BOISE — Former U.S. Sen. James McClure, who spent six years as chairman of the Energy Committee and fought to keep Idaho’s wilderness areas controlled by the state, has died. He was 86.
McClure, a Republican who served 24 years in Congress, died Saturday, according to the McClure Center for Public Policy Research at the University of Idaho. His family said he died of complications from a series of strokes.
“Jim McClure set a standard for public servants that will endure for generations,” U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, said in a statement Sunday. “His unfailing goodwill and respect for others, together with his essential western conservatism, are still the best model for how to engage today’s public policy debates.”
U.S. Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, called McClure a “principled conservative” who could work with all people to find solutions on difficult issues.
“Idaho has lost a great statesman,” Risch said.
McClure earned a reputation as a nuts-and-bolts legislative craftsman while in Congress and was genial but reserved among most colleagues. He was elected to the U.S. House in 1966, staying there until his election to the U.S. Senate in 1972, where he eventually became the head of the Energy Committee.
After six years in the seat, he lost the chairmanship when the Democratic majority took Congress in 1987. And though he fought to reduce federal control over wilderness in Idaho and throughout the West — hoping to free the land for economic development — in 1980 the federal government created the River of No Return Wilderness over his objections.
Still, McClure’s tenure was not without victories. During the Cold War, McClure was instrumental in persuading President Reagan in 1986 to abandon the unratified Strategic Arms Limitation Talks Agreement II in the wake of Soviet violations, according to “Politics in America; The 100th Congress,” edited by Alan Ehrenhalt.
He also co-sponsored legislation that weakened federal gun-control laws in 1986.
“Lots of legislation that went through Congress had his handwriting on it,” longtime McClure staffer Jim Goller said. “He was a leader, but he never tooted his own horn. He was a good guy to work for — he wanted people to challenge him and have opinions of their own.”
McClure was born and raised in the small town of Payette, Idaho, and served in the Navy from 1942 to 1945. Afterward, he earned his law degree from the University of Idaho and became the Payette County prosecutor and later the Payette city attorney.
His political career began in earnest in 1961, when he was elected to the Idaho Senate. He went on to win Idaho’s first congressional district spot in the House in the mid-1960s, defeating incumbent Compton White Jr.
McClure seemed to always have clear career goals in mind, and wasn’t afraid to share them. In the 1970s, one biography put out by the senator’s office began, “If someone were to write down all of the qualities needed in a senator from Idaho, he might start by reading a biographical sketch of Jim McClure.”
In 1991, McClure retired from Congress at the age of 72.
“Whatever active life I have ahead of me — and who knows what that is, whether it’s five minutes or five years or 25 years — six years is a pretty big chunk of what’s left,” McClure told The Idaho Statesman as he considered his retirement plans. “And therefore it’s a very, very difficult question.”
During the same interview, McClure said he was dissatisfied with Congress, calling it an “instrument of response, not an instrument of leadership.”
But he didn’t completely retire from political life, going on to serve as a lobbyist for interests including Idaho Power Co. and Coeur d’Alene Mine and overseeing former Gov. Phil Batt’s citizens’ committees studying deregulation.
McClure’s contributions prompted then-President George W. Bush to sign legislation renaming the federal building in Boise as the James A. McClure Federal Building and United States Courthouse.
Fellow Republican Larry Craig was elected to replace McClure in 1990. He served three terms before deciding not to run again in 2008 amid criticism of his arrest in a Minneapolis airport restroom.