James A. McClure dies: Three-term U.S. senator from Idaho was 86

By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 28, 2011; 8:54 PM

James A. McClure, a three-term U.S. Senator from Idaho who worked to promote nuclear power and who was a leading critic of the federal government's regulation of guns, energy and public lands, died Feb. 26 at his home in Garden City, Idaho, of complications from a series of strokes. He was 86.

Mr. McClure, a Republican, was a small-town lawyer whose political debut came in 1961 when he was elected to the Idaho legislature. He went on to become one of his state's most prominent political figures, serving in Congress for 24 years - first as a representative and then, from 1973 until 1991, as a senator.

Mr. McClure was hawkish on defense and conservative on social issues such as abortion. He also was a fierce proponent of gun rights - he co-sponsored legislation that relaxed federal gun-control laws in 1986 - and was one of the Senate's most outspoken proponents of nuclear power.

He was a member of the Senate's powerful Appropriations Committee and served for nearly a decade as either chairman or ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Those committee roles gave him considerable influence as part of a wave of Rocky Mountain conservatives who sought in the 1980s to bolster the interests of Western ranchers, loggers and miners.

His pro-development stance often put him at odds with conservationists, including Democrat and staunch wilderness advocate Frank Church, the senior senator from Idaho until 1981.

"As a general proposition, the environmental community disagreed with him about 100 percent of the time," said Gaylord Nelson, the former Democratic Wisconsin senator who founded Earth Day and who died in 2005.

In 1974, Mr. McClure was a co-founder of a conservative policy group, the Senate Republican Conference Steering Committee.

Articulate, telegenic and boasting a consistently right-leaning record, he was thought to be a promising candidate to replace Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.) as Senate majority leader in 1984.

Instead, he lost in a field of five that included Ted Stevens of Alaska, Pete Domenici of New Mexico and the eventual winner, Bob Dole, a self-described moderate conservative from Kansas.

Mr. McClure declined to run for reelection in 1990, citing his advancing age and his growing disgust with "wet-finger politics" - his term for legislators testing the winds with public- opinion polls rather than sticking to principles.

James Albertus McClure was born Dec. 27, 1924, in Payette, Idaho. After serving in the Navy during World War II, he graduated from the University of Idaho's law school in 1950. He met his future wife, Louise Miller, while both were singing in the university choir.

Besides his wife of 60 years, survivors include three children, Ken McClure of Garden City and Marilyn Roach and David McClure, both of Portland, Ore.; a sister; six grandchildren; and a great-grandson.

Mr. McClure was a county prosecutor and city attorney in Payette before he was elected to the Idaho state senate in 1960. In 1966, he won a seat in the U.S. House.

In 1972, he was elected to the Senate after accusing his Democratic opponent of endorsing a potato boycott. Evidence of such an endorsement never surfaced, but in Idaho - where potato is king - the mere suggestion helped Mr. McClure win handily.

After his congressional service, Mr. McClure started McClure, Gerard & Neuenschwander, a lobbying firm in Washington, and was a partner in a Boise law firm.

He also served as a Kennedy Center trustee and was a member of the boards of companies including Idaho Power, Coeur D'Alene Mines, and the Boise Cascade timber corporation.

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