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Mr. Alaska: Bob Bartlett Goes to

Part Three
By Theresa Bakker
January 16, 2009

When E.L. "Bob" Bartlett was a reporter for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner in the 1930s, he covered the "exciting election" of Democrat Tony Dimond for Territorial Delegate from Alaska for the New York Times.

"It is long since there has been so much doubt concerning the election of a delegate," Bartlett wrote. "It is generally agreed that Judge Wickersham faces the major test of his career… Predictions in Alaska are hazardous. It is difficult to say how the ‘sourdoughs,' the prospectors in the hills, whose total vote is mighty important, will lean. But on the basis of present prospects the guess is made that Mr. Dimond will be elected."

Dimond went on to win the election. What Bartlett didn't know then was that he would be the candidate handpicked by his mentor to succeed him.

By January 1944, rumors about Dimond's impending retirement were leaking from all the valves in the Alaska political machine. Governor Ernest Gruening forced the announcement by recommending the delegate's appointment as a federal judge.

According to Claus-M. Naske's book Bob Bartlett of Alaska, "the governor also urged Bartlett to run, because his one supreme desire for Alaska was 'to do my darndest to get you elected delegate.'"

But Bartlett wasn't sure. He was serving as the Secretary of Alaska and beset by doubts and insecurities, the bane of a failed miner who, for the first time in his life, had a secure job. And as his daughter D.A. Bartlett remembers, her mother wasn't interested, either. "She hated it, but not until it was more imminent. She didn't want to leave Alaska."

Although he'd equivocated about whether he should run for the office, once he arrived in Washington in January of 1945, Bartlett became known for his industry. "He quickly became addicted to his work, to the exclusion of practically all else. He had no hobbies, took no vacations and quickly became a workaholic."

Bartlett spent his first two years learning the atmosphere of Capitol Hill. "He was never discourteous to anyone," according to Naske. "He was adored by the charwomen (cleaning staff), the elevator operators, the committee staffs." He saw his job quite clearly. He was responsible for bringing money home for the territory.

His wife Vide said Bob would leave their home early in the morning and return late at night, a lifestyle as removed from the family as the mining life he'd worried about. And it was even harder work.

Burke Rile, a clerk in the Fairbanks Northern Commercial Company's Caterpillar department, remembered a husky man of average height driving into town from the Circle District, where he mined gold. As he told Naske, by the time they got his 200-pound spring to the truck, he recognized his customer.

"I remarked that he must be the one who'd been in Washington. He nodded and that prompted my asking why anyone would give up a soft touch like Washington to pack a 200-pound spring across Fairbanks. Bartlett replied that was easy, that it was Washington that seemed too much like hard work."

He wasn't as good at managing his visitors as Dimond was. Bartlett had an open door policy, letting folks come in and ramble on and on. Still, he was adept at getting committee staffs to think the way he wanted them to think. Unlike other members of Congress, he couldn't draft his own bills. But he knew his subjects thoroughly, and like the reporter he once was, "had a knack for putting his finger on the crux of a matter," Naske said.

Bartlett excelled at balancing his Alaskan roots with his new identity, as its representative in Washington. When he went home, all the miners and people who'd known him still called him "Bob."

George Sundborg Junior's father was close to Bob Bartlett. The two men shared a connection to journalism and politics. They'd known each other in Juneau and later worked different angles of the statehood fight. Bob in Washington introducing and re-introducing legislation and George Senior in Fairbanks, writing pro-statehood editorials for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, where Bob had once been a reporter.

His oldest son would pick up the Delegate at the airport when he came to town. "Bob always wore the Alaskan tuxedo when he came back to town in those days. It was made by the Seattle Filson Company out of wool whip cord, a material with a real fine weave that only came in green and grey.

"Bob always wore the green. Johnny Albright (who ran the Samson's Hardware Store in Fairbanks) wore the grey. The shirt underneath was a Pendleton and he his bolo tie was a piece of jade with a gold nugget. That was the outfit. You could get it at Carr's Men's Clothing store right in downtown Fairbanks."

Things would be different in Washington after Alaska became a state. Bartlett had to fight to keep his job. After statehood, Alaska's leaders decided among themselves who might run for Senate. Bartlett was offended that nobody had even asked him whether he wanted to stay. Nobody had said – what do you want?

Mary Nordale, whose family was lifelong friends of the Bartletts, worked for the Senator during the transition. When the euphoria that gripped Alaska started bubbling, she said people thought that the greatest honor they could give him would be to elect him as governor because to them that was the most important position.

"The fact that we had had a non-voting delegate for so many years had really sort of built a barrier between our understanding of the relationship of the Congress to Alaska," she said. "We knew what the relationship was, but we didn't know the kind of influence that Alaska would have in the Congress because we had no experience. People were not used to the idea of having votes in the congress and an elected governor."

To make matters worse, Bob's wife wanted to come back to Alaska. "She was pretty tired of Washington," Nordale said. "And Bob was really kind of confused too because there were all of these people pushing and tugging on him, talking to him, and seeing things from their own viewpoint, but not from his. And he was never given an opportunity to express what he really felt was important."

It was the chance to put his lengthy apprenticeship on the House as a voteless delegate and the responsibility of statehood that finally lured him back, "the commencement of even greater responsibilities and difficulties," Nordale said.

Democratic Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice-President Richard M. Nixon both came to the new state to campaign for their party's candidate. They each drew curious crowds, but probably didn't change any minds. Bob Bartlett easily won the race for U.S. Senate Term A with 83 percent of the votes.

In 1960 George Sundborg Senior was fired by Fairbanks Daily News-Miner editor C. W. Sneddon, so he went to work for the other senator from Alaska, Ernest Gruening, as a campaign manager.

"My folks moved to Washington DC," Sundborg Jr. said. "Everybody but me moved, I was 19 years old. They left me here. I liked Fairbanks and stayed with Danny Smith, who was a friend of my mother's. I worked for him, so she knew I wouldn't get in much trouble."

That winter he picked up a brand new Pontiac at a dealer in the Lower 48 and drove it to DC for Christmas. "That's how they got cars up here in those days. Somebody had to drive them up to Alaska." His folks lived on a street that wasn't easy to find. Since he was surprising them for the holiday, he relied on his own instincts and their vague description of the neighborhood.

"I found the street they told me about and saw a Volkswagen with an Alaska license plate in front of one of the houses. So I ran up and rang the bell. Bob Bartlett answered the door.

"‘Georgie,' he said, "You're three houses short of where you need to be, but your mother's going to be in heaven when she sees you."

Theresa Bakker is a Fairbanks-based freelance writer. This is the second of a four-part series she wrote for the premiere of KUAC's new documentary Mr. Alaska: Bob Bartlett Goes to Washington. It airs Jan. 29, 2009 at 9 p.m. on public television stations statewide.

Theresa Bakker is a Fairbanks-based freelance writer. This is the third of a four-part series she wrote for the premiere of KUAC's new documentary Mr. Alaska: Bob Bartlett Goes to Washington. It airs Jan. 29, 2009 at 9 p.m. on public television stations statewide.

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