Montana Viewpoint


September 28, 2009

In these days of rude behavior where people who know nothing screech naughty names at other people who also know nothing I take some comfort in the fact that at one time in Montana good manners mattered. There is no finer example of this than the deliberations of the men and women who wrote Montana’s 1972 Constitution, and, honest to Pete (as folks even older than me used to say just to be polite), sometimes I sit down and read some of the proceedings for sheer pleasure. It’s not really any kind of Constitutional anniversary, I mean we just don’t celebrate the 37th year, 3rd  month, and 22nd  day anniversary of anything, but it’s always good to celebrate occasions when great things have been accomplished by people who have disagreed.

Montana’s original State Constitution was adopted in 1889 when we became one of those Stars in the Field of Blue (second star, eighth row). In 1970, after a few years of legislative study it was decided that the 1889 Constitution was over amended and under understood, so the legislature put the question of rewriting the Constitution on the ballot for the people to decide. The people said yes, and on November 2nd, 1971, there was an election for delegates to the Constitutional Convention. While candidates campaigned with party affiliation, significantly, no one who then currently held political office could run for Delegate. The 100 elected Delegates met in Helena and elected Democrat Leo Graybill Jr., an attorney from Great Falls, as Chairman

The 58 Democrats, 36 Republicans, and 6 Independents would have been seated according to the party they belonged to if they had followed established procedure, but a school teacher from Laurel rose and made a motion that they sit in alphabetical order instead. The motion passed, and thanks to Chet Blaylock, who was then Chairman of the Montana Democratic Party, party politics were, if not removed from the deliberations, at least diminished.

They were impressive deliberations. The delegates full-well understood the gravity of their task and applied themselves accordingly. It took deep thinking, hard work and study, and polite, if sometimes lively, discussion to give us one of the finest Constitutions in America, and a model of Montanans working together that we should all be proud of.

I think of all this in the wake of a United States Congressman shouting out, “You lie!” to the President of the United States at an official governmental function. I think of this in the wake of individual United States senators—Republican and Democrat alike—attempting to have a discussions with groups of angry people only to be shouted down.

Anger is an easy emotion to generate, it can even be fun, and sometimes it’s a useful tool to get someone’s attention; but once their attention has been gotten, it’s time to put anger away. If it’s not, it prevents business from being done, but then again, that can often be the point. It’s not easy to work with someone who has publically maligned you, so if the point is to work towards a solution, it will be hard to achieve.

In the concluding days of the Convention, Delegate James Garlington (Republican—Missoula) said: “Where we were partisan, we are nonpartisan. Where we were inflexible, we are flexible…. Where we were skeptical of each other, we enjoy mutual respect and confidence. Our debates and discussions have never been marred by angry exchange or sarcastic derision.” [From The Montana Constitution, a Reference Guide, Elison and Snyder, 2001.]

The 1972 Montana Constitutional Convention set a high, but achievable, standard for political debate and public discourse for both politicians and citizens, and on this, the 37th year, 3rd month, and 22nd day anniversary of the ratification of the Constitution which they wrote, it would be good to return to  that standard.


Montana Viewpoint© is carried by 20 Montana weekly newspapers, including those in Helena and Billings, with a combined circulation of over 60,000. There is no charge for publication.

Jim Elliott is Chairman of the Montana Democratic Party and a former state senator from Trout Creek.

The opinions expressed in this column are his, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Montana Democratic Party.

Jim Elliott
Phone: 406-827-3671
Mail: 100 TC Road, Trout Creek, MT 59874