BY ARNOLD HAMILTON
I wish we could roll the clock back a quarter century and reap the benefits, during these tough times, of Henry Bellmon’s in-his-prime statesmanship and leadership.
Bellmon was a conservative Republican, but he wasn’t a scorched-earth conservative Republican, like those dominating politics today.
He wasn’t perfect, but he always seemed to me to put the broad public good ahead of partisan power politics and the wealthy elite. It was an approach that plunged him into hot water with Oklahoma’s powers-that-be on more than one occasion. Who can forget publisher Ed Gaylord ridiculing him publicly as the “Senator from Moscow”?
Bellmon, who died today at age 88, epitomized what Americans claim they want in their leaders: An elected official with the guts to make the tough calls and leave the rest in the voters’ hands.
Whether it was voting for the Panama Canal treaty or busing to achieve racial balance in public schools – neither very popular in Oklahoma – Bellmon educated himself on the issues, made up his mind, cast his votes and won election twice as governor and twice as U.S. senator.
He deserves a special place in the hearts of Oklahomans for his efforts to improve public education. House Bill 1017’s reforms delivered the greatest improvements in common schools in the state’s history – though, sadly, many of the upgrades were quietly dropped in recent years by legislators who give only lip service to public ed.
To me, one of Bellmon’s most impressive qualities was his fairness. He treated all, regardless of their station in life, with equal respect. Further, he didn’t consider his political opponents to be his enemies. He believed you could stand on principle, debate the issues, take the vote and, no matter the outcome, be friends afterwards.
Despite the drubbing he took from Gaylord’s Daily Disappointment – often in nasty Page One editorials and personal attacks disguised as “news” – Bellmon never took it personally. In fact, he was a Gaylord hunting partner.
As Democratic Gov. Brad Henry put it today at a Capitol news conference, “Henry Bellmon just stood taller than everyone else.”
When it comes to an ability to rise above such vitriol, Henry Bellmon was a giant. Oh, for more of his kind to grace our state.
– Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer. Pick up the Oct. 10 Observer for Founding Editor Frosty Troy’s retrospective on Oklahoma’s most courageous governor.