I sat next to a legend last Thursday.
Former Governor J. Bracken Lee, who looks exceptionally fit for his age, will be 92 in January.The occasion was a books and banter session at the U.'s Hinckley Institute of Politics. KUTV's Rod Decker was showing a video he prepared for Channel 2 last year on Lee's life and political career. Because of an abundance of old movie film, much of it taken by Brack himself, the exceptionally provocative video leaped off the screen and into the laps of the audience.
It was vintage Lee.
We heard him recalling a lynching of a black that he witnessed in early 20th-century Price. We saw him walking hand in hand with his new bride, Margaret Draper, the gracious woman who acted as a leavening influence on him. We saw him running for office over and over and over again.
We saw a wonderful visual portrait of one of the few politicians of truly national stature Utah has ever had.
I was there because I wrote a book about Lee's political career, called "Let 'Em Holler." I was asked to sit in a soft chair next to Lee and respond to questions from the audience.
But it was not my day.
I fielded only a couple of questions because having the still irascible, still controversial governor there in person was an overwhelming experience for the audience. They wanted to hear him talk.
And talk he did.
He railed against modern-day socialism, claiming that "the majority of the 535 people in Washington are socialists. They no longer believe in the Constitution, and they've been violating it for 40 years."
He complained about the shrinking impact of the dollar. "My home today is appraised at $140,000. Can you imagine that? That's because the dollar is only worth ten cents!"
He complained that "we have almost as many people on the public payroll as we have voters."
He proved he has not lost his ability to ad lib.
He asked for a glass of water and before he drank it, told a story of the "last time he was a guest of the Hinckley Institute of Politics when they gave me glass of water with a crack in it - and when I drank it it spilled all over my pants."
A student asked him about a part of the video that detailed his early political problems as mayor of Price when he had been caught between the "fun people and the moral people." According to Decker, Lee had flatly refused to compromise.
"What do you think of that now?" the student asked.
"Well, I was wrong, I guess," said Lee with a grin.
When asked to recall political experiences, he willingly did so, making a few mistakes, having some trouble recalling names - but with the same unmistakable gusto that characterized his entire political career.
It was refreshing to see a still viable legend with no sign of senility.
Except, like all politicians, he rambled. When asked to comment about whether he would make same destructive cuts in higher education today that he made as governor, he skirted the issue and talked instead about the IRS, which he has unrelentingly labeled "the Gestapo."
J. Bracken Lee at his peak never rambled.
The students got a taste of the vintage J. Bracken Lee, but because they didn't live under this mayor and this governor, his ultimate historical significance eluded them.
They missed the man who withheld his income tax to contest the right of the government to spend taxpayer's money on foreign aid. They missed the man who was frugal to a fault on every department of government simply because he believed in frugality.
They were not there to witness a man who publicly attacked the United Nations, President Eisenhower, Cleon Skousen, educators, lawyers and any number of other sacred cows - and never stopped to ask if it would hurt him politically.
They missed one of the few 20th-century Utah politicians with pure charisma.