Dennison tells stories worth remembering in book on Montana politics

“This book is not a memoir.”

That’s the first sentence in the preface to Mike Dennison’s recently published book, “Inside Montana Politics: A Reporter’s View from the Trenches.”

Dennison is too good an old-school reporter to think that his personal story is worth telling, but I’m happy to say this book is in fact a memoir, at least in part, and it is also a good, compact history of Montana politics over the past three decades.

Some of that history is painful to read, particularly the account of the fall of the once mighty Montana Power Company. Under the guise of “deregulation,” Montana lost its historically cheap energy, MPC morphed into a telecommunications company that went bankrupt, and tens of thousands of former employees and average investors saw their nest eggs disappear.

We also read of former Gov. Marc Racicot, who helped engineer that deregulation and went on to head the Republican National Committee, and of his successor as governor, the late Judy Martz, one of the most comically inept politicians in the history of the state. There are also extended profiles of former Gov. Brian Schweitzer, former U.S. Sen. Max Baucus and current Sen. Jon. Tester.

In each case, Dennison tells the stories clearly and well. I was an editor and reporter in Montana during the period dealt with in this book, but I rarely covered statewide politics and issues, so on almost every page I either learned something new or was reminded of something I had forgotten.

And because it is partly memoir, despite Dennison’s demurral, we learn not only what happened, but what role Dennison played in the unfolding stories, how his reporting shaped events and how the leading figures responded to his work.

One vastly entertaining section details efforts by Racicot to undermine Dennison’s reporting and to question his facts and his motives. Dennison’s then-editor at the Great Falls Tribune, Jim Strauss, responded in writing to Racicot at one point, and finally, tiring of his attacks, basically told him to buzz off.

Mike Dennison

I’ve known Dennison since the late 1970s, when we were in journalism school together in Missoula. I thought I’d followed his career — he has worked for the Associated Press, the Tribune, Lee Newspapers and, since 2015, the Montana Television Network — fairly closely, but it took a collection like this to make me really understand how good and how important his work has been.

What set his work apart over the years was that alongside his rock-solid reporting, he also occasionally wrote first-person columns that added depth and perspective to his reporting. It is one thing to write dozens of well-researched stories on a single topic. It is a real public service to step back and show what all those facts mean. Allow me to quote at length the opening to a column Dennison wrote in 2006:

If you read last weekend’s interview with former Montana Gov. Marc Racicot, you can be forgiven for choking on your coffee when you read this statement on utility deregulation:

“If somebody said to me today, would you be deregulated or not deregulated after what you’ve seen occur, I’d still say we should be deregulated,” Racicot told a newspaper editorial board.

That’s right. The governor who supported and signed Montana’s infamous 1997 utility deregulation bill and resisted attempts to undo the damage says if he had the chance to do it all over again, he would.

The former governor, now the head of a national insurance lobby, also opined that “there are a lot of myths surrounding deregulation and what happened” and that doomsday scenarios are “not supported by the evidence.”

Sorry, but the only mythology on deregulation I heard that day came out of Racicot’s mouth. And if it’s evidence you want on the folly of utility deregulation, it’s easily found.

It was satisfying to find out that this column provoked a flood of favorable comments from readers, the biggest response Dennison ever received. It’s a bit dicier these days, in the era of “fake news,” for reporters to stick out their necks and add context to the news, but as Dennison shows, when done correctly it is invaluable.

There is more, much more, in this book, including Dennison’s account of a deadly riot at Montana State Prison, and the long, sad story of a man falsely accused of a terrible crime.

The best story in the book, which Dennison has never told until now, relates how the late Sen. Conrad Burns went to bat for a friend of his, a liberal environmentalist who was busted for growing pot, and whom the feds tried to severely punish for his refusal to snitch on anyone else.

It complicates the one-dimensional image a lot of people had of Burns, and, as with virtually everyone in the book, you learn more about the human behind the headlines.

I hope a lot of Montanans read this book. If you live near Billings, you can buy a copy directly from Dennison this Saturday, when he will be at This House of Books in downtown Billings from 1 to 2:30 p.m.

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