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Published April 17, 2010, 10:30 PM

PRAIRIE VOICES: Mr. Wheat

New biography takes a look at North Dakota’s fascinating Sen. Milton Young.

By: Mike Jacobs, Grand Forks Herald

Milton R. Young may have been an improbable senator.

He stuttered terribly.

He had little formal education, attending North Dakota Agricultural College (now North Dakota State University) only long enough to play football for one season, then enrolling at Graceland College in Iowa — to play another month of football.

He was a farmer all his life, regularly taking part in planning, planting and harvest.

Farm policy remained his lifelong obsession — hence his nickname, “Mr. Wheat.”

But Young served longer in the U.S. Senate than any other North Dakotan and longer than almost any other American. He represented North Dakota in the Senate for almost 36 years, from 1945 until 1981

Yet, he remains a vague figure in the state’s history — a kind of shadowy presence little understood and little appreciated.

Andrea Winkjer Collin has confronted this dilemma with a book, “Mr. Wheat,” published last month.

It’s not a biography exactly, but rather a compendium of information about Young, arranged chronologically and presented clearly.

It’s journalism, Collin insists, not formal history.

Somehow, this seems to suit Young.

Collin is the daughter of Dean Winkjer, an active Republican and a prominent legislator in the 1970s.

“I remember him,” she said of Young. “When I was a teenager, my dad was active in District 1 Republican politics. Young was often there. Then, I worked in Washington for two years, including the last year that Young was in the Senate. Even then, when he was an old man moving kind of slow, he was always friendly and nice to visit with.

“One of the things I remember, even with us teenagers hanging around at political events, he would take such interest in us. He’d ask questions about what we were involved with in high school and what we were doing.”

Despite this early familiarity with the senator, in writing her book, Collin found Young “a lot more interesting than I expected. My frame of reference was his service in the Senate — but he did so much before that.”

Young was active in the Republican Organizing Committee, which challenged the left-leaning Nonpartisan League, then dominated by William Langer, the state attorney general and later governor — and ironically, eventually Young’s colleague in the U.S. Senate.

The relationship between Langer and Young was often prickly and also often close. Their relationship in some ways defined both men.

“In those days, you kind of had to be either pro-Langer or anti-Langer,” she pointed out. Few North Dakotans could straddle that fence — but Milton Young was one of those.

In a career spanning nearly 36 years, Young won the affection and regard of fellow senators, including such different personalities as Lyndon Johnson and Joe McCarthy.

What accounts for the regard?

“Sen. Young did a lot behind the scenes,” Collin said. “He didn’t look for praise and glory. He just worked hard.

“He really emphasized constituent service. We kind of take that for granted now, but in the 1940s, it was not so prevalent.”

Langer “set up a much more aggressive constituent service,” Collin said. And Young refined it.

“He had his office staff trained to reply to any letter within 24 hours. One of staff members said he’d send thank you letters for the thank-yous he received.”

Langer was a master at political campaigns, she pointed out. “He was able to see more people in one day than Milton Young or the average politician could see in a week.

“Love him or hate him, you just sat back and marveled at marveled at Bill Langer.”

Young, she said, was “more reserved. Quiet, really.”

What was the basis of Young’s political appeal?

“He had the philosophy if he looked out for the farmers they’d look out for him,” Collin said.

“He wanted to be known as person who cared about farmers. And people really responded well to that.”

“People just liked him. He was a kind of ‘everyman.’ If you could build a perfect politician for the state of North Dakota for that time, he probably was the one.

“He was genuinely interested in people. Sincere would be a good word to describe him.”

But Young’s appeal went far beyond North Dakota. His colleagues in the Senate respected him — even loved him.

“He and Lyndon Johnson were very close,” Collin said. “They just loved each other.”

Was there a political impulse at work in these relationships?

Yes, Collin suggested.

“Early on, when he first got to the Senate, he understood that naturally agriculture would be one of his issues, and so he got appointed to the ag committee immediately.

“At that time, ag issues in Congress were controlled by Southern Democrats, so Young reasoned, ‘If I want to get any thing done, I’d better get along with these people.’

Young formed close relationships with Southern Democrats, especially Richard Russell of Georgia, who became a close friend.

“Yeah, I plead guilty to working with Southern Democrats,” Young said.

Young became their important ally during the civil rights struggle, voting to maintain filibusters mounted by Southern Democrats, for example.

Collin speculated, “I don’t think he thought it was a real big issue in North Dakota.”

And since this was not a really big issue in the state, he could support them and win their votes on agriculture legislation, a really big issue in North Dakota.

In the end, however, he deserted his Southern friends and voted for the Civil Rights bill.

Young stuck by another friend of agriculture, Sen. Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin. Like Young, McCarthy was a farm boy. Unlike Young, he was a red baiter who found communists and security risks in a multitude of federal agencies. Eventually, he was censured by the Senate and disgraced.

Said Young near the end of his career, “I wonder if I didn’t cut him too much slack.”

“Mr.Wheat” is chock-full of insights such as these. Collin quotes at length from interviews that UND historian D. Jerome Tweton conducted with Young. These became “the core of the book,” Collin said.

Young’s words are printed in italic type — rather like a red-letter Bible, and this contributes to the admiring tone of the work.

Collin also persists in referring to “the Democrat Party,” a usage that is sure to rankle Democrats and which lends an unfortunate air of partisanship to the book.

The book also includes a doctoral dissertation about the 1974 election, written by Allan Young (no relation), who taught history at UND after a career as a businessman and Republican Party activist.

The election pitted Young against William Guy, who had been governor for 12 years. It was for Young an unusually nasty campaign. He emerged the winner after a long recount.

Young’s personal life is recounted, too.

There’s also a compact disc with video and audio recordings of Sen. Young — an addition that rounds out “Mr. Wheat” and makes it the one readily accessible source of information about the senator.

Young emerges as a far more complex figure than he has usually been considered.

He also emerges as a nice guy, a man with a keen appreciation of life. The many extensive quotations from interviews and from many letters, newspaper columns and campaign materials show him to have been an intelligent man, a clear thinker and a strong and articulate writer.

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