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Lloyd Omdahl, Published December 13 2010

Omdahl: Pieces of 1974 puzzle

The new biography of Sen. Milton R. Young not only adds substance to North Dakota’s historical archives, but it also provides some new pieces to the puzzle involved in the 1974 race between Young and Gov. William Guy.

“Mr. Wheat: A Biography of U.S. Senator Milton R. Young” was written and edited by Andrea Winkjer Collin and Richard E. Collin of Bismarck. The 560-page book includes oral interviews, 32 pages of photographs, a DVD of Milton Young video clips, former Republican State Chairman Allan Young’s master’s thesis on the 1974 campaign, and numerous quotes baring the political souls of major political figures.

The book stresses Young’s total commitment to North Dakota agriculture. It was his one liberal streak, opposing the free market and fighting for government subsidies. Otherwise, he was a conservative through and through, as reflected in his romance with the industrial-military complex and loyalty to conservative Southern Democrats on civil rights.

As is the case in friendly biographies, e.g., Quentin Burdick, Usher Burdick, William Langer, the book avoids sensitive subjects. For example, everyone in top North Dakota political circles knew for years that Pat Byrne was more than Sen. Young’s secretary. “Mr. Wheat” doesn’t even hint at the subject.

The relationship was never mentioned in news stories or campaign speeches because it was not considered civil in the 1960s and ’70s to discuss such private matters. Today, it would be the main issue of a campaign, even though such behavior in Washington is hardly news anymore.

Young’s personal transgressions aside, he served North Dakota agriculture well during his 36 years in the U.S. Senate. Agriculture was always in trouble, especially with free-market Republicans, so it helped to have a creditable Republican on the inside of the free-market camp to argue for government regulation of the agriculture market.

For Democrats still looking for the villains in the 1974 Young-Guy Senate race, “Mr. Wheat” offers some new information. By piecing together bits from Jenkinson’s new documentary on Bill Guy, Dan Rylance’s book, “Quentin Burdick: Gentle Warrior,” “Mr. Wheat” and Allan Young’s thesis, the conspiracy to keep Guy from getting elected to the U.S. Senate can be explained more completely.

In the 1974 election, Young kept his seat by a mere 180 votes. This close election made the independent candidacy of former Democratic-NPL State Chairman James Jungroth of Jamestown critical to the outcome. Ever since the election, leading Democrats have speculated about the behind-the-scenes machinations that replicated the bizarre political happenings of the 1930s.

Rumors have lingered over Jungroth’s motivation to defeat Guy, the involvement of Sen. Burdick in the conspiracy, and the degree to which collusion existed among Jungroth, Burdick and Young, and all of their functionaries. By publishing portions of Sen. Young’s interview with professor Jerome Tweton, “Mr. Wheat” brings us closer to recognizing the owners of the smoking guns. All three of the principals had reason to collaborate.

“Mr. Wheat” would be a good Christmas present for political buffs who are still hoping for a clearer understanding of that murky political saga.


Omdahl is a former North Dakota lieutenant governor and a retired University of North Dakota political science teacher. E-mail ndmatters@q.com