A few days ago in Denver, I attended a remarkable event — a simple reunion of people who once worked for U.S. Sen. William L. Armstrong. There were dozens of people there, sharing fond memories and funny stories of what most still consider the best years of their lives. I spent 10 unforgettable years on his Washington, D.C. staff. >Like everyone else there, I have since been associated with numerous other organizations and foundations that do wonderful work. None of them have regular reunions, nor have the people in those other organizations stayed in close touch or been together frequently. But former Armstrong staffers always have.
This week all over the country, there have been dozens of obituaries, tributes, eulogies, and retrospectives about the life of Bill Armstrong, who passed away this week just three days after the most recent reunion. The outpouring of respect and admiration will continue from unexpected quarters for months, and thousands will attend his funeral. That may seem extraordinary for someone whose career in politics ended a quarter century ago.
The obligatory news stories will recite the basic facts of his life. He was the youngest person ever elected to the Colorado State House in 1962, and state Senate in 1964, the youngest senate majority leader in state history, and one of the youngest members of Congress when elected in 1972. He served three terms in the House and two in the Senate, beginning with his 1978 upset victory over incumbent Sen. Floyd Haskell. Until his passing, he served as president of Colorado Christian University, and brought unprecedented growth to that institution, now ranked in the top two percent of colleges and universities in the country for the quality of its core curriculum. He was also an enormously successful businessman, owning at least a dozen different companies ranging from radio stations to mortgage banks. He served on several corporate boards, including chairmanship of the Oppenheimer Funds.
Other recent political leaders have similarly impressive résumés, so what made Bill Armstrong so different that his passing is such an overwhelming loss to so many? Most of the current students of political science and history never knew him and have no memory of his years in the rough-and-tumble world of state and national politics. But there is a simple reason he will not soon be forgotten.
Bill Armstrong was, quite simply, the most influential person in Colorado politics over the past 40 years.
In the aftermath of Watergate, the Colorado Republican party was dysfunctional. Many “experts” had pronounced it dead after the loss of both U.S. Senate seats, the governor’s office, the Legislature, and hundreds of local offices. Voters had elected George McGovern’s national campaign manager, Gary Hart, to the Senate, and his senior colleague Floyd Haskell was rising in national power. Pundits didn’t give the young Congressman Armstrong much chance of unseating Haskell in 1978. But they didn’t know him well yet.
Armstrong’s victory over Haskell was of Earth-shattering importance in more ways than will fit into a short column. He proved that conservative ideals and founding principles remained popular with voters of all persuasions, winning an almost 60-40 landslide with a campaign highlighting tax cuts, fiscal restraint, strong national defense, and traditional values. His 1984 re-election was even stronger, a nearly 65-35 sweep of all but three counties. He was then elected by his Senate colleagues to chair the Policy Committee, and in 1988 was strongly pushed by national conservatives to run for president — a job he never wanted and decided against seeking.
Armstrong was among the Senate’s most effective and hard-working legislators, showing up early, staying late, and criticizing leadership for taking long holidays while the country’s work remained unfinished. (Sound familiar?) When he spoke, other senators listened — not just because he always spoke with flawless grammar, or because his deep resonant voice was the envy of all, but because he was always true to timeless principles. He often embarrassed other senators into doing the right thing, and his accomplishments were numerous — indexing income taxes to inflation to preserve middle-class purchasing power; protecting benefits of disabled people; shepherding RARE II wilderness legislation for Colorado; “sodbuster” provisions for soil conservation; the 1980s-era tax cuts that fueled a generation of prosperity; the 1986 Social Security reform commission, and so many more.
But the reasons for Armstrong’s astonishing influence have little to do with legislation or business accomplishments. People wanted to be near him because of his unfailing optimism, humility, and humor. He took his work very seriously, but not himself. He was the ultimate teacher in that respect. Above all, he was a man of endless faith and principles — the very definition of integrity. Generations of followers have spent their lives trying to be more like him.