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On Chris Carlson

September 2, 2018
Randy Stapilus

Randy Stapilus

John McCain, the senator and former presidential contender who died last week, said this in the last paragraph of his new and final book:

“What an ingrate I would be to curse the fate that concludes the blessed life I’ve led. I prefer to give thanks for those blessings, and my love to the people who blessed me with theirs.”

My fellow columnist and longtime Idaho politics writer Chris Carlson, who died just about a day after McCain, likely would have been glad to second that sentiment. In fact, with only slightly different words, he often did.

For Carlson, as for the senator, the view toward the end of the road was a long time coming.

I knew of him long before I met him. When I went to work at the Idaho State Journal in the mid-seventies, I often read his writings for that paper about Idaho politics from a half-decade or so before. He worked for Cecil Andrus during the governor (first run) and interior secretary years, and became so close to him as to be almost a member of the family. He was a founder of the consulting Gallatin Group along with Andrus, whose prominence and connections gave it a powerful initial push.

I got to know Carlson as he moved toward retirement, easing out of Gallatin after he was diagnosed with Parkinsons disease in 1999 and an aggressive cancer in 2005. For many people that might have been a setting into quiet retirement, the end of an active role in regional (Washington state as well as Idaho) public affairs, involvement in political campaigns, issues battles and much more. Fighting back and holding at bay his medical issues might for most people have been more than enough to occupy what time was left.

But for Carlson, in the dozen and more years that remained to him, that seemed to be only the beginning.

As he battled for health, he took a lead role in the “no” campaign on Initiative 1000 in Washington state, on physician-assisted suicide. He wrote a biography of Andrus that, while highly laudatory, filled in many of the gaps remaining in Andrus’ own memoir. He started writing a political column that ran in many Idaho newspapers (and on my website, ridenbaugh.com) up until a few weeks ago. He also wrote three more books (two of which, “Medimont Reflections” and “Eye on the Caribou,” I published), the most recent published only month ago.

And that was hardly all he did.

In 2013, Carlson and I took a long road trip around Idaho, talking about books we both had recently put out. Carlson was the lead organizer of the trip, and we stopped in on people all over the state — people he had worked and organized with, sometimes argued with. We talked and listened about Idaho and its politics, and about how things could be made better. And for Carlson at least, the talk was always just step one. He’d get on the phone and make things happen.

Once, he ran across a little-known novel written years ago by a now-deceased but highly influential University of Idaho professor. From that he launched and kept rolling a chain of events that led to the re-publication (I was drafted into this as well) of three of the professor’s books, and their distribution and visibility around the state.

He did a lot of that sort of thing.

In his last column, Carlson wrote, understating his impact in his later years, “I was able to see two beautiful grandchildren born who have extraordinary talents, as well as all our children mature and happy with fulfilling employment. I also decided to get back on the stage of Idaho politics by writing a weekly public affairs column carried by five of Idaho’s newspapers. In addition, I wrote four books.”

Sounds a bit like a reflection McCain might have had.

Take care, Chris.

Former Idaho newspaper reporter and editor Randy Stapilus is the author of “The Idaho Political Field Guide,” the editor of the Idaho Weekly Briefing, and a blogger at www.ridenbaugh.com. A book of his Idaho columns from the past decade, “Crossing the Snake,” is available at www.ridenbaughpress.com/.

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