The death of Bill Guy leaves a terrible void in North Dakota life

2013-04-28T02:00:00Z The death of Bill Guy leaves a terrible void in North Dakota lifeBy CLAY JENKINSON Bismarck Tribune
April 28, 2013 2:00 am  • 

The giant of North Dakota political life, Bill Guy, died Friday morning.

In any list of North Dakota governors, Bill Guy ranks high in the short list of great ones. In my pantheon (leaving aside living governors), the top five, in no particular order, are John Burke (D, 1907-13), Lynn J. Frazier (R, 1917-21), William L. Langer (R, 1932-34 and 1937-39), Arthur A. Link (D, 1972-80), and, of course, William L. Guy (D, 1961-73), the only governor of North Dakota elected four times. It is quite possible that Guy was the greatest governor in North Dakota history, because he more than anyone else brought North Dakota into the modern world — North Dakota after the outhouse — and he more than anyone else made North Dakota a factor in the national arena for the first time.

We are all the beneficiaries of Bill Guy’s leadership, even today.

When he first appeared on the political horizon in the mid-1950s, he was courted by both the Republicans and the Democrats. Both parties recognized his extraordinary capacities and his attractiveness as a political candidate. He would have been the same Bill Guy in either party, I think, because he was a pragmatist, a technocrat and what I would call a progressive conservative or a conservative progressive.

He was a friend to John F. Kennedy and a friend and adviser to Lyndon Baines Johnson. He attended JFK’s inauguration, and he and his wife, Jean, were present at a dinner party at the White House for the Grand Duchess Charlotte of Luxembourg on April 30, 1963. When they arrived at the White House in a taxi, not a limousine, they presented their invitation to the ushers. Jean was assigned to Table One, just one person removed from the president of the United States.

Mrs. Guy sat next to Secretary of the Treasury Douglas Dillon on one side and novelist John Steinbeck on the other. And what about the governor of North Dakota at that White House banquet? He was assigned to Table Eight! When in an interview I asked him who his table companions were that night in Camelot, he smiled his beautiful, gentle smile and said, “I have no recollection.”

JFK and Bill Guy were elected in the same year, 1960. They were young, handsome men with remarkably beautiful wives and energetic and photogenic children. They were both advocates of technology, education, space exploration and a dynamic American military. Both of them campaigned on the promise of getting their respective jurisdictions “moving again” after years of stagnation and dullness. When JFK in his inaugural address declared that “the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans, born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard peace,” he may as well have been speaking for Bill Guy, too.

Kennedy was born in 1917, Bill Guy on Sept. 30, 1919. Both had served in the Navy in World War II, and both had narrowly survived the sinking of their ships by Japanese fighters. Guy had one better war story than JFK: In November 1943, the destroyer on which he served (the USS Porter) accidentally fired a torpedo that nearly sank the USS Iowa, on which President Franklin D. Roosevelt was traveling to Tehran, Iran, for a war conference with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin. That would have been a career stopper.

The differences between Guy and JFK are also instructive. Kennedy was born into a family of enormous privilege and wealth. Bill Guy began (and finished) his life as a man of modest means. What JFK knew about agriculture could be contained in a thimble. Bill Guy was a farmer who raised sheep and earned a master’s degree in agricultural economics from the University of Minnesota (1946). Kennedy was a restless man who could not live without constant access to new women. Guy was a monogamist who regarded his wife, Jean, as his greatest personal, social and political asset.

Kennedy died in a moment of appalling public violence at the age of 46, on Nov. 22, 1963. Bill Guy died quietly in West Fargo at the age of 93.

Bill Guy was a friend to JFK, but a friend and trusted political adviser to LBJ. In September 1967, LBJ sent Bill Guy to South Vietnam to observe the first “free” elections in that troubled, war-torn “republic.” On the day of the election, had his entourage been on time, the governor might have been killed in a terrorist attack on a voting site he was scheduled to visit. By the time he returned to the United States, he was convinced that the war was unwinnable. In the spring of 1968, Guy wrote a courageous letter to the president (which I hold in my hands as I write) saying that his post-Vietnam travels through North Dakota had convinced him that the people of the American heartland were no longer committed to the war, and that it was time to bring our boys home.

On Jan. 23, 1968, when North Korea captured the USS Pueblo in its territorial waters, and accused the United States of spying and violation of its territorial sovereignty, many hawks in Congress urged LBJ to strike back hard. Gov. Guy sent his friend the president an amazing telegram urging him not “to rattle any sabers” over the Pueblo affair, because it was not worth opening a second war front in Southeast Asia, and because — Guy implied — the U.S. was probably not as innocent in the incident as it wished to pretend. “Perhaps in time,” Guy wrote, “the North Koreans will have the job of scraping the barnacles off the Pueblo hull.” President Johnson heeded Guy’s advice. The Pueblo Incident, as it is known, was eventually resolved without bloodshed.

All this I learned in reading Bill Guy’s lovely memoir, “Where Seldom Was Heard a Discouraging Word: Bill Guy Remembers” (1992), and in interviewing him for 20 or more hours for the Dakota Institute’s documentary film, “The Charisma of Competence: The Achievement of Bill Guy” (2010).

There are two things that Bill Guy was unable to achieve in his extraordinary life. First, he was rejected by the citizens of North Dakota in 1974 when he challenged Milton R. Young for the U.S. Senate. That loss, by a small number of votes, ended Guy’s political career and, in my opinion, broke his heart. Second, he was an unheralded prophet on water issues. Guy was never able to solve the principal infrastructural challenge of North Dakota life, the problem of the Red River of the North, which supplies far too much water for a short period in the spring, and too little in dry years to sustain North Dakota’s most important city. No matter how much political capital he gave to some version of Garrison (i.e., Missouri River) Diversion, he could not find a way to get it done. North Dakota is stalled for not having taken his advice in some form or other.

Nevertheless, it is impossible to contemplate the North Dakota we all take for granted in 2013 without factoring in the leadership of Bill Guy. He was the pivotal figure in our modern history, the father of the two-party system in North Dakota (now in some disarray), and, ironically, a thoroughly bipartisan leader who was at the same time the political mentor of such Democratic worthies as Byron Dorgan, Kent Conrad and Earl Pomeroy, among others.

The death of Bill Guy leaves a void in North Dakota life that can never be filled. I’m deeply saddened to learn of his passing, and my heart goes out to Jean and their children, Nancy, Jim, Debby, Holly and Bill Jr.

(Clay Jenkinson is the Theodore Roosevelt Center scholar at Dickinson State University, as well as Distinguished Scholar of the Humanities at Bismarck State College and director of the Dakota Institute. Clay can be reached at or through his website,

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