“He had the courage to be honest.”
That was Henry Bellmon, remembered by the irascible Ben Blackstock, former executive director of the Oklahoma Press Association.
Bellmon, elected the first Republican governor of Oklahoma in 1962, left a legacy of independence and integrity. As a father to the GOP in Oklahoma, his leadership transformed Oklahoma into a two-party state, reaching its pinnacle this decade when Republicans gained control of the Legislature.
I first heard about Bellmon from the “Ring the Bell for Bellmon” signs as a freshman at the conservative Oklahoma Christian University, coming here from New Mexico. As then a member of the Young Republicans and a Goldwater disciple, I was delighted when Bellmon won. My politics may have changed, but not my admiration for Bellmon’s consistently pragmatic politics.
It might be easy to fail to appreciate Bellmon’s greatness. Ask his contemporaries about him, and their anecdotes could fill books. You’d find that his greatness came not from being a politician or a Republican, but from his character and intelligence.
If any one item embodied Bellmon’s style, it was the title of his weekly newspaper column, “Plainly Speaking.” There wasn’t anything fancy about Bellmon ” there didn’t need to be for the wheat farmer and U.S. Marine combat veteran from Billings.
“He worked hard. He figured everyone else should, too,” said Don Ferrell, former publisher of the Lincoln County News in Chandler. In the last year of Bellmon’s term as U.S. senator, Ferrell was press secretary and had to be at work by 7 a.m. in Washington, D.C., and couldn’t leave until it was 5 p.m. Oklahoma time “to serve the people of Oklahoma.”
You never heard the terms “liberal” or “conservative” bandied about by Bellmon. Ferrell said he wanted the “best ideas.” That independence was his trademark on two controversial issues ” the Panama Canal and House Bill 1017.
When the rabidly emotional vote came up on the Panama Canal Treaty, Bellmon was the swing vote. Despite huge pressure from Oklahoma, he knew the canal was indefensible. Ferrell was in the office the day President Carter called. Bellmon wouldn’t answer, because he was going to make up his own mind. He came home to “Benedict Bellmon” billboards.
Because he wasn’t an ideologue, he consistently had more problems with his own party in state politics.
“Republicans gnashed their teeth at him,” said Blackstock, especially on the education reform of HB 1017. Bellmon couldn’t get but a few Republicans to support it, but worked with the Democratic Legislature to overhaul the public education system. It’s hard to imagine how much worse Oklahoma’s education system would be without Bellmon’s leadership.
Ferrell said Bellmon would be pleased with the Republicans coming to power, but didn’t talk about its current religious right slant. Blackstock said someone asked Bellmon about the party’s “drift” back in January.
“All he did was shake his head ” and it wasn’t up or down,” he said.
Ferrell said simply, “He remade the state.”
Don’t call Bellmon a “maverick,” because that Texas term for unbranded cattle was profaned by Palin’s fakery last year. Bellmon was no cliché. We need a new term to describe his kind of politician. It’d be an honor to be described as “a Bellmon.”
Clark is director of the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame at the University of Central Oklahoma.