In defense of Pete Cenarrusa
For days I had planned on posting a tribute to long-time Idaho public figure Pete Cenarrusa, who died last week at age 95. Unfortunately, it took a disparaging article by somebody who never knew him to get me to do it.
To begin with, it’s strange to speak of “defending” Pete Cenarrusa from anything. He was a wonderful person, somebody many of us admired and respected. But he he was also a lifelong rancher, a tough man who saw his share of battles, political and otherwise.
His parents were immigrants who grew up in neighboring Basque towns but met thousands of miles away in the middle of Idaho. Pete’s first language was Basque, and he kept speaking it for the rest of his life, sometimes filling in with English words along the way. He'd say things like, "Hori egin genuen Nineteen Seventy-Two-en." (“We did that in 1972.”) He could get away with it. If you are somebody like me, who learns a language later in life, that is a hero. To hear him speak Basque was like listening to poetry.
He went to the University of Idaho, where he was on the boxing team and completed degrees in agriculture and animal husbandry (at age 92, he blogged that his favorite courses were nutrition, organic chemistry, and bacteriology — "I would recommend these courses to everyone in college"). He joined the Marines in 1942 and became an aviation instructor. He flew for 59 years, finished more than 15,000 flight hours without an accident.
Eventually, he became interested in politics. He was elected as a Republican to the Idaho House of Representatives in 1950 and served nine terms, including three as House Speaker. In 1967, when Idaho's secretary of state died, the governor appointed Pete to fill the position, which he held until 2003.
He wasn’t a politician from central casting. As Ben Ysursa, his friend and successor in office, said at his funeral, Pete wasn’t a good public speaker; but unlike most politicians, Pete knew it. Still, it’s hard to argue with success: Pete never lost an election, and he was in public office for 52 years, the longest-serving elected official in Idaho history.
When he died in his home last Sunday, Freda, his wife of 66 years, was there with him.
Pete was a kind man, my parents' good friend, somebody who probably helped thousands of others in his life. He seemed like one of those people who would live forever. After I learned of his death, I wanted to write something about him. But what to say? It was a big life.
Then I read an article in the Spanish national newspaper ABC by Javier Ruperez, the former Spanish ambassador to the United States (the Spanish version is unavailable online; here's the English translation). Ruperez calls Pete a "Basque separatist,” a man filled with “blind obstinacy” against Spain “until the very day of his death.” It was a piece written with venom stored up from an event that happened more than a decade ago, then spewed out just a couple days after Pete died.
For full disclosure, my brother is a former Idaho legislator and current Boise mayor who was involved in some of the underlying events. What I'm writing here is only my view. I didn't consult with my brother. He can speak for himself. Pete can't.
And an important bit of background: Ruperez, the author, was kidnapped by the Basque terrorist group ETA in 1979. He was held for a month. After he was released, 26 Basque prisoners were freed, and the Spanish parliament agreed to create a special commission to investigate charges of torture of Basque prisoners.
I can’t imagine what Ruperez went through, and I wish it had never happened. A horrifying event like that would certainly shape one’s world view. But Pete had nothing to do with the kidnapping and would have been the first to condemn it. That’s where Ruperez is wrong about Pete and about Basques generally.
Toward the end of his career, Pete announced the introduction of a declaration in the Idaho legislature that addressed a critical series of events in the Basque Country and Spain. The declaration, officially known as a “memorial,” called on leaders in the United States and Spain to undertake a peace process and end decades of violence under the Franco dictatorship and ETA.
In 2002, Ruperez caught wind of the memorial and immediately flew out to Idaho, alerted the Spanish prime minister, the State Department, and the White House. The draft declaration’s intent to put an end to violence wasn’t good enough for Ruperez, who probably had to look for Idaho on a map before he booked the flight. Suddenly, a statement by the legislature of a sparsely-populated Western state blew up into international news.
As the memorial approached a vote, there was a lot of back and forth among the many parties that had suddenly become involved. I wasn’t there, but I suspect a doctoral candidate could make an interesting dissertation out of the whole affair. You could also write a book about Pete’s reaction, which was pitch perfect (and I’m paraphrasing, but I’m probably close): Since when did the United States start checking with foreign governments about its foreign policy?
In the end, the Idaho legislature unanimously approved this memorial. It described the history of Basques in Idaho, the earlier actions by the Idaho legislature to condemn the repression of Franco’s dictatorship, the efforts of Basques to maintain their culture, and all “but a marginalized fraction” of Basques’ condemnation of violence.
Perfect or not, it was a statement by a democratically elected governent. But it seems to have haunted Ruperez all these years. Before Pete’s body was even buried, Ruperez condemned him as “the inspirer and visible leader” of an effort that turned a blind eye toward violence, an effort that an Idaho Senate leader later purportedly told him was the result of “extreme ignorance by local representatives” about Spanish affairs and “the generalized willingness to please Cenarrusa in the last initiative he took on before retiring.” Ruperez suggests that Pete was not typical of Idaho’s Basque community, that there are other, worthier representatives.
I don’t know Ruperez. But he certainly didn’t know Pete. In writing his piece all these years later, Ruperez probably is trying to please a constituency that has every reason to make Basques out as something they are not, and Pete offered an easy target.
Regardless, it’s a small person who sticks a knife into the back of a man who has just died.
Ruperez closes with a quote he says comes from Mark Twain: "Not all deaths are received in the same way." Maybe that’s true. As somebody who was lucky enough to know Pete Cenarrusa, I can assure Mr. Ruperez that Pete’s death was received with a lot of sadness, with the respect worthy of somebody who did great things with the life he was given.
(Photo by Glenn Oakley from Lava Lake Lamb, where Pete blogged occasionally)