A Lion Looks Back 

The Ineffable Idahoness of Perry Swisher

He talks like a good newspaper reads--crisp, colorful, filling in the background as he goes--the who, where, when and how of it. He knows well there's more to a story than the headline. He even provides quotes.

"I was in a restaurant after the election. A blue-collar restaurant. The Capri ... good place to eat if you've never been there. And the guys in the next booth, they looked to me to be in their late 30s, early 40s, were talking, and one of them said, 'That's Perry Swisher. He'll know. He's old enough he'd remember.' They were wondering about what happened in World War Two. Did the Republicans run anybody against Roosevelt?"

This isn't unusual for Perry, that strangers would approach him. Everyone seems to know a little something about Swisher. That he once ran a newspaper notorious for grating the bland Idaho blackboard like Fu Manchu fingernails. That as a legislator, he helped turn Idaho's tax base on its head. That as a Public Utilities Commissioner, he stood like a stone wall for the public rather than the utilities. That he ran for governor. That he attacked a concert with an ax.

Strangers may not know everything about him, or even much. But as some rare individuals do, Perry Swisher has become more than the sum of his parts. A story unto himself. And to know what Perry's been up to these last 81 years is to understand much of where Idaho has been.

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He suggested I interview him at a freeway-side eatery not two miles from my home. He was meeting a group of old friends there for breakfast.

Good I thought. Maybe having some lifelong pals around will take a bit of the edge off. Mine, if not his. After all, this man is the archbishop of Idaho iconoclasts. A legendary crab. I have known Perry for several years. We've joked around. Shown up at the same social affairs. Even shared opinion pages in BW. But to play the reporter with such a reporter!

He introduced me to his breakfast club, all in their eighties. They graduated together from Pocatello High in 1941 and have never lost touch. I asked him why.

"Had to be Pearl Harbor, later that year. Something like that makes for a strong bond."

Even with Pearl Harbor, Perry wasn't allowed into the armed forces.

"They decided since I'd had polio, I couldn't be a soldier. They worried my legs would give out. It was another case of the generals fighting the last war. They didn't know any better."

Polio seems to be one of those afflictions that can either be measured by the weakness it brings, or the strength. Perry came down with it when he was two, and at the time, rural Idaho was no place for a toddler with polio to get better. His parents sent him to Salt Lake for surgery when he was six, and he was alone. He grew angry. Resentful.

"My instructions were that I shouldn't exercise. I was a long ways from home when I was in that hospital and I was very pissed off at the people there. Whatever they said, I was going to go the other way. So when I got home, I learned to cycle, to skate, to swim. Even swam the Snake River channel when I was seven. It was my way of being a juvenile delinquent. It turned out to be a fortunate response to the very bad therapy of those days."

Perry's grandfather had been an indentured servant to a cigar maker in St. Louis. He ran away and headed west. Somewhere between Missouri and Southern Idaho, the 16-year-old learned Abe Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves both white and black, but he continued on and settled outside of Bruneau, a grateful Republican.

His father raised horses for the military, but by the time Perry came along, the cavalry business had dried up. The family Swisher moved to the Idaho Falls area, then later, to Pocatello. Whether a result of polio or the parochial school he attended, Perry seemed destined for rebellion.

"I turned into a political animal. At any given time, I was questioning the system. And if you're young, if you're questioning the system, and if you're Catholic, you wonder how an organization run entirely by celibates became the world's authority on birth control. I just didn't find that rational."

By the age of 20, Perry was reporting for the Pocatello news bureau of the Salt Lake City Tribune.

"People paid more attention to all the news then, not just the war. You didn't have the distraction of television, of computer games, the Internet. The competition was so heavy. There were people in Blackfoot that got as many as five papers.

"I had a surplus army wire photo machine. Kept it hidden in the john so nobody would know we had it. I could take a picture at four in the afternoon and have it in the next morning's paper. Nobody else could do that."

The role of dutiful reporter eventually proved too tight a fit for Perry.

"The whole of Southern Idaho was fogged in. There was no life in the daily press. The Associated Press had sold all its subscribers on the notion of 'objectivity,' and anything controversial didn't make the news. It was weird. And it was so dull."

In 1959, he turned a small Pocatello weekly into The Intermountain--rich with political comment and early to reach such mid-century landmarks as civil rights, censorship and Vietnam--and distributed it statewide.

"Let me tell you how different it was then from today. Pocatello had a bookstore owner who was also the leader of the movement to prevent the sale of the (then) new Playboy magazine and its ilk. In response, we created a gossip columnist we called 'Madame Fifi.' So here's a letter to Madame Fifi: 'Dear Madame Fifi, what do you think about sex on the newsstand?' And she answers back, 'Sounds uncomfortable.'

"So I take a bunch of papers over to the post office and later find out they weren't delivered. No paper. The postal inspector of the Pocatello post office decided that was obscene and could not go through the mail."

That publication would later merge with The Idaho Observer and reincarnate as The Intermountain Observer--remembered fondly among Idaho progressives for its clear vision in a muddied time.

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Perry's second run for the Idaho legislature came in the same year he married Nicky. He was playing golf, overtook her, and asked if he could play through. At least one of them was charmed enough that he ended up finishing the round with her.

Later, he was in Boise for work. She was, too. They arranged to return to Pocatello together.

"As we were leaving town, I was listening to KFXD on my car radio. They broke in to call all volunteer firemen to an address downtown. The Hong Kong Cafe had blown up. Gas leak. Killed six, seven people. I got on the phone, got the breaking story, then called it in to Salt Lake. It took me about 40 minutes. I figured like every other girl I've ever gone with, it would piss her off. Once I was eating dinner in a Pocatello hotel with my steady date. Fire siren goes by and I say 'Excuse me.' When I came back, she wasn't there. But Nicky found it all very interesting. I'd discovered a woman who was not upset by having a newspaper come ahead of her."

He won Nicky's hand in 1948, but lost the election, just as he had in 1946.

"Bannock County was very Democratic. I'd grown up Republican. It wasn't a matter of philosophy. It was more like a question of which church your family went to."

He finally won in 1952.

"At the time I probably believed I did it myself. But now I'm sure it was the Eisenhower sweep that put me in.

"I liked the legislative process. But it was very different then than what it is now. When I was in the Legislature, you didn't have to know when life begins."

No, Perry chose to be a lawmaker for matters more functional than judgmental. The junior college in Pocatello was then a southern branch campus of the University of Idaho, and eastern Idahoans wanted a full, four-year university in their corner of the state. They got what they wanted, but only after Swisher was able to build a strong enough coalition to overcome Boise's sentiment that its own budding junior college should come first. With that accomplished, he turned his attention to the state's "idiotic tax structure."

"Idaho was and still is 80 percent public land. The people who settled the state brought the tax structures of the states they came from. Tried to make schools and cities and counties viable by putting them on a property tax basis. It was insane. This ain't Kansas. Never will be. So I got caught up in that."

That was the move to legislate a three percent sales tax in Idaho, and Perry remained caught up in it for a decade before it finally went to a popular vote in 1966.

"I carried that bill on the Senate floor. I got it passed in the House. But we provided in the legislation as a condition of enactment that it would be submitted to the people. That the people would get a crack at it.

"What changed my whole life was ... both Smylie and Andrus, who had both supported the tax, were defeated in the primary. It was going to be on the ballot, and there was nobody out there to advocate it. To defend it. I'd spent ten years in the legislature getting it through. Somebody had to do something. So I ran.

"It was frustrating. After this anti-sales tax Democrat Chuck Herndon was killed in a plane crash, the state Democrat central committee nominated Cece Andrus. Just a couple of votes, that's all he won by. So here's a guy not yet 40 years old. Considered by today's standards a liberal. Virtually an unknown from Orofino. I knew the voters wouldn't simultaneously approve a massive new tax, and also put an unknown Democrat in charge of that much money. So I stayed in the race because I felt if I wasn't out there, the Democrats would push Andrus to compromise himself.

I not only lost, but I lost big time. Cost me. When I started that run, I had backing from business. I had strong backing from labor and from the education forces. As soon as Andrus was nominated, I lost all that. It disappeared. I couldn't just back out. I couldn't walk off. So it was a disaster. I didn't regret it. I mean, we'd spent 10 years working our butts off, and I just didn't want it to die."

The voters approved the sales tax, but Perry's campaign debt forced him to sell his newspaper. And his home. To this day, he has no regrets.

"Idaho isn't too good now because we've been in the grip of a one party system all this time. We're sort of the Arkansas of the Inland West, only without the chicken pluckers and without Wal-Mart. So we're not in too good of shape. But without that sales tax going through, we would be the worst in the country."

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Perry switched parties in 1974. He hadn't changed. Republicans had.

"I felt fine about being a Republican. At that time, urban Republicans were the people working for education, working for a sales tax. And rural Idaho Democrats were like the old South. Rednecks. So I wasn't uncomfortable as a Republican. I didn't change parties until I lived in the same town with George Hansen. Do you remember that son of a bitch?"

As a Democrat, he served one last legislative term in the mid-1970s and was editing the Lewiston Tribune when John Evans tapped him for the Idaho Public Utilities Commission.

"An incumbent PUC member failed to be confirmed, so the governor needed somebody. He asked me. I told him to go to hell, of course, but I finally wound up doing it.

"I went home and woke up my wife. Told her about the phone call. It was about four in the morning, which was fairly typical of when I got home. She says, 'What does it pay?' She worked all day and I worked all night. (Nicky was a special education teacher.) She was ready for a change. I listened to her, and I'm glad I did.

"I think Conley Ward, Dick High (the other PUC commissioners) and I did as much as any public officials in the country to keep the WPPS (Washington Public Power System) plants from being built. They claimed they were going to turn out electricity equal to all Northwest hydro by 2000 from nuclear power plants, and it was supposed to cost no more than the hydro.

"We were the first to say no. They didn't know what they were doing. It was all a big lie. They weren't people who knew anything about the competitive market, but they were in power. They were crazy. Just full of themselves. WPPS was a great big security selling scheme on Wall Street. The cost of the capital they had to raise to build these plants was enormous. This was the time when even a utility could pay over 20 percent per annum. And I helped stop all that because we refused to foot the cost. Refused to allow the utilities to pass the cost of building nuclear plants on to their rate base for Idaho. That stopped them in Oregon, it stopped them in Washington. In Montana. And that ended it. Those WPPS plants would have been built. Our Congressional delegation supported it. State leaders supported it. It was insane. I feel very proud of Idaho for having begun the unraveling of what was called WPPS."

As anathema as he must have seemed to WPPS proponents, Perry was equally a champion of the policy of buying power from small, independent electricity producers and alternative energy sources.

"It's taken this long for cogeneration to really start to work. It took a whole generation of utility people having to retire and die to keep them from spending all of their time fighting it."

He's also pleased with his part in bringing Idaho's communication facilities up to modern specs.

"We had rural party lines in Idaho with 12, 13 people on them. We had places where the equipment was so bad, there's no describing it today. I went to a national conference of the regulators, and here was the CEO of AT&T doing a slide show on what they could do with digital equipment. I came home and I got hold of the manager of Mountain Bell in Idaho. Told him, 'The head of your company is so hot to go on digital, if we were to go to Bell labs right now with a plan to upgrade the AT&T system of this whole state, we'd get bargain basement prices. We'd get there first.'

"So we took a road show out and held hearings all across the state. Most people didn't know what we were talking about, but we proposed this upgrade, and at an increase of just a few dollars a month for six years. That would pay for the whole system to be redone. For everybody to have a phone. And to have a single party line, on which you could do all these new things you can do now. Call waiting, caller ID, teleconferencing, the Internet."

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Perry retired from the PUC in 1991. And so ended his career in public service. His two sons have four children and two grandchildren between them. It's hard, though, to think of Perry as merely the kindly family elder. I asked him--once a Republican, once a Democrat--what he calls himself now.

"I call myself 81 years old. Let me tell you when I quit politics. In 1980. When Reagan persuaded a majority of the American people that the government was the problem, not their heritage. I can't tell you what an effect it had on me. I was thinking 'How in the world could that happen?'

"It happened because the constituency disappeared. They'd been watching television. Monday Night Football. NBA basketball. You name it. When Ben Franklin was asked what he thought of the product they'd turned out (at the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia), he is quoted as saying, 'You have a republic if you can keep it.' But that was a translation of what he'd actually written. He said they'd done a good job and it should last a long time. With the checks and balances, it could survive corruption in the President's office. It could survive corruption in the Congress or even in the judicial branch. But ultimately, you had to figure at some point the constituency would become corrupt.

"Of course I'm a liberal. Most people are. And the irony is it's become a swear word. But I watch what they say, and I'm like a celibate priest looking at the congregation and hearing from them in the confessional that they're against sex. They all claim to be conservatives and I don't believe it for a fucking minute. When it comes down to Social Security, when it comes down to a livable wage, to health care, to transportation so they can get from here to there, most people are not conservatives. Most people are illiterate. We have a politically illiterate constituency.

"I still write about politics as if it were a contact sport. It isn't. Congress is gone. Rented out. Leased out. Bought out. It didn't surprise me where Bush went. Bush can do anything, say anything he wants. Particularly if he has a war going.

"I mean, people were calling the Senator from Massachusetts a traitor for running against our commander-in-chief in time of war. I mean ... that's what time it is with me and politics. I'm not going to live long enough to see that cured. Eventually it will be or this country is in big trouble. But I have no way to get through to people."

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About the ax? A small hatchet, actually, and it goes back to a 1989 Little Feat concert that was running late at the fairgrounds, a mile or more from Perry's home.

"I'd been on a trip and I was trying to tell Nicky about it. We were sitting at our dining table. Ten o'clock at night. And she couldn't hear me. That thing was so loud, she couldn't hear what I was saying.

"I called the sheriff's office and asked if they'd had any complaints about this concert. She said, 'I think we've had 500 calls.' I said, 'Well why don't you get it stopped?' I forget her answer, but it was basically ... you know... no balls.

"So I put my pajamas on. I was dressed at the time, but I put my pajamas on. And I went out in the garage, got my hatchet and drove down to the fairgrounds. Headed for the cable that ran from the power unit out into the middle of the field. This deputy sheriff said, 'What are you doing,' which is what I wanted. I hoped to God somebody would stop me.

"I told her I was trying to have a conversation with my wife in my own living room and she couldn't hear me because this concert is so loud. I said, 'This is a public nuisance and if you won't take care of it, I will.'"

He didn't, but the episode did prompt local leaders to change the rules on allowable decibel levels.

"You can't imagine the gratitude. I still have people who for no other reason come up and say something about it. Even now. This many years later."

And to think somebody once worried his legs might give out.

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