nd Congressional District. Dressed in our O’Brien t-shirts, we happened to see Conrad Burns walking down the midway by himself, and in the way of all teenage boys everywhere and always, we pulled together enough false bravado to walk over to Burns, who was at the time running his first campaign for the Senate.
Burns was, as he continued to do for three terms and four elections, already infuriating Democrats. His folksy style wasn’t just out of step with younger voters; it was maddeningly effective on the campaign trail and on TV and radio. By August, he was no doubt already running the “You Bet!” commercials that Montanans of a certain age are unlikely, along with Senator John Melcher’s talking cows, to forget. He was already proving to be the kind of candidate that almost no gaffe (and he made A LOT of them) could stop, because people seemed to believe that he was a genuine person who told the truth and took an interest in his constituents. He was a political nightmare for Democrats, soon to be only the second Republican elected to the Senate from Montana since 1913, and we already knew how hard it would be to dislodge him.
That day on the Midway, as my friend and I approached, Burns gave us a big smile and asked us how we were enjoying the fair. A moment later, he looked down at our shirts, and saw, I think, for the first time, that they were supporting a Democratic candidate. He slapped my friend on the shoulder and laughed, saying he “guessed he wasn’t going to get our votes.” All of our manufactured animosity washed away and we shared a brief laugh with Burns before we all went our separate ways. As he left, he told us he was glad we were interested in politics, even if we “were on the wrong side.”
There’s a lot of animosity in politics—and there are real reasons for people on either side of the aisle to be resentful of votes cast, positions taken, and hurtful words spoken. I can’t say that I agreed with much of anything that Senator Burns did in his political career, but I am glad to have had that one brief moment where I saw the person that so many people seemed to have cared so much about and genuinely enjoyed knowing.
Rest in peace, Senator Burns.