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John Lamb, Published October 28 2012

Historian Jenkinson pens 'love song to North Dakota'

BISMARCK – Clay S. Jenkinson is known to public radio listeners around the country as the voice of President Thomas Jefferson on “The Jefferson Hour,” heard regionally at 11 a.m. Sundays on Prairie Public.

Jenkinson also speaks in his own voice on Sundays as a columnist in the Bismarck Tribune.

The writer has compiled a number of columns on his favorite subject in the recently released “For the Love of North Dakota and Other Essays: Sundays with Clay in the Bismarck Tribune.”

“For anyone who’s really trying to get North Dakota, to understand our state, this is the book to get and read,” says David Borlaug of the Dakota Institute Press of the Lewis & Clark Fort Mandan Foundation.

Jenkinson directs the Dakota Institute, which also published his last two books, “The Character of Meriwether Lewis: Explorer in the Wilderness” and “A Free and Hardy Life: Theodore Roosevelt’s Sojourn in the American West.”

He also directed the documentary “When the Landscape is Quiet Again: The Legacy of Art Link.”

The Dickinson native reads from and signs copies of the new book Tuesday evening at Zandbroz.

Jenkinson talked to The Forum last week about his current and past views of North Dakota, and how Roosevelt and Link would view current developments. As a presidential historian, he also talked about how Roosevelt and Jefferson would take to the current presidential campaigns.

On his new book.

This book is a love song to North Dakota. Of the 368 columns I could’ve chosen, I chose only ones that point to the beauties and glories of North Dakota. North Dakota is an acquired taste. People who live in Tampa, (Fla.) don’t say, ‘Gee, honey, we should move to Cavalier or New Rockford.’ It’s not for everybody, and that’s one of its glories.

I love North Dakota in all of its moods. I don’t like the idea that we put in our glossy state tourism materials only North Dakota when the sun is shining and there’s a picnic and people are swimming in a placid lake and a meadowlark on a hay bale. That North Dakota only exists 75 days a year. I want North Dakota to be loved in all of its moods, not just its calendar moods. It’s a slightly unusual love song to this place.

How living elsewhere from the mid-1970s to 2005 influenced his view of his home state.

I never lost my love of North Dakota. … I always thought my life would be a mistake, in terms of pursuit of happiness, if I didn’t find a way to come back.

To be really honest, being away for so long made me romanticize North Dakota to a certain degree. … When I came back I thought we were a progressive conservative state, sort of Bill Guy conservatives. We were really open-minded and tolerant, well-educated people. … What I’ve discovered coming back is North Dakota is more a hard C conservative, it’s been drifting right, deepening its red for the past, certainly seven years, maybe more.

I had too great a nostalgia, I got kind of locked in to the North Dakota of 1975 and I wasn’t here for the horrible ’80s (with the) outmigration, drought, the bust of the oil boom.

I didn’t write about this much in the book, but I think the ’80s created a trauma in the North Dakota spirit that isn’t over yet, and that’s why we’re throwing ourselves so completely at this oil boom because this solves a lot of problems that were really hurting in the 1980s and ’90s.

On Art Link, North Dakota governor from 1973 to 1981 who oversaw the first oil boom in the state.

He was the son of immigrants who came to this country in the 1920s and went on to be the governor of North Dakota. I doubt that will ever happen again. I just found his story really compelling.

Every day something new happens that makes my heart sink a little bit because we’re not concerned about saving enough of (the landscape). I think, ‘What would Art Link do if he were the governor now?’ I saw him three days before his death, and the last thing he said to me was, ‘That oil’s not going anywhere. We don’t need to be in any hurry to get it out of the ground. It gets more valuable every day.’ I think he would be saying, ‘Really? Do we need to move this hard and this fast on this thing?’

On how Teddy Roosevelt, who ranched north of Medora in the mid-1880s, would see the current oil boom.

He loved the Badlands and thought it was the most formative experience of his life. On the one hand he would certainly be concerned about the way the oil boom encroaching on the Badlands and even more specifically even his Elkhorn Ranch. And I think that would give him deep anxiety and a sense of nostalgia for the frontier. On the other hand, he was for American independence including energy independence. Roosevelt would be fascinated by the ingenuity and the conservation integrity of the industry.

Roosevelt was a deep believer in social quality of life, and I think he’d be concerned about how profound the impact has been on those communities – the crime rate, the impact on hospitals. I think Roosevelt would be saying, we’ve got to engineer this to minimize these impacts.

On how Jefferson and Roosevelt would react to the current presidential campaigns.

Jefferson would be appalled (by the grueling schedules). He didn’t campaign at all. He agreed to run for the presidency in 1800 on the condition that he not need to make public appearances.

Jefferson would say, ‘This is insanity. This is not a good way to elect a president. It’s not a good way to treat a person who wants to be president. It doesn’t reveal to you the things you want revealed.’ The amount of money involved would make him conclude that we are no longer a republic. You can’t be a republic in which

$2 billion are spent on a presidential election when the average salary in the United States is $45,000 per year.

I think Roosevelt loved this sort of (campaigning). He was always doing 17 speeches in a day from the back of a train. Talking until he was hoarse. I think he would regard our technology, the Internet, television, radio and airplanes and so on, as all greater miracles to let him get the word out to more people. But he was concerned about corporate money. I think of Citizens United, he would say, ‘This is very bad business. There are entities that are very rich and powerful and will buy elections if they can, and we should not have encouraged them in this way.’

He was a natural, and if he were in a debate with Mitt Romney or Barack Obama, he’d be as pugnacious as Joe Biden was but much more effective.


Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533