The first election I ever voted in was by absentee ballot in October 1970. I was home on leave from the Army. Sen. Quentin Burdick, a longtime member of North Dakota’s Democratic NPL Party, was running for re-election against Republican Congressman Thomas Kleppe. At the explicit request of President Richard Nixon, Kleppe was risking a safe House seat, hoping for a bigger prize, a desk in the U.S. Senate. Sound familiar?
I could be wrong, but I believe it was the first time a truly negative television ad was run in North Dakota. At the time, protesters against the Vietnam war were active in cities across the country. A Kleppe ad featured a background of flames jumping across our TV screens, as if to illustrate what might happen in places like Fargo and Grand Forks, I guess, if the liberal Burdick were re-elected.
A few years later, I would interview both men as a novice television news reporter in Bismarck and Grand Forks.
The white-haired Kleppe cut quite a dashing figure in his rather expensive suits and his monogrammed, French cuff shirts. (I could be wrong about the monograms but not the French cuffs.)
On the other hand, Burdick’s most famous fashion statement was his soup-stained ties. A Bismarck news director at the time told me he always suspected the senator only displayed his rumpled look while in North Dakota. A friend of mine who worked closely with him for years in his Washington office tells a very different story.
This staffer, who shall remain nameless, tells the tale of being asked to help the senator during a lunch break one day, following him to his home where — still in a suit — the senator slipped into a pair of coveralls and changed the oil in his car. Then, out of the coveralls and back to work. There is no doubt in my mind but that the story is true.
One of Congressman Kleppe’s major campaign workers in the state that year was a former newspaperman, Allan Eastman. Although I never knew him, his youngest daughter would become my current wife. (That joke never gets old.)
Ginny was with her dad and Kleppe at the Bismarck airport when the congressman told him for the first time he was running for the U.S. Senate, which would have made her one of the first North Dakotans to know. She also remembers Kleppe picking up her father to campaign in rural North Dakota in a rather modest, “compact” Buick, having left his “fancy” car, possibly a Cadillac, at home.
Burdick retained his Senate seat that year. Eventually, Kleppe became secretary of Interior in the Ford White House. Not bad.
Ginny has always believed her father’s health suffered just after the campaign because of the stress of the job.
I believe I have voted in every major and midterm election in North Dakota ever since that election. But it’s funny, I guess you always remember your first time.
Side note: A few years later, Secretary Kleppe and his wife, Glen, sent Ginny and me a copy of The Congressional Cookbook as a wedding gift. The unnamed Burdick staffer mentioned above also sent us a copy of it.