Burdick, Quentin Northrop

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Burdick, Quentin Northrop

(b. 19 June 1908 in Munich, North Dakota; d. 8 September 1992 in Fargo, North Dakota), lawyer, congressman, and U.S. senator best known for his defense of federal farm subsidies and for securing federal developmental projects for his home state.

Burdick was one of three children of Usher Lloyd Burdick and Emma Robertson, whose families had been among North Dakota’s earliest settlers. In 1910 the family moved to Williston, North Dakota, where Emma was a home-maker and Usher practiced law, farmed, and pursued a political career linked to William Langer and the Nonpartisan League (NPL) that eventually led to ten terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. Burdick attended public schools, where he excelled in debate, dramatics, and sports. He was the president of his Williston High School class for three consecutive years and in 1926 captained Williston’s undefeated football team. Later that year he entered the University of Minnesota at Minneapolis, where he also played football, won fame as a blocker for Bronko Nagurski, and suffered a knee injury that kept him out of military service during World War II. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 1931, he entered the University of Minnesota Law School, earning an LL.B. degree in 1932. He then joined his father’s law firm in Fargo. On 13 March 1933 he married Marietta Janecky, with whom he had four children. Marietta died in 1958, and on 7 July 1960 Burdick married Jocelyn Birch Peterson, with whom he had one child.

As a young lawyer Burdick worked principally on foreclosure cases, acquiring, he said, a “social conscience.” He also joined a reinvigorated NPL, embracing its brand of agrarian radicalism. With NPL backing, he ran for a series of offices, initially as a Republican because of League ties to that party, but from 1946 on as a Democrat. Unlike his father, however, he was long unsuccessful in winning. Between 1934 and 1956 his bids to become state attorney, state senator, lieutenant governor, governor, and U.S. senator all ended in defeat. Not until 1958, following the NPL’s switch of affiliation to the Democratic party and his father’s decision to retire, did he become North Dakota’s first Democratic congressman. He was elected to the seat long held by his father and was known, despite his age, as “young Burdick.”

In Congress, Burdick secured membership on the House Interior Committee and set about making himself an authority on water resource development. He was also cosponsor of the unsuccessful Poage-McGovern-Burdick bill, aimed at subsidizing small farmer income. Breaking away from his father’s isolationism, he became a supporter of the United Nations, reciprocal trade, and foreign aid. In addition, he voted with the liberal wing of his party on such issues as public works appropriations, minimum wages, and civil rights. His House tenure, however, was short. The death of Senator William Langer led, in June 1960, to a special election to fill his remaining term. In this election Burdick narrowly defeated the Republican nominee, Governor John E. Davis. The contest received national publicity as a referendum on efforts of Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson to scrap rigid farm price supports in favor of lower, more flexible ones supported by export aids and land withdrawals. Burdick was a strong critic of the policy, and the election’s outcome was hailed as a realization of his slogan, “Beat Benson with Burdick.”

In the Senate, Burdick supported the domestic reforms of the John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson administrations, was an early critic of the Vietnam War, and remained a persistent champion of farm subsidies and rural development, taking particular pride in a program to train rural health workers that would be renamed in his honor in 1998. His outstanding constituency service, folksy political style, and success in securing federal funds for North Dakota also helped him to build a strong political base, evident in his repeated reelection by large majorities. Before 1987, however, committee reforms and frequent changes in committee assignments prevented him from chairing a committee. While his varied committee service widened his interests to encompass such matters as prison and judicial reform, bankruptcy law, aging, and Indian affairs, he failed to become a senatorial leader on national issues. In his own view, his greatest accomplishment was his success in 1965 in securing authorization for the Garrison Water Diversion Project, a huge public works program altering North Dakota’s landscape but later denounced by critics as environmentally unsound and wasteful of public resources.

In 1987 Burdick’s clout increased. He became the chair of both the Environment and Public Works Committee and the Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture and Rural Development. In these positions he pushed for stronger clean air and farm programs but in general became a less reliable vote for the liberal wing of his party, rejecting in particular the environmentalist positions on waterway and mineral development. His determination to “get everything that North Dakota is entitled to” also grew, leading critics to dub him the “King of Pork.” In 1990, in a move that subsequently backfired, he secured a $500,000 grant to build a museum in Strasburg, the birthplace of bandleader Lawrence Welk. Criticism and ridicule finally led Congress to withdraw the grant.

As a personality, Burdick combined an athletic bearing and vigor, rugged good looks, and an easygoing accessibility with a generally rumpled appearance, a folksy unpretentiousness, and a reassuring sense of stern sincerity and moral rectitude. In a long political career made possible in part by such traits, he left his mark on North Dakota politics and to a lesser extent on the politics of farm subsidization, rural development, and congressional appropriations. His historical significance, however, lay less in his shaping of history than in a career that reflected both the extension of a tradition and its loss of relevance and vitality. Occupying the seats once held by his father and William Langer, he brought a tamer version of the NPL’s agrarian radicalism into a world that was being shaped by an urban liberalism, seeking, as other inheritors of the tradition did, to find ways of ensuring its survival through incorporation into the new liberal creed. These remained elusive, and at the time of his death from heart disease, the tradition was being dismissed as a cloak for “pork barrel” deliveries and self-serving protectionism.

A large collection of Burdick’s papers, primarily documenting his career as a congressman and senator, is located in the Chester Fritz Library at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. There is no biography, but useful biographical sketches can be found in George Douth, Leaders in Profile: The United States Senate (1975), and Alan Ehrenhalt, ed., Politics in America: Members of Congress in Washington and at Home (1982). Numerous details about Burdick’s political career can also be gleaned from the “North Dakota” sections of the Almanac of American Politics (1978–1992). The most useful articles in periodicals and yearbooks are “New Faces,” New Republic (13 Oct. 1958); “Republican Burdick Cheers for Democratic Son,” U.S. News “World Report (14 Nov. 1958); and “Quentin N. Burdick,” Current Biography 1963. A variety of tributes are in Memorial Services Held in the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States Together with Tributes Presented in Eulogy of Quentin N. Burdick, late a Senator from North Dakota (1992). An obituary is in the New York Times (9 Sept. 1992).

Ellis W. Hawley

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