I met Conrad Burns exactly one time. One hot August day at the fair in Billings, Burns noticed that my friend and I were, in high school at the time, were wearing political shirts and he made a beeline over to us as he was running his first campaign for the Senate this year. In the middle of his introduction, Burns, who had warmly greeted us with his huge grin and a couple of hearty backslaps, seemed to finally notice that our shirts advertised a Democratic candidate for Congress and wandered off after telling us that we probably weren’t going to vote for him.
It’s that spirit that Mike Dennison captures about Burns in his new book Inside Montana Politics: A Reporter’s View from the Trenches. While Burns was absolutely infuriating to liberals and prone to gaffes that seemed to embarrass the people of Montana far more than they embarrassed him, it was hard not to like the guy just a little bit. And you had to admit he fought for Montana his whole career.
In each of the stories Dennison tells about his 30+ year career covering Montana, he moves past the headlines to humanize the figures he covered, even those, like Marc Racicot, who seemed determined not to express much humanity. From Dennison’s viewpoint, we’re offered an insider look at the challenge of covering politicians who rail about their coverage, demand attention, and refuse to offer access when it will undermine their image.
Behind the scenes anecdotes about each of the figures he covered do an excellent job of illustrating their character, whether it’s the story about single-spaced, three page letter Marc Racicot sent to the Great Falls Tribune criticizing coverage he had received or self-identified fiscal conservative Conrad Burns unabashedly arguing for the pork he brought home to Montana:
Conrad Burns hurtles along U.S. Highway 87 in a Chevy Silverado at 80 mph, he makes a grand gesture toward the miles of unbroken prairie south of here. “I’m a man of this land,” says the three-term U.S. senator from Montana. “We are in my element right now. These people need the shot.” The “shot,” in his words, is the policy—and the money—that he can bring to bear for rural America. As Burns campaigns for his fourth consecutive term as Montana’s junior senator, he says this role is his reason for pressing on at age 71.
Each of the figures covered in the book is treated the way Dennison has covered politicians throughout his career, with a critical but fair eye. Though I imagine Dennison often writes with a wry expression and a raised eyebrow, he finds a way to give his subjects the benefit of the doubt and give them credit for their work.
Hell, even Denny Rehberg comes across pretty well in this book, though I’d love to see Dennison revisit his career more fully in a future volume.
Throughout the book, Dennison gives generous praise to his colleagues in the Montana media, perhaps intentionally offering a melancholy reminder about just how much the media landscape has changed in the state during his tenure. It’s hard not to feel nostalgia for a time when we had Washington bureaus covering the D.C. delegation, columnists with time to over more insight behind the scenes, and the Missoula Indy pressuring the dailies to get stories out.
It’s a great overview of the past couple of decades of Montana politics, suited both for those who have followed it closely and those who want to catch up on the transition from Democratic to Republican dominance in the state.
If you’re in Helena, drop by the Montana Book Company on August 1 at 6:00 p.m, when Dennison will talk about and sign the book.