Burton Barr Book

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Former Republican house leader Burton Barr was considered to be one of the most effective lawmakers in state history. Arizona State University history professor Philip VanderMeer has written a book on Barr titled, “Burton Barr: Leadership and the Transformation of Arizona Politics.” VanderMeer discusses his book.

Ted Simons: The late Burton Barr was considered by many to be one of the most effective lawmakers who ever served the state. ASU -- excuse me, U of A history professor, or ASU, I'm sorry, I got that wrong, ASU professor, Philip Vandermeer has written a biography entitled "Burton Barr: Leadership and the Transformation of Arizona Politics." we welcome the Sun Devil, Philip Vandermeer to Arizona Horizon. This was published by --

Philip Vandermeer: The University of Arizona.

Ted Simons: Ok, my brain was a little foggy, but the Cardinal game still has me rocking here, so be patient. Who was Burton Barr?

Philip Vandermeer: Burton Barr was the -- Senator Kyl said that he was the most influential politician in Arizona's history, and John Kolbe, a leading columnist, and others said that he wrote the legislative history of the state for 20 years. He was an extraordinary politician and political leader, someone who played a leading role in really transforming the politics and the governance in the state.

Ted Simons: First, how did he get into politics? We're talking a decorated war hero with a relationship with Dwight Eisenhower.

Philip Vandermeer: Yes, and he, in the late 1930s, in college, he paid attention to the world events, and he was a, in the Razi Program and went into the military. He finished the war in 1946 as a lieutenant colonel, with two silver stars, and he, he was a genuine war hero, and his experience in the army played a huge role in his life.

Ted Simons: His experience in dealing with Dwight Eisenhower did, as well, as far as being a model for leadership. Explain that, please.

Philip Vandermeer: He really saw, saw Eisenhower as a person who did not hold a grudge. And so, he had an incident, when he was a young lieutenant, in which one of his soldiers had messed up, and Eisenhower reamed him out, so at lunch, Barr was going to go somewhere else, and Eisenhower called him over, and he said listen, he said, when an incident is done, it's done. Sit down here with your men and me. And that was a lesson, not holding a grudge, moving ahead, that he held onto.

Ted Simons: Talk about his leadership style, once he got to the legislature, he gained leadership, what got him there and what kept him there?

Philip Vandermeer: He came as part of a group of urban Republicans, and he came at a time when urban population in the state was, was exploding, and then in 1966, the legislature was reapportioned, so Republicans became a majority in both Houses. Barr was part of a group that included Stan Turley and so forth, and he was put forward as the majority leader.

Ted Simons: His politics, was he a moderate Republican?

Philip Vandermeer: Yes, I think that that's fair to say. And he came in, focused on business, focused on making the state efficient, but clearly, sensitive to the needs of an urban Arizona, changing Arizona.

Ted Simons: And sensitive to the needs of another lawmaker, to feel as though they have got some sort of victory in this legislature, as well, you write that he saw the legislative process as both work and art.

Philip Vandermeer: Yes. He was, like good politicians, he was someone who loved people. He paid tremendous attention to people, he listened. He learned about their families. He was generous, engaging, and so when it came to working through the legislative process, he was generous in working with people, effective in finding ways in which to persuade them, and able to work through every stage of the process.

Ted Simons: And yet, I mean, you write that he's an exemplar, and often times that means you are wishy washy and people can push you around, how did he manage of the politics of conciliation to get things done?

Philip Vandermeer: Being conciliatory didn't mean that you simply gave up. He started, and I think this is one of the striking things about his leadership, is before each session, he worked with the interim committees, and others identifying key issues. Barr was really focused on identifying major problems and solving them. So he went into the legislature, and the legislative session, where, what he wanted to do, trying to think about how people approach things, listening for the ways in which a proposal could be crafted, and he had a keen sense of timing. And invariably, things would happen. Kevin Riley was a columnist, nick-named him Mr. Magic, and he was. He just -- Jim Scully said, Barr always wins.

Ted Simons: It's something because you wrote how he knew something was going to fail, and so he waited. He had the better idea, but he knew that the better idea was not going to win out. The bad idea had to go out there and fail and then the timing was right. That is an art, isn't it?

Philip Vandermeer: It is. It is. He had, as I say, he had a good sense of who people were. He knew the governing structure, and what of course, is so significant, is that he comes in at a time when he, and others, transforms the state government. So, he knows what the state government is all about. And he knows the legislature. He was in office for 22 years. So, everybody knew Burton Barr.

Ted Simons: The issues are air pollution, school aid, health care for indigents, childcare, groundwater management, those sorts of freeway funding, and he had a major part in all of those?

Philip Vandermeer: He did. He did. There was nothing that was passed during this period that did not have his imprint on it.

Ted Simons: So how did, what some describe as the most powerful man in Arizona at the time decides to run for Governor? He can't even win the Republican primary over Evan Mechan, what happened?

Philip Vandermeer: I think that there were a couple things involved, first, by 1986, which is when he runs, the Republican Party is changing. It's becoming more conservative. He's also aware that people in the legislature have seen his face. They have heard a number of his stories. And it's, it's time to move. The problem for him is that he's tremendous on retail politics. He's wonderful in one-on-one. But in terms of dealing with a larger population, he has great difficulty as was said, he could not stay on message. He thought that the voters really wanted to hear lots of details about policy and legislation, and then, of course, the infamous joke, about the question of taxes, and he said, I lied, assuming people would understand that it was a joke.

Ted Simons: And we should understand, and some of us remember that, the closing days of that primary, Evan Mecham put out of a barrage of hit pieces against Burton Barr, and there were a lot of attacks. I mean, when Barr lost that, that really hurt him didn't it? That got him.

Philip Vandermeer: It really hurt him personally. He always -- in one sense he had a thick skin when he dealt with his colleagues. He did not hold grudges. But, he always assumed that people would see his intentions, and so at various stages during his career, he would -- there would be a legislative issue, and he would be surprised that people were questioning his motives, and he would adjust his course, but this was a last-minute thing, it is a -- this is really in the major up surge of negative campaigning in the country, and Mecham's campaign is a classic of that.

Ted Simons: And it certainly succeeded in that he won the primary. Ok. Burton Barr, could a Burton Barr ascend to leadership, ascend to the power that he had then now?

Philip Vandermeer: I don't think that he could have the same kind of power. For one thing, you have term limits. And so that limits how, how long people can be in office, and the extent to which they can really build up a lot of those relationships. Secondly, you have a different system of parties. Parties were more mixed. Ideologically in the 1960s and 1970s, and by the 1980s, that was becoming more of a problem, and so, I think that part of the difficulty today is that the parties are pretty different ideologically. But, ultimately, the legislatures work not just on ideas, but as individuals, as people. And Barr was a master at dealing with people, at telling stories, at joking around, making people feel that they were part of a larger, a larger task.

Ted Simons: We have got about 30 seconds left. Why did you decide to tell his story?

Philip Vandermeer: I came to Arizona in 1985, and I was fascinated with Barr, and this wound up being a perfect opportunity, partly because Jack Fiester had been working on some of this, and sort of fell into my lap.

Ted Simons: It's really a great read. It's not just a biography. You go into Arizona politics, and history, and it's a great work. Thank you very much for joining us, ASU professor, Philip Vandermeer.

Philip Vandermeer: Thank you.

Ted Simons: Philip Vandermeer. Good to have you here.

Philip Vandermeer: Thank you.

Ted Simons: Wednesday on Arizona Horizon, an update on the latest science news with ASU physicist Lawrence Krauss, and we begin our weekly legislative updates with the Arizona Capitol Times. That's it for now. I'm Ted Simons. Thank you very much for joining us. You have a great evening.

Video: Arizona Horizon is made possible by contributions from the friends of Arizona PBS. Members of your PBS station. Thank you.

Philip VanderMeer:Arizona State University history professor

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