Scott Matheson, whose untimely death stunned most Utahns, was a most unusual politician.
In the first place, he was truly a "citizen-governor," a description many aspirants for political office assume, but most do not deserve - they actually call themselves non-political for political reasons. Not Matheson - yet he exhibited astounding expertise in political matters that should have been baffling to him.As a lawyer, his background was profoundly common for political officeholders, but he was a novice when he was elected to his first term in 1976. In fact, he characterized his own election as miraculous.
As a scholarly, thoughtful, Stanford-trained lawyer, Matheson turned out to have just the right sensitivity and balance to be a good governor. He believed in representing his constituents on the one hand, yet he was determined to be "his own man" on the other. Instead of feeling the pulse of the electorate, then jumping into the fray on the side of the majority, he studied every issue carefully - then took the resolute, forceful stand that became his trademark.
He was a Democrat in one of the most Republican states in the union, yet he was admired and respected from the beginning by Utahns of both political parties because he was likable, diplomatic and effective with people - and because he was fiscally conservative.
In return, heavily conservative Utah forgave him his support of such controversial issues locally as Planned Parenthood and the equal rights amendment (normally the kiss of death) and his opposition to censorship of cable television.
To his credit in most people's eyes, he was devoted to providing property tax relief and succeeded in pushing through the Legislature the largest budget increase for education in Utah history.
He was also devoted to environmental responsibility and fought hard to provide equal opportunities for women. He was very active in establishing a better structured court system.
Utahns immediately learned that Matheson, like the more famous and controversial J. Bracken Lee before him, would always say exactly what he thought on virtually any issue. But they admired him for it - more than they admired Lee - and would have gladly given him a third term, which they denied Lee.
Like Lee, Matheson brashly confronted the federal government on numerous issues, ranging from the Weteye nerve gas bombs, nuclear fallout and the MX missile to the Central Utah Project and land use. But his opposition was usually expressed with gentleness and wit, making a sharp contrast to the more volatile Lee, whose attacks on the United Nations and the IRS are now legendary.
Somehow, complaints from Scott Matheson were easier to take.
Early on, Matheson became a national figure - and a commanding one - as he presided over the National Governors Conference, always coming down on the side of principle. Although no one ever seriously mentioned him as a presidential or vice presidential candidate as they often did Lee, they did assign him genuine stature.
They thought he would become a U.S. senator or a member of a presidential Cabinet - probably with authority over Interior - the department that best typified his knowledge of the West.
But when he was through being governor, his political career was over. That's the way it is with citizen-politicians.
Scott Matheson was the quintessential Westerner. His tall hat and cowboy boots symbolized the simple side of a highly intellectual man. His death of multiple myeloma presented the final irony - that he may have died as a direct result of the harmful effects of nuclear fallout - one of the causes he was most adamant about.
His legacy, therefore, is one from which every Utah governor could learn: Stand with courage for those principles in which you believe. Say what you think - about everything. But do it gently - with grace, then let the chips fall where they may.