Andy Rooney, resident gadfly at CBS-TV's "60 Mintues" show, may not have realized it at the time, but a year ago last summer, when he took after the "Famous Potatoes" motto on this state's license plates, he poked a stick at an old Idaho wound.
Denouncing all license plate slogans as "cheap tricks" and unnecessary billboard clutter on America's highways, Rooney singled out Idaho plates as the absolute topper.
"How'd you like to work hard for 10, 15, years, save maybe $18,000, buy youself a new Cadillac and then drive around all day with a sign on the back that says "Famous Potatoes," Rooney said. "If a state's any good, I imagine my grandfather would have said, 'It shouldn't have to advertise.'"
For nearly three decades, and with the blessing of a half-billion-dollar-a-year potato industry, a potato legend of some sort has reigned over Idaho's two-lane blacktops. And for almost just as long the slogans have been a subject of controversy.
Spuds are fine for eating, contend the license plate critics, but in luminous green letters on a white back-ground they're half-baked.
Taking the cue from the spud plate debaters, Idaho's largest newspaper has put Famous Potatoes up for reelection. "If you're one of those people who would like to pell famous potatoes off the plates forever, then you have an obligation to suggest something better," an editorial in Boise's Idaho Statesman challenged readers in September.
The response has been enough to distract even the most diligent farmer from this fall's potato harvest. Within three weeks the newspaper received more than 250 slogans, ranging from the unexceptionable "The Gem State," "Land of Wilderness" and "God's Country" to "idaho's What America Was" and "God, Guts and Guns."
"My state deserves to be known for its beauty, not its potatoes," said Mrs.
F. Luke Roberts, who wrote in to suggest "The Beautiful State."
"Anything but "Famous Potatoes," pleaded Fred McKennon, a drywall contractor who offered "Wild River Country."
Some of the most descriptive new slogans have reflected an element of conservatism. A group of Boise city workers came up with "Sons of Birchers," "Sawteeth and Rednecks" and "Mom, Flag and Potato Pie."
Many have advocated an end to license plate legends altogether. Robert C. Krupp, a southwestern Idaho rancher, said, "A license plate is a license plate, not a billborad for a select group."
The feedback, however, has not been unanimously anti-potato. A member of the State Potato Commission wrote that it would be "too bad at this point to let the Statesman and a few special interest groups destroy the prestige Idaho enjoys all over the country."
Noting that Idaho is "hardly the Land of Lincoln or the Land of One Thousand Lakes," Public Utilities Commissioner Perry Swisher warned that a slogan change might only create confusion. "The word 'Idaho' is hard enough for people to absorb," Swisher said.
And some readers, though unhappy with "Famous Potatoes," have been unable to tear themselves away from the state's tuber image. Among their suggestions -- "Super Spud," "French Fry Country," "Ski the Great Potato," "Spiffy Spuds," 'Potatoes Will Set You Free" and "Give Me an Idaho Baker Anytime." One Idahoan countered in discust, "How about 'Stove Top Stuffing?'"
Environmentally minded residents, concerned that a more poetic slogan might give Idaho too favorable an image and attract more people to the state, submitted suggestions aimed at keeping potential immigrants away.
Prominent Boise businessman W.C. Minnick offered "The Tick Fever State." Construction worker Jim Harrison wroter that "We don't want Idaho to fill up like a low spot in a lake," and suggested using "Rattlesnake Country," accompanied by a picture of a serpent coiled and ready to strike.
But it is too soon to tell whether the plate campaign will succeed in striking "Famous Potatoes" from Idaho plates forever.
A panel of six judges, including Gov. John Evans, has been appointed to review the suggestions and choose six favorites. Their entries will then be placed on a ballot to the published in the Statesman.
Should the campaign come up with a suitable alternative, even the most vehement of spud plate critics sadly concede that the change could mark and end of an era. "Famous Potatoes?" said Stephen Anerson, a Boise tour operator. "I think it's hideous. But it does have a certain amusement value."