The ongoing “big sort” at our house has turned up another piece of political paraphernalia, a copy of the North Dakota Publicity Pamphlet from 1962.
Perhaps that’s the wrong term. “Paraphernalia” implies something that’s needed for a particular activity, in this case political activity. Voters decided more than 50 years ago that the pamphlet wasn’t needed, and a Progressive Era law that required it was repealed. The North Dakota Publicity Pamphlet became a piece of memorabilia rather than paraphernalia.
The pamphlet had a fairly long run. Legislation requiring it was passed in 1911, and the first of the pamphlets was printed in time for the 1912 elections. Its successors were distributed in every election cycle until the law was repealed in 1964. That makes my copies from 1962 among the last that were published.
The North Dakota Publicity Pamphlet was a kind of public campaign financing. That issue has arisen once more, so perhaps the pamphlet’s story has relevance again. Candidates and advocates for ballot measures bought space in the pamphlet, and the state distributed it to every residence. Theoretically, this meant that it reached every voter.
The pamphlet induces some nostalgia. Ours was a political household -- and in some ways a divided one. Dad kept a Langer button in his pickup for decades; I took it out when we sold the pickup at the farm auction after he died – nearly a quarter century after Langer himself had passed away. Dad stuck with U.S. Sen. Bill Langer in 1956, when Langer stuck with the Republicans. That’s the year that the Nonpartisan League decided to enter its candidates in the Democratic rather than the Republican primary election, effectively merging with the Democratic Party.
My mother went enthusiastically over to the Democrats, at least partly because she became enamored of John F. Kennedy, who was just then rising to national prominence. She liked him way better than she liked Langer, whom she referred to as “that old goat.” Langer would have been flattered; the League’s animal emblem was “the goat that can’t be got.”
Discussion about politics filled the house, especially when the publicity pamphlet arrived. Both of my parents read it, and I’m sure it influenced their decisions, especially when it came to ballot measures. A copy distributed in 1962 is beside my keyboard as I write. It presents three constitutional amendments and a referred measure, plus the candidates, of course. That’s in the primary election, held June 26 that year.
The fall election pamphlet has two constitutional amendments and an initiated measure. These measures are interesting in themselves, but they’re not the point of this column.
In 1911, legislators were wrought up about election reform. The session produced a number of measures that substantially reworked how the game of politics would be played, introducing much more popular democracy and attempting to curb “corrupt practices.” Gov. John Burke espoused these changes, figuring that they’d help complete the “good government” revolution he’d helped launch when he was elected to the first of three two-year terms in 1906.
That election is often cited as breaking the power of machine politics in North Dakota. That’s not quite true; politicians have done plenty of tinkering with the reforms for more than a century now. Getting rid of the publicity pamphlet was only one step. Initially, the Corrupt Practices Act forbade any candidate accepting any money from anybody, and required that any money spent on campaign advertising be spent for advertising in the publicity pamphlet. Some politicians relied heavily on the pamphlet; the 1962 copy contains a two-page spread paid for by Sen. Milton Young, a Republican. He won the election handily.
There have been efforts to revive the Publicity Pamphlet. Jim Kusler pushed for its revival during his single term as secretary of state. Lloyd Omdahl has called for its restoration in his newspaper columns. He’s a former state tax commissioner and lieutenant governor as well as a UND political science professor. Perhaps most colorfully, Betty Mills, a political activist and columnist for the Bismarck Tribune, used the North Dakota Publicity Pamphlet to fire a salvo at Ben Clayburgh of Grand Forks, who was the Republican Party’s candidate for the U.S. Senate in 1994, challenging Democrat Kent Conrad. In her column, Mills, a Democrat (like Conrad, Omdahl and Kusler), accused Clayburgh of a campaign “so crassly manipulative, so awkwardly and obviously hitting those hot buttons, it made me long for the days when candidates kissed babies and the information most voters used to make their choices was put out by the state in an economically printed publicity pamphlet.”
Conrad was well known for his own tough campaign tactics.
The pamphlet has nostalgic appeal and historical value, but in today’s political context, it would be an anomaly.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Herald.