David Boren: The student body and the body politic

Twenty years ago on Monday, U.S. Sen. David Boren because President David Boren. Not President of the United States David Boren, as it once appeared he might someday be, but President of the University of Oklahoma David Boren.

Twenty years ago, Boren saw what Congress was going to become — what it was already becoming — and wanted no part of it. The keenest political mind this state has ever produced, elected to a third term just four years earlier with 83 percent of the vote, decided it was time to move on.

The national polarization and the rightward shift in Oklahoma politics that Boren’s inner Geiger counter detected two decades ago nears toxic levels. Politically, the differences between Boren and the man who succeeded him, Jim Inhofe, grow wider with each passing year.

Parenthetically, it is interesting to note the career trajectories of Boren and Inhofe. They entered the Oklahoma Legislature the same year, in 1966, and Boren defeated Inhofe in the 1974 gubernatorial race. The way Inhofe tells it, Boren was supposed to beat up embattled incumbent David Hall in the Democratic primary, leaving the way open for Inhofe to win the general election. Inhofe didn’t count on the 33-year-old Boren winning the whole thing.

Politically, Boren remained in the ascendency until 1994. Inhofe, by then First District congressman, defeated Boren-like Democrat Dave McCurdy in a bare-knuckled fight that effectively ended Democratic dominance of Oklahoma politics.

This shift did not occur only in Oklahoma or only from one party to another. In Kansas, Republicans such as Nancy Kassebaum and Robert Dole gave way to Sam Brownback, Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran. In Texas, conservative Democrats such as John Tower and Lloyd Bentsen — one of Boren’s mentors — have been replaced by the likes of John Cornyn and Ted Cruz. One can theorize but only that about the causes and effects of such a startling evolution.

Boren became a university president because he believed it was his best chance to have a lasting impact on his state. His proteges are just now beginning to move into positions of state leadership. One, a Republican, is speaker of the House of Representatives. Several are in the Legislature. Thousands of others are scattered through the state, through all walks of life.

Twenty years from now, we will know better whether David Boren did indeed leave the legacy he so much desires.

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