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They never go back to Pocatello

Whatever Tom Daschle takes on next, it probably won't be in South Dakota

We know now that Tom Daschle won't be leading Health and Human Services or serve as the White House health czar. What he will do isn't clear, but this much is: The former Senator from South Dakota is a poster child for the political truism coined in 1954 by Oregon writer and U.S. Senator Richard Neuberger: "They never go back to Pocatello." Therein lies a tale of politicians from small states who breathe the heady air of Washington and never return to their roots.

Neuberger, perhaps the last American to earn a decent living entirely by freelance magazine writing, was elected to the Senate in 1954, and served only until his death from cancer in 1960, at the age of 47. His essay was included in the last of his six books, Adventures in Politics: We Go to the Legislature, published during his Senate campaign. The "Pocatello" line may be found in William Safire's Political Dictionary, with a claim of co-authorship by Jonathan Daniels, newspaper editor and former press secretary to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

It is likely the phrase originated with Neuberger, a master wordsmith. Returning to Oregon from a trip east, Neuberger recalled a train stop in Pocatello, Idaho, where he thought of looking up former U.S. Sen. Glen H. Taylor, whom he had known politically. He inquired of the station agent.

"Heck, mister," the agent replied, "I ain't seen him since he got licked for reelection. Knew him pretty well, too. Used to fix up his tickets for him. But he don't live here any more. Those guys never come back to Pocatello."

Taylor, a onetime cowboy singer, was off to California, after his political future was doomed when he ran as vice president on Henry Wallace's Progressive Party ticket in 1948. Most others stayed, like Daschle, in Washington, where they became lobbyists.

Neuberger, had he lived, would likely have returned to Oregon; he was as much a part of the state as Dan Evans is in Washington. Neuberger's widow, Maurine, ran for and won his Senate seat, but only served a term and after a brief stay in Boston with a new husband, divorced and returned to Portland.

Neuberger wrote before the real gravy-train era of lobbyists and "counselors," but he understood the reluctance to return to small states such as Idaho . . . and South Dakota. There is social pressure:

The wife of the (former) Governor comes to look upon the state capital as pretty small potatoes. Why should her talents be limited to this cramped social domain? Should she not operate in a wider, more glittering realm? Accompanying her husband to a potluck supper of the Pitchfork Union suddenly seems so drab and unglamorous, when she might be gracefully declining hors d'oeuvres proffered by servants of European nobility

He also quoted Oregon Sen. Charles L. McNary, former Republican leader of the Senate, regarding what awaits a defeated candidate:

As he walks down the street, he thinks each person he passes is one of the votes that beat him. In addition, Washington has intoxication for many people. You rub elbows with the mighty. You feel important. It is not easy to buy a ticket to Podunk after being at the center of things. One's self-esteem takes an awful drop.

Floyd J. McKay, professor of journalism emeritus at Western Washington University, was a print and broadcast journalist in Oregon for three decades. Recipient of a DuPont-Columbia Broadcast Award for documentaries, and a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard, he is also a historian and holds a Ph.D. from the University of Washington. He resides in Bellingham and can be reached at floydmckay@comcast.net.


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