In the middle of mid-term election hubbub, while Idaho residents weighed their options, many overlooked the loss of a champion—a champion of Idaho interests—former Congressman Ralph Harding.
I had often heard the story of Congressman Harding admonishing prominent LDS official and then Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson on the floor of Congress for his affiliation with the John Birch Society, accusing him of touting the agenda of the “radical right,” but my first encounter with Congressman Harding came last May while attending the Truman Banquet hosted by the Bonneville County Democrats. As the night wore on and as each candidate took a moment to speak to the audience, the husband of Jackie Groves-Twileger stood at the podium for an unbearable amount of time—after a quite lengthy period, Congressman Harding hollered from his seat for Mr. Twileger to sit down because there were candidates to hear. The audience quickly responded in laughter and I quickly realized that Congressman Harding, like many Idaho politicians, was a straight-shooter.
Congressman Harding served Idaho during a time when Democrats in Idaho were incredibly strong and well-represented. He served along side brilliant leaders like Congressman Compton White and the legendary Senator Frank Church. He, as the youngest elected member of Congress in 1961, served during the tumultuous and dark days of the Kennedy assassination, the uncertain thirteen days in October of 1962 when the United States was closest to nuclear war, when the steps were just being taken toward Vietnam, and long before our “long national nightmare” began and ended. His congressional service spanned an era that many young Democrats can hardly imagine.
In a campaign speech at the Boise airport on October 12, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson quoted Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn: “We have a little formula down home that we follow for our Congressmen. We pick them young, we pick them honest.” Ralph Harding embodied Rayburn’s formula. President Johnson went on to acknowledge the youth, experience, and strength of Harding.
Idaho has changed quite drastically since Harding served. Only one other Democrat has held that 2nd Congressional District seat since Harding and the very thought of a Democratic president swinging through Idaho to campaign for a congressional delegation made up of three Democrats is almost unfathomable.
What has not changed in Idaho is our appreciation for politicians like Ralph Harding, who through their straight-shooting tactics have been wise and successful champions of Idaho interests.
Harding, though most often remembered for that infamous encounter with Secretary Benson, will forever be remembered for his support of Idaho agriculture, serving on the Agriculture Committee in Congress, his unwavering support for civil rights legislation, and his role in passing legislation that in conjunction with an executive order established the Peace Corps. The New Frontier may not have been as successful without the support and ambition of Congressman Harding and Idaho history would be incomplete without the bold leadership and unfaltering dedication Harding provided.