Readers of this blog know of my personal love of history. That perspective led me to look for the precedent of a major national event that changed history in favor of an issue popular with the citizenry but blocked by special interests. Few would argue that special interests, mainly the National Rifle Association, derailed widely publicly supported legislation to introduce background checks into the process of gun purchasing. The Senate defeat, coming on the heels of the tragedy in Newtown, has resulted in a public outcry with President Obama leading the charge. While the examples I will reference ( Newtown and The Big Burn) differ in many ways, both issues rose to the level of acute public passion.
Just over a century ago in 1910, America witnessed a devastating national disaster that many historians have compared with the force of an atomic bomb. In August of that year a wind-driven forest fire raged through the states of Washington, Idaho and Montana destroying 3 million acres of drought stricken timber lands, wildlife, dozens of frontier communities, and killing 78 firefighters, many of them young college students volunteering on behalf of their belief in the newly created National Forest Service. No one alive in 1910 had seen anything like what author Timothy Egan describes in his book The Big Burn.
It is the back story here that begs for comparison with the fight for stricter gun legislation. There existed prior to the fire a bitter fight between President Theodore Roosevelt and his Chief Forrester Gifford Pinchot and the special interests of the timber and mining industries. As Egan describes it, ” The Robber Barons fought Roosevelt and Pinchot to the bitter end, time and again derailing progressive legislation to protect the forests from the timber barons and the open lands from the copper mining interests.” Senator Weldon B. Heyburn of Idaho, the leader of the anti-conservationists was a strident foe of any legislation to protect the land and it was his own law-firm ( no conflict of interest here) that was the chief paid lobbyist for the timber and mining interests. Quoting again from The Big Burn, Heyburn called federal forest reserves, ” an expensive, useless burden to the public.”
Following the fire, Roosevelt , now out of office, seized the disaster as an opportunity to try again to pass legislation creating national forests in the West. In his effort to block the creation of any additional public land Heyburn used arcane Senate rules to keep the executive branch from designating new federal forest land without congressional approval. Two years later, in 1912 , Heyburn was dead after suffering a stroke while ironically delivering a filibuster on the Senate floor. ( No 60-vote rule in 1910 a, just hours of talking to prevent a vote)
The Idaho, Montana, Washington inferno of 1910 became the tipping point on the public lands issue, what Egan calls, “The Fire That Saved America.” Out of this disaster came forth the enormous support for “public lands,” a National Parks System and the conservation programs that are in place in America today. Heyburn, his senate co-conspirator Montana’s Senator William Clark and the timber and mining lobby were in their day comparable to the Senate opposition in today’s fight over gun legislation. As a political lobby, Heyburn’s law firm was the equivalent of the NRA.
If history repeats itself the hell-fire and public out cry created by this weeks defeat of gun legislation in the U.S.Senate may be the Big Burn of public indignation that results in the final passage of even stronger gun legislation. Following the fire of 1910 , even though out of office, Roosevelt used his power to rally public support for public lands . Doris Kerns Goodwin’s forthcoming book on Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and Robert Taft will further detail the enormous impact of the Bully Pulpit on public policy.
After hearing President Obama and the father of one of the children killed at Newtown speak on Wednesday evening at the White House, there is little doubt that dedication, passion and leadership weigh heavily upon the likelihood that the public tipping point of public indignation has been reached on gun legislation and like the Big Burn, will likely to be grasped from the jaws of defeat.