Bob Bartlett
Mr. Alaska
Bob Bartlett
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The following tribute by then
State Senator-Elect, Joe Josephson
appeared on the opinion page of the
Anchorage Daily News on December 13, 1968.

‘A Good and Decent Man Once Came Their Way…'

It ended for Bob Bartlett in a dreary section of Cleveland, far from the places he knew and loved – places like Fairbanks, where he grew to manhood, and Washington, D.C., and the committee rooms up on Capitol Hill where he did his best work for Alaska.

He had come to Cleveland for surgery, knowing the risks, but wanting to be made whole again so he could resume effective service as a senator. It was medical treatment that would resolve the half-life of disability, one way or another. There would be pain, the doctors had told him, but he decided to trade pain for a new chance to be productive again.

HIS PERSONALITY was known to almost all of us, and we will think now about the meetings and conversations and letters that for each of us seem to capture the man as we knew him.

Yet there were aspects of that personality known only to a few, who worked for him, or with him. We remember how Bob Bartlett never boarded an elevator, or drank from a water fountain, or got on a subway car in the Capitol, ahead of someone else; how the freshman senator from Alaska spent more hours presiding over the Senate than anyone – something like a soldier volunteering for K.P. – because Bob Bartlett thought the sacrifice would help him get more effective help for Alaska.

They say no man is a hero to his own valet, but it's a lie when the boss is a true and complete gentleman. Someone once wrote that a gentleman is a man who treats everybody alike and everybody well – regardless of rank or influence. By that definition, Bob Bartlett was a perfect gentleman. He respected everyone as a member of the human family; he labored for everyone – not just friends, or just contributors, or just Democrats.

If you were an Alaskan, you were entitled to help for any worthy problem. Your residence in the territory was your membership card in the Bob Bartlett Benevolent Society. When you worked for him, you counted on him to be as thoughtful and as considerate of you as he was for the high and mighty. He didn't let your expectations down, either.

BOB BARTLETT had a reverence for life, and he showed it by the way he treated other people. If you were a human being, you had enough in common with him to count in his book. The way you held a cup, or the accent you spoke with, or who your father was, or the size of your bank account didn't matter.

Some say that his struggle for life in that slate-gray section of Cleveland was all a waste. But it wasn't. Psychiatrists tell us that you can't love others until you like yourself. In the same way, it must be that you can't revere the humanness in other people unless you respect it in yourself. Bob's fight proved his respect for life, and everything living, and taught us to appreciate our own chance to live and to try to do something worthwhile with it.

HIS GREATNESS as a person sometimes obscured his grasp of world events and national problems. He didn't wear intellectuality on his sleeve, and he never strove consciously to impress anyone with glibness or smartness. He told Esquire that his favorite movie was a cowboy thing called “Shane,” and it was. He wouldn't have mentions Fellini or Antonini or Bergman. He was a stranger to pretense or pretentiousness. But he was a reader, a thinker, a mind of breadth and depth, and he could master the fine print in a bill or a budget.

If being the complete gentleman made him a little nineteenth century in an unhappily brash and ungracious age, he was on the other hand completely contemporary in the world of ideas, alert to new developments in science and international affairs. He pioneered as a statesman in fields like atomic energy, and his concern about strontium-90, and ecology, especially a quest for a sustaining fishery.

He thought hard about the world's hunger, knew of hunger's pressures on world peace, and found at least partial answers in Fish Protein Concentrate. One day the world will honor him for his leadership – imagination coupled with frontier practicality – in getting the FPC program moving.

HE WORRIED about x-ray abuses that endanger life. He convened hearings, brought Ralph Nader up to the committee room to testify, and got the nation listening and aware. He could see decades ahead to technical developments of the communications industry and got COMSAT officials excited about satellite service for Alaska. He saw the shacks and hovels of rural Alaska, knew the TB rate they bred, and by friendship and persuasion and by summoning all the patient skills he learned in 14 years as a non-voting Congressman, he pushed his native housing bill through Congress.

But just as he was a contemporary thinker, he was also the last of an era. We will never see his likes again, because nobody will come to the Senate like he did. He came there as the logical choice for the job. The job sought the man. He had mentioned that he might not run for senator, but for governor, and there was an outcry from everybody so pained, so disappointed, that he announced for the Senate on the following day.

HIS WAS the politics of lifelong friendships and a career of sensible public service, completely unsoiled by demagoguery or flamboyance or tastelessness of any sort. His career flowered before the arts of modern media became practiced in Alaska politics. You knew Bob Bartlett and his decency; you trusted and voted for him.

You knew he had been getting the job done in Washington, and you were certain there was no mirage. His was the politics you think the nation's founders dreamed of. In his politics, he always emerged successful, in a process that left him undiminished and untarnished.

And now it's over – if we let it be. It is true that there will never be another Bartlett. But perhaps – just maybe – there will be a state where some thousands will remember, and stand a little taller, and live a little straighter, because a good and decent man once came their way, and served them, and believed in them.

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