Politics & Policy

North Dakota Journal, Part I

A few weeks ago, I went out to North Dakota, to look into the oil boom. Do you know about that? The boom, I mean — not my trip. North Dakota has the lowest unemployment rate in the country: 3.1 percent. Some people wonder who the unemployed are: There are “Help Wanted” signs everywhere.

Anyway, I have a piece on North Dakota in the current issue — the current issue of National Review. “Booming North Dakota,” it’s called: “What it’s like, what it means.” I hope you will enjoy this piece.

I have other things to say, as I so often do — and I thought I’d scribble you a little travel journal, here online. Kind of as an accompaniment to the magazine piece.

‐As I’ve mentioned in Impromptus before, North Dakota is the least visited state in the Union. Long has been. There are no real tourist attractions in North Dakota — people in this state often point out that Mount Rushmore is in South Dakota, not in North Dakota.

One man tells me, about North Dakota’s being the least visited state: “Some of us like it that way.”

‐But journalists have been coming from all over the world, to report on the boom. North Dakota is one of the most interesting and exciting stories in America: People from the other 49 states have picked up and moved to North Dakota, in order to work. Everyone has a story — an individual story. And those stories can be very moving.

Before coming to North Dakota myself, I read quite a bit of journalism, about this boom. The boom has been a bonanza for journalists, as well as for workers, landowners, entrepreneurs, and others. Some of the best journalism I have ever read has come out of this boom.

It’s kind of hard to screw up — what a story!

‐People have compared what’s happening in North Dakota to the Gold Rush. “It’s a modern-day Gold Rush!” they say. Before, I thought this was maybe a little exaggerated. And it probably is. But not by much, not by much.

‐Someone here quotes Eric Sevareid, the late TV newsman. Sevareid was from North Dakota. He called his native state “a large, rectangular blank spot in the nation’s mind.”

‐I arrive at the Fargo airport, and see a boat in the luggage area. It has been put there by a company, as an advertisement. The company’s slogan: “We sell fun.”


‐My taxi driver has an unusual accent: The accent is Fargo — but it’s also foreign. Turns out he is a Bosnian, who has been here 15 years. He speaks of his home region: “Religion is not the problem. Individuals who spread extremism are the problem.”

Someone tells me later that many people from the Balkans were brought here, thanks to the efforts of Lutheran Social Services.

‐The weather is unseasonably mild — warm, even. A lady tells me, “My birthday is St. Patrick’s Day. I have lived here all my life. This is the first year when there wasn’t snow on my birthday.”

She married a boy from Buffalo (as she puts it). “He said he knew about the cold. I said, ‘No — you know about snow. You don’t know about 30-below and a 50-mile-an-hour breeze.’”

‐You haven’t heard the word “nachos” pronounced until you’ve heard it pronounced in Fargo. “I was so hungry. Those nachos were so good.”


‐Another slogan, this one from Kroll’s Diner: “Sit down and eat.” Simple, memorable, excellent. (The slogan, I mean — I’m not able to test the food, though I’d like to.)

‐This roomy state has fewer than 700,000 (although the population is getting larger every day). It has one U.S. congressman. And one area code. I love one of the nicknames for this state: “The 701.” The seven-oh-one.

‐If you have to appeal to the exact same people — the state’s population — wouldn’t you rather run for one of the U.S. Senate seats than for the lone House seat?

Am I being a prima donna? (Don’t answer that.)

‐Scott Hennen is the conservative radio personality here in Fargo, and throughout the state. The Wall Street Journal dubbed him “the Rush Limbaugh of the Prairie.” He grew up in a radio family, and has all the tools: likability, fluency, curiosity, heart. That’s what it takes.

(Bill Buckley loved that word: “fluency.” He had it too.)

I have a copy of Scott’s book, Grass Roots: A Commonsense Action Agenda for America. The foreword is by Karl Rove. I look forward to reading the book, perhaps on some long plane trips, coming up.

A radio personality, I think, should like people — love people. Root for them, want them to succeed. Want them to have a good life. Scott is like that.

‐He introduces me to Ed Schafer, the former governor of the state. “The Ronald Reagan of North Dakota,” is what Scott calls Schafer.

As Scott tells it, and a lot of other people tell it, Schafer took a state that was flat on its back and got it on its feet. The state was in the doldrums, down in the mouth. Nothing was happening, except decline. People were kind of turning on one another — clawing for pieces of a shrinking pie.

Schafer applied some common sense — government reform, an opening to business — and breathed new life into North Dakota.

This was in the 1990s. Schafer could have kept running, and being reelected, but he stopped after two terms, George Washington-style. Later, he served under another George W., as secretary of agriculture.

Schafer is part businessman, part policy wonk, and a natural leader (from what I can tell). He’s a smart cookie with a common touch. Would be good on the national political stage, I have a feeling.

He tells me a thousand interesting things, one of which is this: He doesn’t endorse candidates (except in special circumstances). The reason: He’s always encouraging people to get into politics, to throw their hat in the ring. Even if they’ve never run before — maybe especially so.

So how can he then turn around and endorse one against others?

‐Let’s end this installment with a linguistic note. How do you pronounce the word “bison”? I’ve always used an “essy” ess — BYE-sin. Here in North Dakota, I hear it with a z-style ess — BYE-zin.

There’s a Buffalo, N.D., but not a Bison, N.D. There is a Buffalo, S.D., and also a Bison, S.D. Those towns aren’t far from each other.

Teams at North Dakota State are “the Bison.” Teams at the University of North Dakota are “the Fighting Sioux” — a much-disputed nickname.

Anyway, I’ll have more items, important and un-, tomorrow. Thanks for joining me today. See you soon.




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