Written on Wednesday November 19, 2008
Key of Names
DP: Dick Pryor
GB: Governor Bellmon
DP: Governor Bellmon, a real honor to visit with you. You say in your memoirs that you were never much of a conformist from the time you were young. What do you mean by that?
GB: I mean I don't like to follow the other pathways or rather than make my own. If I'd been a conformist I'd have been a Democrat in Oklahoma.
DP: Because the Democrats controlled Oklahoma, registration is something like five to one, right?
GB: Yes. And they controlled the House and the Senate since statehood and most of the courthouses were controlled by Democrats, which is all fine, but if you were going to be a conformist and want to be in politics, you'd have been a Democrat.
DP: You served in the Marines during World War II…
DP: It sounds as if that experience shaped your life rather dramatically as it did for many people of your generation.
GB: That's true. That's all very true. I decided to get into politics after being in the Marine Corp. It seemed to me that war was sort of unnecessary, but politics and the governments at work done their jobs properly because they still had the problems to deal with after the war was over. The war didn't solve the problems, it just gave the politicians a chance to sit down and work things out.
DP: So that's what really got you thinking about politics, was the war?
GB: I was in the Fourth Marine Division and we had our base camp on the Island of Maui, at one of the Hawaiian Islands. And the story is that the missionaries came to Hawaii to do good and stayed and did well, because they took over the land from the natives and turned it into sugar cane and pineapple plantations, and to look after the land they needed workers and they brought people in from China and from Philippines and from Portugal and from Japan to work in the sugar cane fields. They found that the best workers were the Japanese workers, so when the Marines got to Maui in the 1940's, most of the people who lived there were Japanese people. And the people the Marines got to know were Japanese people, most of them. And it was a very strange experience to be at the home of Dr. Tomoguchi tonight and tomorrow get on a ship and sail for a couple of weeks and get on another island and try to kill all the Japanese, because the people we knew in Maui were nice people. They loved their families and their homes and were hard workers, and it seemed to me that the problem was not between the people, it was between the governments. And I decided if I had the chance I'd get into government and see if there was anything I could do to help straighten things out.
DP: You became a Republican, you said in part, because you are a non-conformist, but your father also played a role in that, didn't he?
GB: Yes. I was overseas when I turned 21, you had to be 21 to vote at that time. My dad was a hard-shelled Kansas Republican. He hated Roosevelt for one thing, and when I turned 21 he went to the courthouse and registered me as a Republican, and that's how I got into the Republican Party.
DP: So what was it like being a Republican in Oklahoma at that period of time?
GB: Well, I don't want to over emphasize it, but Republicans were not taken too seriously, particularly in the southern, the so-called Red River counties, Little Dixie areas. They generally didn't mount serious campaigns. The candidates often felt they weren't going to have a chance and therefore they didn't put out an excellent effort. And yet even at that they came within twenty thousand votes a couple of times of winning the Governor's race, and it seemed to me like a well fought campaign might be able to make the difference. So even though Republicans weren't often taken seriously, I felt that there was a potential here for Republicans to be successful, particularly after Eisenhower won the state a couple of times.
DP: And you ran for the Legislature and won.
GB: In Noble County. I was elected once and I was defeated once, so my score there's fifty-fifty.
DP: What was the lesson that you learned from the defeat.
GB: That if you want to win an election, you gotta work for, let people know you want the job. I filed for office and thought I'd done, I campaigned the first time and the second time I was busy with my business and family and didn't campaign much and didn't think I needed to, but turned out that if the folks thought I didn't want the job they wouldn't give it to me. So I learned that if you're going to be a candidate you've gotta work at it.
DP: After that then, you became party chair. How did you become Republican Party Chair?
GB: There was a man named John Tyler from Bartlesville who was the Republican Chairman before me and wanted to become a national committee member, and so he decided to resign the Chairmanship and he looked around to find a County Chairman that worked at the job and had shown some progress and going to help the party, and he liked what we'd done in Noble County so he more or less drafted me to be State Chairman. I was scared to death when he talked to me about being State Chairman; I didn't know what the job was or didn't think I had experience I'd need for the job, but it turned out real, a good thing.
DP: You're credited with developing the modern Republican Party, certainly in Oklahoma. What did you do to get the party organization where you wanted it?
GB: I started out to set up an organization in every county in this state. We had counties that were just paper organizations, they didn't do anything except make the postal appointments, at that time the postal facilities was all handled by the state organizations. And we had one county where the county chairman was the Gulf Petroleum Company dealer and he had his secretary, his secretary was the county secretary for the Republican Party, his truck driver was the state committeeman, and his wife was the state committeewoman, so they could have their meeting in the kitchen, and frequently apparently did because they never made an effort to file candidates or raise any money or put forth any effort. So we removed those kinds of organizations and held conventions and got people in party positions who wanted to work and be successful.
DP: So you went from party chair though to gubernatorial candidate. Did you ever expect that you would run for Governor of Oklahoma?
GB: Well, the answer is no, I didn't expect to run for Governor, didn't want to run for Governor, didn't think I had a chance to win a Governor. I thought the first Republican Governor would be some sports hero or some industrial giant or someone who had distinguished himself in another field. And I had nothing behind me except, because I was not a very successful farmer, and a party chairman, and that was the wrong kind of credentials to have in this state that was solid Democratic. But it turned out to be a good thing because I could communicate with the rural Democrats which was a good thing, and the cities at that time and still tend to be Republican so I ran well in Tulsa and Oklahoma City, and didn't do too badly in the rural southern counties.
DP: And you did some things in that campaign that were innovative. Among them, tea parties. Tell us about the tea parties. What did you do there?
GB: Well, we formed an organization called the Bellmon Belles, and they were the best thing I did because I often said they won the election for me, but one of the things that the Bellmon Belles did was to put on two-party tea parties. We'd be scheduled to go into your house, your home at ten o'clock in the morning or two o'clock in the afternoon, and the host would invite their friends, wouldn't invite just Republicans, but their friends, a cross-section of the community. And we tried to have these parties in all types of communities, even trailer houses if we could find someone to host them. And I would go in a little late after everybody had got there because if you were early you might find yourself introducing yourself to the same person two or three times and that sort of spoils the event. But go in late, go around and shake hands with everybody and tell them your name and ask for their name, and Shirley would go along behind me and put down the names and the phone numbers and mailing addresses, and then when I got around the room, be introduced by the hostess, and welcomed the group and then I'd talk for twenty minutes or so, and then answer questions for twenty minutes, and then Shirley would get up and say I'm sorry we've got another appointment, we've got to go, so we'd move on to the next party. And we followed up with letters to those who were there and letters to the host and hostess, and those names went on our master mailing list. And then we tried to keep them informed of what we were doing month by month and the idea behind it was to have a core of people who had a personal acquaintance with the candidate and who would feel like the candidate was insiders because you're getting this information about how things were going. And we thought if we could meet maybe ten or fifteen thousand people personally and have their names on our mailing list that this might make enough of a difference. Because there's a tendency, if you're at the beauty shop or the barber shop or Rotary Club or FFA meeting and you've met the Governor's candidate, you're going to say well, I met old Henry the other day and think he's a regular guy and it gives you a little more prominence that you might otherwise have. So we felt we had a bunch of insiders working for us, and it turned out to be true. We won that election by seventy thousand votes.
DP: And you also ran on tax cuts.
GB: Yeah. Get the facts, no new tax.
GB: The Tulsa Press Club had a debate between Bill Atkinson and Raymond Gary and invited me to be there. Had to be on the platform with these two Democrats who are competing for the Democratic nomination. And Bill Atkinson was running on the platform that the state didn't have enough revenues to provide the necessary services and we had to have a tax increase. And I'd adopted Raymond Gary's platform of no new tax. So during this interview or this debate, Phil Desheart (phonetic) who was at the Tulsa World political reporter, asked Bill Atkinson this question. He said, "Now, Bill, you're running on a platform of raising sales tax fifty percent because you say the state doesn't have enough money to provide the necessary services." He said, "Governor Edmondson has proposed the same platform and the Legislature refused to go along to give him the right to raise taxes." And I said, "My question to you is, if the Legislature refuses to go along to raise taxes as you want them to, how would you run the state, run it's government, how to pay your bills?" And Bill often tried to be very profound and thoughtful and sat there for a minute and said, "Well, if the Legislature refused to raise the sales tax as I propose then we'll get busy and eliminate the waste, graft and corruption and run this state on the money we've got." Well I've told that story many, many, many times, particularly when Bill's present, and I often think that that summed it up pretty well, that I was running on the basis that if you cleaned up the programs and got rid of the waste you wouldn't need a tax increase and it pretty well turned out that way.
DP: And one thing that you did in that campaign is to not say anything bad about former Governor Raymond Gary.
GB: I was absolutely determined not to in any way alienate Gary supporters. Quite a lot of them, they were all Democrats, of course, but they were so offended by the way Bill Atkinson treated Raymond Gary in the run off, but a lot of them came to me openly and quite a few of them clandestinely including some Democrat county chairmen who just felt like that they didn't want to have Bill in the Governor's office.
DP: Now, Mrs. Bellmon, you mentioned Shirley, she also played a, as you say a very important role in the campaign, but one thing that she did that I thought was very interesting is she tried to break you of a habit.
GB: Yes, she sure did. I had a, I was never a speech maker, never will be, but I had a terrible bad habit of sticking my hands in my coat pockets when I stand up in front of a group. I worried her because she knew it detracted from what I was saying and it bothered other people, and so without telling me she, when I went to Bartlesville to talk to a women's club and I tried to get my hands in my pockets and I couldn't do it. And I discovered that she'd sewed my pockets shut and without telling me, so it broke me of the habit of sticking my hands down in my pockets when I was trying to make a speech.
DP: So you won the election. Were you surprised?
GB: Well, in all honesty I kinda thought things were going our way toward the end. I wouldn't say, in fact, I told the girls and Shirley as we came to Oklahoma City that day that I was, not to be surprised if we won, then I told them I didn't want them to let it go to their heads because this was a temporary thing. But it just seemed to me that our campaign had come together nicely and we hadn't had any real bad luck or bad events, and so I was, in the beginning I had no chance at all, but toward the end I thought we were maybe gonna win.
DP: And Robert S. Kerr, very powerful Senator at that time, it seems like he also was in your corner.
GB: I'm not so sure. But after the election he was very helpful and very friendly. Another story, but I think I'd better not take the time. But I had Paige Belcher (phonetic) introduce me to Bob Kerr and Bob Kerr told me that he, he said that he'd lived long enough and was old enough to realize that in this world you don't often get a royal flush, but when you get one play it for all it's worth. He told me, he said you've got the royal flush in Oklahoma politics and if you'll play it for all it's worth and for the good of the state I'll help you. And he did. He tried to be helpful as long as he lived which was only a couple of months because he died the first of January.
DP: In your book you quote him as saying "Political talent is the rarest gift of God."
GB: Yeah. He said that very thing. And I believe it, too. Politics or government's not only a complex business, it's an absolute essential that people have to have. But I think that a gifted politician is certainly as rare as a gifted musician or artist or architect or anything else.
DP: What would see as the biggest accomplishments of your first term as Governor?
GB: I was proud to have kind of established a fact that two-party government could work, and as far as the various things that got done, we started the state retirement system for state employees which has proven to be a good thing. We increased the turnpike system significantly, we had four years of no tax increase, we put all the money we could get our hands on in education and schools and colleges, and I think set the stage for another Republican administration because Dewey Bartlett was elected after I was.
DP: In addition to all of that, you also integrated the governor's office.
GB: Yes. We integrated all the government agencies that we could. I appointed people to boards and commissions that hadn't been considered before. We also integrated the state institutions, the prisons and mental hospitals, and all the state agencies. I as in office when the '64 Voting Rights Act was passed, and we went through that year without any violence or any protests, unlike Arkansas and some of the other southern states.
DP: Were you concerned that in doing that that it could lead to violence, it could lead to repercussions?
GB: I was very concerned. I thought it would give the state a black eye and in addition it would set us back several years in efforts to integrate. What happened there was when Congress passed the '64 Civil Rights Act I realized that we had to enforce it here in this state, and I went with my lawyer down to Idabell and met in the bank down there where the banker was someone I knew, and Dale Cook, who was my lawyer, brought along the new law, the '64 Voting Rights Act, we had Virgil Jumpert, who was the banker, invite the motel owners and the restaurant owners to come in to his bank that evening, and we flew down and met with them and Dale explained the Act and what was required of them, and I asked if the wouldn't all agree to follow the Act together. And I said if you follow the same policies nobody's going to get hurt. And they all agreed, and they all did. Went over to Hugo and had the same meeting the next morning at Al Cherry's house and invited in the motel owners and the café people, and they all agreed to integrate except one, who said he wouldn't. And I came back to Oklahoma City and met with Clara Luper who was leading the integration efforts here in Oklahoma City, and a Major, who was head of the Human Rights Commission that I appointed, and asked them if they wouldn't go down to Idabell and Hugo and go into the restaurants and go into the hotels and check in and see if they were going to be served, and they agreed to do it. And I asked them when they came back to hold a news conference and explain what had happened, which they did, and we didn't have any violence at all anywhere.
DP: Why did you expand the turnpike system?
GB: I believe in paying for a service government. The people that use the turnpikes willingly pay those fees because they believe they're getting a good value for their money.
DP: By doing that, it gave you the opportunity to work with an interesting character by the name of Harry Bailey.
GB: You're right about that. Harry was one of the most interesting people I've met during the time that I was in office. Harry was head of the Turnpike Authority and was really kind of the father of the turnpike system in the state, but he was a very gruff man. He used to, if he found one of the engineers or architects who wasn't performing as Harry felt like he should and was able to, he'd write them a terrible letter and would always sent the governor a copy. He prided himself in his ability to dress somebody down, and it didn't seem to me that Harry needed to be quite so gruff. And then along about this time Harry had a heart attack and I went to see him in the hospital and he talked for a while and suddenly began to cry. He was impressed, I think, that the governor would come to see him and it kind of got to him. And I got to looking into his background and found out that Harry Bailey was not an engineer, he was the head of his own firm, but he didn't have an engineering degree. And I think he covered up his own feeling of inadequacy by these letters he wrote to other people.
DP: You also had during that time, during your first term, you had a no gifts policy, which turned out to be a good call.
GB: Yes. Very good call. It kept me out of a lot of tickly situations. When we got a gift we'd send it on to the Children's Hospital and let them open them. We never, ever looked at them so we weren't tempted to keep them.
DP: Why did you think that was important?
GB: I wanted to be obligated to no one except the voters by avoiding taking favors from special interests I was able to keep from having to pay back the favors in some other way.
DP: Something that you did in the first term, and you followed it up later in your second term, you had a lot of press conferences. Why did you think that that was so important?
GB: Well, I did it partly out of ignorance, but I did it at the request and really kind of the demands of the reporters.
DP: Did you enjoy those press conferences?
DP: (Laughter) Enjoy.
GB: I dreaded it. But they taught me to be careful how you say things and what you say, because they're going to interpret it and it's still got to look right and be right when it shows up on the front page. I guess I owe them a lot of thanks for making me become more disciplined, but you can say something that's right and it sounds wrong and it's just as bad as it had been said wrong.
DP: About the role of the press in your book, you say this, that you realized clearly the vital role of vigorous, skeptical free press plays is a representative form of government.
GB: That's very true. You couldn't govern without them because the press is the eyes and ears of the voters, of the population. Politicians are never gonna tell you what they've done wrong, but the media can do that.
DP: You had to navigate through some fairly difficult waters. Lloyd Raider and learning to get a long with him, a very powerful person. Also Harry Bailey. You had Democrats controlling the Legislature, and J. D. McCarty, the Speaker of the House, was very powerful. How did you deal with all of those personalities as a Republican governor to get things done?
GB: Well, Harry Bailey and Lloyd Rader, I guess I can say we were, I don't want to say the wrong words here, kind of soul mates. We were determined to see the programs we were interested in succeed and we worked together to that end. J.D. McCarty was a different breed of cat. He controlled the House of Representatives almost totally. If J.D. would stand up before the House and give it this, you couldn't pass a bill to save your life. And if he'd give it this, it pass without any dissenting votes. But luckily for me, J.D. McCarty and the President Pro Tem of the Senate, Roy Boecher, were not friendly, we not inclined to work together very well. And so Roy Boecher helped me by holding J.D. sort of under check because he couldn't pass his bills through the Senate without Roy Boecher's support. So Roy and I worked together and were sort of able to keep J.D. from running wild. And second, the Legislature at that time only met every other year, so in the second session, J.D. McCarty intended to, uh, Roy Boecher didn't run for re-election as President Pro Tem, and J.D. got behind one candidate, and Clem McSpadden ran, and so J.D. opposed Clem and Clem was elected, so that put Clem and J.D. at odds. And I worked with Clem and we were able to get things accomplished that way.
DP: You stayed involved in politics after your first term as governor, and you knew Richard Nixon. In your book you indicate that you didn't really think he was much of an administrator.
GB: I truly didn't. I still don't. Dick Nixon was interested in the big picture, he was interested in opening the door to China, he was interested in winning the Cold War, he was interested in certain public, or certain national policies, but basically he was interested in international affairs. He delegated the operation of agencies to his cabinet and to his White House staff and tried not to get involved in too much minutia, and the result of it was that the staff let things get pretty well out of hand.
DP: In the mid-'60's you had a meeting with him and apparently were ready to tell him that shouldn't run for President, but you changed your mind.
GB: Yes, I changed my mind because it seemed to me like Dick Nixon had changed, he'd come to be a nationally renowned or respected lawyer dealing with some major litigation. He had campaigned for many members of Congress and most of them had been elected maybe not because of him, but at least he had a part in it. And it seemed to me like he'd sort of found his strengths and had become a much more presidential person.
DP: And you became one of the earliest and best supporters of President Nixon, or soon-to-be President Nixon.
GB: Yes, I was invited by Peter Flanigan, who was the Chemical Bank in New York City, to become a member of the committee to elect Nixon, and we met in New York City several times after I left the governor's office, and planned the campaign long before it became public and before Nixon knew he was going to run. But the then campaign director they'd hired, a man named Parkinson from San Diego, had to leave the campaign because of his health and his wife, and they asked me to become campaign chairman, which I did in August of '67. And I went to Washington and lived up there until I came back to file for the Senate in March, after the primary.
DP: Why did you decide to run for Senate?
GB: Well, it was a logical stepping stone. I was interested in the Senate as a result of my experiences in the war, which I realized that the Senate had more to do with international affairs than the state government, but also, and I don't want to say bad things about someone who's dead, but Mike Monroney did some things that I thought were very un-Senatorial.
DP: Yet he was a very formidable opponent.
GB: Yes, he was. He was, he had thirty years experience in Washington. He was an incumbent and incumbents are pretty hard to unseat. But he had allowed himself to become isolated from Oklahoma and he rarely came back here and handled himself as a national figure rather than a representative of the state. I think we beat him by fifty-five thousand votes so it wasn't too hard.
DP: How did you wind up beating him, and not just beating him barely, but by as much as you did?
GB: Well, I think he underestimated my vote-getting ability. I went to Sasakwa (phonetic) to the FFA Banquet, and I was the only Republican I think ever invited there up to that time, and Mike Monroney was there and Carl Albert was there and Tom Steed was there and all these Democrats, and the deal was that you got served food and then there was kind of a political rally, and the guy who called himself the Mayor of Sasakwa, he was the Master of Ceremonies, and he put on quite a show, and it was kind a roast for politicians. And of course, they put me on last, no, I was just before Monroney, and I was sort of desperate in what I was going to say to these folks who were all Democrats and not inclined to be friendly toward me, but I decided to tell them about how we picked members of our tank company in World War II, where we'd gone through these so-called record books and you could go through the record books and tell whether this kid had been in the 4-H or the FFA or had a rural background, and I'd convinced the company commander that if we could get these rural kids that they'd know how to keep these tanks running because they knew how to run tractors and other farm equipment, and he did that at least in part. And so I told the FFA members that we did this and what a fine bunch of people we had and how much many of them had won Silver Stars and maybe crosses, and promoted to officers and built them up as all I could, and before I got through talking they began to applaud, and I ask them not to do that because it was taking up my time, you know, all these tricks you pull. And then the payoff came when Mike got up to make his talk, he referred back to what I'd been talking about, which is the highest compliment you can pay, but that was a tiny piece in the campaign, but it showed me that I was going to be able Mike all right and I didn't have to be too afraid of him, and so we had debates around and I think really just did a better job of being a candidate than he was. He was probably a fine Senator, but he wasn't a good candidate.
DP: How much of a role did television play, and how did you feel about using television in politics?
GB: I liked television and used it as much as we could afford. I don't necessarily like some of the things that you see on television now. It seems like they're not getting meaningful messages to their commercials, some of the candidates, but I have no objection to television, it's a fine medium. And candidates have to learn to use it because it's certainly going to make a difference.
DP: What separates a politician from a statesman?
GB: Well, a politician looks for the next election, and I suppose a statesman looks for the next generation. I've never thought of myself as a statesman. I don't find any fault in being called a politician. As was said earlier, political talent is the rarest gift of God. And thinking you can be above politics and sort of soar with the eagles is a delusion.
DP: Did you like being in the Senate?
GB: I didn't like being in Washington. I didn't, I frankly didn't enjoy the Senate too much. It moves at a snails pace, it just takes forever to get anything done.
DP: And you had a chance at one time to leave, did you not? And join the Nixon administration.
GB: Yes, there was a time when Bryce Harlow invited me to one of those exclusive clubs in downtown Washington, and told me that they'd narrowed down their choices for Secretary of Agriculture to two people, me and Cliff Harden of Indiana, and the president asked Bryce to feel me out to see if I was interested, and if I was the job was mine. But I'd just been re-elected to the Senate and I talked to Abe Ribokoff (phonetic) who was the Senator from Connecticut who'd been Secretary of HEW, and Abe told me he had been a governor and he's used to making his own decisions and that serving as a cabinet officer is misery because the cabinet always has to support the president in any controversies, and you can't make decisions on your own, you have to make decisions as part of a team. And I was convinced I wasn't cut out to be a cabinet officer. I've often wondered if I had a gone on the cabinet if I might have been able to do something to head off Watergate, but I doubt I could have.
DP: You think that was just going happen anyway? How does that happen?
GB: Well, I don't want to condemn Nixon. As I said I consider him to be my friend, but I think in his case he thought he was invincible. In fact, I asked Bryce one time why in the world they didn't have a bon fire an burn those tapes out in the rose garden, and he said that they were convinced that what they called president's immunity or executive immunity would protect them from having to make those public. So I think that was the basic mistake was feeling invincible by the president, and no president should feel that way, they are not invincible, they have to be accountable for things that happen.
DP: If you had been in the cabinet, what would you have done to try to eliminate that from happening?
GB: Well, this is all hindsight so it's not very good. I think Nixon should have bared his soul and had a news conference and said this is what happened and asked you to forgive me and I think he would have been forgiven. After all, breaking into a political party headquarters to get some names isn't what you do, what you think of as a major crime. The crime was covering it up.
DP: In the waning days of his presidency, President Nixon came to Oklahoma to speak at Commencement at Oklahoma State University. Why did he come here?
GB: I'd invited him and he kind of felt obligated to me for what I'd taken off from my Senate campaign to help with his campaign, and so he came here as a favor to me I think as much as anything else. Bryce Harlow had a big hand in getting him here and Bryce was Chief of Staff in the White House and he worked with Nixon to get him to accept the invitation. The truth of it is at that time Nixon wasn't getting invited to too many places. He'd been, you mention Watergate, and of course, he resigned the presidency soon after that.
DP: That may have been his last public appearance before he resigned.
GB: I think it might have been. And his first public appearance as far as I can find out is when he came to Enid after Watergate and after he resigned when I came back from the Senate he came down and made a speech to a crowd, and there was a fairly large crowd, about six hundred people and he signed autographs for I imagine an hour after the dinner was over. And he insisted I sign autographs right behind him.
DP: And you were there the day he resigned.
GB: I was there the night he resigned. He said he'd planned, wanted to be not a good president, but a great president. And he thought he'd done some great things, and he talked about opening the door to China and about the Cold War and about domestic things he thought he'd accomplished and he talked for quite a while, I'd say at least a half an hour maybe even longer. And then he sort of dropped his head and sat for a moment looking down and then he looked right at us and said I hope I haven't let you down and he started to cry. And he got up from the chair and went around the table and out the door and down the hall. We were invited to stay on at the White House and have supper, dinner, and I did and some others did, and he went on national television at about eight thirty or so, and announced that he'd be leaving the office at eleven o'clock the next day.
DP: Which he did.
DP: In your second term came a very important decision, the Panama Canal.
DP: Could you tell those of us who don't remember or weren't around how that transpired and why that was so controversial?
GB: The reason it was controversial for me was it was because of Ed Gaylord, he made it a big issue here in Oklahoma much more than it was in some other states, and he had every right to do that. In my case, the first one who introduced the treaties, I thought it was unnecessary, that we had the Canal, we just as well keep it, but when we began to study it and then there was a book written by David McCullough called The Path Between the Seas which Dew Bartlett gave me to read and I read it. I invited the fellow who was in charge of the Canal, General Parfitt who was with the Corp of Engineers stationed in Panama, I found he was going to be in Washington and I invited him to come to the office and we discussed the Panama Canal situation. I asked him if we turned down the treaties that he'd think there'd be a civil war in Panama over the Canal. He said there's no question there would be because General Tourio (phonetic) said make this his main thing was to get the Americans to turn the Canal over to Panama. And I said well the next logical question is if there is a civil war down there, can you handle it? Will we prevail? And he said that's not a military question, he said from a military standpoint, if you'll give us all the troops we need and all the hardware we need and all the resources necessary for a campaign we can handle him, but he said that's not the question. The question is are you going to do like they did in Vietnam and cut us off from the kind of support we need and then that way we'd lose. And he said so it's really a political question, not a military question. And I was convinced that we didn't have the will to have a lot of young men getting hurt and killed over what was really kind of commercial enterprise. So I voted to ratify the treaties and of course I think time has proven that the Canal is still in operation, that we didn't have it turned over to the Communists and didn't close down, and everything's went along pretty smoothly.
DP: What was the political climate like during that period of time when you had to make a decision?
GB: I remember this cartoon that ran in the New Yorker magazine that showed these two guys leaning up against a bar and one of them said to the other one, he said, "For all my life I never even heard of the Panama Canal, and now suddenly I can't live without it." And I think most people kind of felt that way, hadn't thought much about the Canal and it really wasn't that essential to the national interest.
DP: What kind of fallout was there for you personally after that vote?
GB: I came back here in '81, in January of '81, and ran for governor in '86, and was elected, so for folks, either they forgot or they forgave me, one of the two. Even now, today, sometimes people talk to me about why did I vote as I did on Panama. So there's still a residue of interest in the question.
DP: Did your experience in World War II effect your decision. You mentioned the guerrilla warfare and your concern about that. Did that play a role?
GB: It certainly did. I take sending young men into battle pretty serious. I don't think we should do it unless there's an absolutely clear national purpose to be served.
DP: Was that the toughest decision you ever had to make?
GB: Oh, it really wasn't a tough decision. It was tough getting the facts and deciding what's in the national interest, but once you can decide then it's not hard to make the decision. The decisions that are tough are the ones you can't get all the facts that you think you need.
DP: Why did you not run for another term?
GB: I felt like a fish out of water, and I think I've said before that I think something of an executive mindset and a Legislative mindset and I think I come under the executive category. I'd rather be governor than senator. I came back here not intending to run for governor, but was trying to get my finances in shape, and I did run six years later, five years later. But that wasn't preplanned.
DP: After your term in the senate, you were involved with various universities before you got back in politics as governor for a second time.
DP: What attracted you to that?
GB: Well, as much as anything else was I needed the income. And I enjoyed working with the young people and students, and got along pretty well in the classroom. I felt like I needed to share some of the things I'd learned with some of these kids coming along. By the way, some of these people in prominent, in Oklahoma government now are some of my former students, including the governor.
DP: You decided to run for governor again and certainly education played a key role in your second term…
DP: But let's go back to the election first. When you ran for governor for the second time, again it looks like there was a split within the Democratic Party that played a key role in that race that year.
GB: I know David Walters was a kind of a difficult candidate to run against. I refused to debate him because I didn't think you could rely on his accuracy in some the things he said.
DP: But you won, and in the second term House Bill 1017 was the centerpiece.
DP: The Education Reform Law. That was monumental. It was landmark legislation, but it did not come easily.
GB: I realize that when the Legislature left, I'm not sure which year this was, but when they came back into town before the next election, and I realized we had to do something about the educational system in the state because it was terribly under funded. And so I worked with my staff and with the cabinet members, and we decided that the thing to do was to have a special session, and have it focus just on education. And we decided not to involve the Legislators because I knew they wouldn't report, and if I asked them to support it and they refused and I went ahead and did it anyway, I'd have terrible animosity. So we sort of kept it all quiet as we made the plans and announced it publicly before we let any of the Legislators have any input. And there was immediate outcry. Special sessions are never popular with the Legislators because it takes time away from their regular lives. But anyway, we finally got a bill together and we got a Legislator from Tulsa was the only one that would agree to introduce it. The Speaker wouldn't introduce it, nor the Leader wouldn't introduce it, and this Tulsa Legislator agreed to introduce the bill and he did. And I was afraid it would immediately be voted down, but Steve Lewis, who was at present the Speaker, had been working on a legislative reform package of his own, and he decided to use this as a vehicle to get his proposal before the Legislature, which was terribly gratifying to me, because it was obvious to me if the Speaker thought we needed to reform education that something's likely to happen. But then later it turned out that the Legislature passed the law in the previous session requiring the Governor and the Speaker and the President Pro Tem to appoint a Legislative Study Commission to decide what to do about education. And the President Pro Tem and the Speaker came in and asked me to appoint my members, I think there were nine, and they'd appoint theirs and we'd let them have a few months to study the educational needs and remedies and we did that. And they reported back I think in November. And the special session went on for nine months. We finally passed 1017 with I think one vote to spare in the House and no votes to spare in the Senate. We had to pass it with two-thirds vote because if it had gone to the vote of the people it would have possibly not survived, and so we wanted to get the bill passed with an emergency clause so it would go into effect immediately. But I give credit to the Speaker and the President Pro Tem for keeping 1017 alive and making it finally became law.
DP: The economic time was shortly after the collapse of Penn Square Bank, the oil bust, and for that to be accomplished, 1017, and some other things that the state needed to accomplish at that time, you did have to raise taxes, how difficult was that for you as a person who had originally had run on a platform of no new taxes to raise taxes?
GB: It was very difficult, but in reality there was no other way to do it. We couldn't shut down the schools, and as far as finding waste and corruption, it'd been taken out a long time ago, so it was a tough decision to make, but once you realize the facts, you had no choice. I think it's a mistake now that when times are good and oil prices are high and revenues are flowing in at an unprecedented rate, to cut taxes because if they cut too far and the oil boom passes away again, they'll have to have another tax increase and it's pretty stupid to cut taxes when times are good and raise them when times are bad.
DP: Is there a lesson in there for politicians or people that might want to be politicians?
GB: Well, the lesson I have learned is that you can't want the job too much, you can't need the job. In the Marine Corp we had training that if you were in a foxhole and an enemy threw in a hand grenade, you had about three seconds for somebody to smother the grenade with their body, and you may find that in politics you've got to make the same kind of sacrifice sometime, and often I think you find the voters understand and don't punish the people to do the things that are in the state or national interest the way the critics think they do.
DP: Governor, I'm struck by the fact that, at least early in your career, certainly as State Party Chair, you were partisan. You continued to be in partisan office for many years, yet you got a lot accomplished by reaching across the aisle, working with other people in a non-partisan fashion.
GB: Well, partisanship has its place before the elections. But after the elections, I think the proper role for elected officials is to study the issues and try to decide what's in the national and state interest and do that, no matter what party you're in. I never remember, for instance, who's a Republican and who's a Democrat, if it's somebody you can work with or be helpful in getting something accomplished then work with them. And there's always enough credit to go around, there's enough blame to go around, either way. But if an objective you try to accomplish you get help from where you can.
DP: What's the difference between politics and governing?
GB: Politics is what happens before the election. Governing comes afterwards.
DP: As you look back at your career, are you glad you did it?
GB: Yes, I'm very glad I did it. I can't imagine having not done it. Public service has a lot of rewards to it even if you don't get everything done the way you want it done, it's a good experience to be involved and try to work things out, solve the problems. I've always considered myself to be kind of a problem solver either in office or out of office. And I think that the attitude people ought to have when they go into government service.
DP: During the course of your career, starting early when you were in World War II, it seems like courage was very important to what you did, whether it was being the first Republican governor of Oklahoma at a time when Democrats controlled or whether it was making an important vote concerning the Panama Canal. How do you define courage?
GB: Well, in wartime it's facing danger without flinching, doing what has to be done to accomplish the objective. In politics, courage is trying to figure out the proper solutions to problems and having the will to do it even though it may look like it's going to be damaging at the time to your own political career at the time you cast your vote or take the action. It's a matter of putting self in second place and putting the nation or state interests ahead of self interest.
DP: In looking at yourself, you from time to time have said in a self-deprecating manner that you weren't the best oritor, you weren't the best various things, but you were very successful. It's not necessarily a secret, but why were you able to be such a success throughout your career?
GB: Well, I think people want honesty and forthrightness in their elected officials more than anything in the way of brilliance or clairvoyance or even eloquence. I thik my rural background and military service was what got me elected to start with and I hope the record I made was responsible for people voting on me in subsequent elections.
DP: Governor Bellmon, Thank you very much. It's a pleasure
GB: Thank you.
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Updated on Wednesday March 12, 2014 at 11:37am