“Some people are collectors. I’ve collected political buttons since 1960.”
Chuck Johnson’s assortment of political souvenirs are no surprise. A political scribe for more than 40 years, his daily schedule revolved around the government.
“Legislature is 90 days every two years. That’s pretty hectic with meetings going all day, sometimes night meetings, Saturdays they meet – it’s a pretty frenetic pace,” said Johnson. “The rest of the year wasn’t the same pace. When it was an election year we would sometimes travel with candidates and go cover debates. But a lot of the time it was just based in Helena and it was fun to do.”
And so, each day from the term of Governor Thomas Lee Judge to Governor Steve Bullock, Johnson put pen to paper on the biggest stories in Montana politics. It was a career that almost never was.
“I originally wanted to be a sports writer. I was a sports writer at the Montana Kaimin – the University of Montana student paper,” Johnson said. “I was later the sports editor. But all along, even as I’ve been a political reporter, I’ve always followed prep basketball.”
Which brings us to Johnson’s kitchen table. Spread across the wooden surface are state tournament programs, newspaper clippings and books dating back decades through Montana’s prep basketball history.
“Here’s the first one I have from 1953,” Johnson said, pointing to one of his tournament programs. “It was then Class A. Somebody was keeping score in here too it looks like.
“I’ll look at some of those old programs and say, ‘Oh yeah. I remember Wolf Point winning the state championship in ’68. I was at the press table keeping stats for Norm Clarke or somebody.’”
While Johnson’s collection contains clippings from Montana’s treasured sports writers, it’s likely others have his political excerpts in a collection of their own. The work it took to make the two is more similar than you may think.
“Election night is like championship night,” said Johnson. “I guess the difference with politics is that results trickle in and you can see where they’re coming from. Often times, Yellowstone County would send the initial absentee in. But what does that mean? How is Missoula County going to come in? What about Flathead County?
“With a championship game you know by 10 or 10:30 who the winner is. On election night sometimes you don’t even know the winner that night.”
For years it has been politics by day, hoops by night. Occasionally the two cross paths.
“A lot of the figures in politics were great players,” Johnson said. “Governor Marc Racicot was a star player for the Libby team that won the state Big 32 championship in 1966. Tester I think played for Big Sandy. Baucus was a football player and wrestler for Helena High. Steve Bullock was a cross country runner. … He still goes and runs every day. A lot of the leaders in politics have been active in sports in high school.
“Sports we celebrate. We celebrate victories and cry over defeats. … Politics there are celebrations on election night, but sports someone wins and loses every game or every golf match or tennis match. I think it’s a chance to cheer on someone or boo them if we don’t like the player. But I think it gives us a lot of joy in our lives. I don’t know that anyone would say that politics give us joy but I always found it interesting to cover.”
That brings up an interesting question: How did Johnson choose politics over sports those 40 years ago?
“The late 60s when I was in school were a tumultuous time,” he said. “Social unrest. Protests against the Vietnam War. The Civil rights movement. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. To be honest, I just thought that’s where I wanted to be was covering politics. I also didn’t like the deadlines to turn around a story fast for sports. The game ends at 10 and you have to get something in in 15 minutes. I found I could still enjoy sports and cover politics.
But was there ever any second guessing the career path?
“I’m happy with the choice I made,” he said.
Montana’s political coverage certainly benefited from that choice. But deep down, the sports fan will always remain.
“A lot of people would throw them away,” Johnson said pointing at his basketball souvenirs. “For some reason I started collecting it.”
You should see his baseball card collection. Maybe next time.