I first met Max Baucus in 1973 when he entered the Montana House of Representatives as a freshman from Missoula. His seat was at the back of the chamber near bright and articulate Dorothy Bradley of Bozeman, the previous session’s only woman and future Democratic candidate for governor.
I got to know him well because we served together on the Judiciary Committee. We learned that we had the same birthday, and began a warm 40-year friendship.
One evening, late in the session, I entered the House chamber to pick up some things from my desk, and noticed bright lights and activity in the rear House gallery. When I went to investigate, there was my friend Max performing before television cameras. The following day he told me he was considering a run for Congress, and was working on advertising for a possible campaign. He asked me what I thought his chances were against the incumbent, Republican Dick Shoup.
I was surprised. Max rarely spoke, and generally kept a low profile in the Legislature. I would have imagined Bradley, Tom Towe of Billings or Mike Greely of Great Falls as more likely candidates for higher office than Max Baucus.
I told him I doubted he could win. He replied that he thought Shoup was vulnerable. Max was carefully calculating from the beginning, and his calculations were correct. Democratic challengers defeated scores of Congressional Republicans in the post-Watergate elections of 1974. One of them was little known Max Baucus over the hapless Shoup.
The more obvious young Democratic stars in 1973 all attempted greater things, but Bradley was defeated for governor by Republican Marc Racicot; Towe lost for Congress to Republican Ron Marlenee; and after serving as attorney general, Greely lost in the Democratic primary for governor. The underestimated Max Baucus went on to serve for decades as Montana’s most prominent public official, and most resilient political survivor, never losing an election in eight straight campaigns.
Shoup told me years after his defeat by Baucus that Max had dropped by his office before running for the legislature to sound Shoup out on a possible career in politics. Shoup told me he knew Max’s family was Republican, and strongly encouraged him. “Little did I know,” the former congressman commented with a rueful chuckle.
Maybe those Republican roots offer some insight into the sometimes unpredictable Baucus congressional record. He has been described as “independent,” “moderate,” “pragmatic,” an “insider,” and a “maverick.” Never as an “ideologue,” or party loyalist.
I’ve always genuinely liked Max. Judging by the election returns, many other Republicans have, too. Perhaps under different circumstances he might not have entered politics as a Democrat, and instead have been a pragmatic, unpredictable and perplexingly independent Republican. I think that thought has crossed the minds of both Montana Democrats and Republicans over the years.
No doubt, though, Baucus has been a powerful force for Montana Democrats, providing opportunities for many young party activists. And, he has given vital financial and other assistance to Democrats down to the local level of state politics.
Our state will certainly miss Baucus’ influence in the seniority driven U.S. Senate. I hope he won’t try to cash in by selling his knowledge as a paid lobbyist. I think he will retire to his Montana roots as he has told us he will. And Max, if you ever feel like some fly-fishing with an old Republican friend, let me know. I have some good places up here in the beautiful Flathead country.