Last year, former Idaho Statesman political writer Dan Popkey demonstrated his willingness to shill for a corrupt sheriff in more than one way. But despite aiding and abetting an illegal release of information for political purposes, Popkey continued to write for the Statesman until very recently. Thus, it was with my faith in the newspaper’s integrity and judgment severely damaged that I recently picked up a book by now-retired Statesman writer Tim Woodward. Like Popkey, Woodward has been formally recognized for his writing achievements; fortunately, that’s where the similarities end.
The Department of Yarns is a collection taken from Woodward’s contributions to the Statesman between 1988 and 1998 that paints an indispensable picture of life in Idaho. The people and places that made Boise such a great city – and Idaho a great state – is a topic Woodward turns to many times, and his great strength is his brevity in relaying his subjects’ depth of character.
This is not to suggest that Woodward wrote for a self-congratulatory mob. While nearly everyone was cheering Boise’s monstrous population boom, Woodward had the sagacity to give a voice to the “overrun-native faction” who feared being labeled “anti-growth nuts.” He also decried the “uglification” of downtown Boise by officials who valued “development” above all else. (It’s nice to know that time hasn’t changed his mind.) A number of pieces deal with the closing of institutions that gave the city real character – various local restaurants, an old M&W, the “ultimate holdout” farm right next to Boise Towne Square; these are the icons of an era young Boiseans will never know.
Though he was profoundly aware of the tremendous changes taking place – often for the worse –“reactionary” isn’t a good description of Woodward’s tone. Rather, he invited readers to remember that character is shaped by history – an insight that applies to both communities and individuals. More importantly, The Department of Yarns reminds us that with the opening of each new Big-Box store and fast-food franchise, Boise loses some of its uniqueness. But Idahoans need not despair. “No town is too small or remote to have a local character,” Woodward told readers in his Sunday column farewell – even if others may grow too large to preserve theirs.
It’s no surprise Woodward was voted “Best of Boise” and “Best of the Treasure Valley” on a regular basis.
At first blush it seems small-minded to point out that Woodward is an Idaho native and Popkey is not; after all, nobody gets to choose where he is born. Yet however much the importance of our roots is marginalized by the mobility of the modern world, it is a human characteristic too substantial to be erased entirely. Woodward illuminates his subjects with such insight not merely because he is an Idaho native, but because he obviously loves our state – flaws and all – as only a native can. In contrast, Popkey’s cynicism has all the trappings of a journalist on assignment in a foreign land, engaged in a moral and political crusade based on a feeling of superiority. To err is certainly human, but where love and a sense of belonging characterize one’s soul, such an attitude rarely appears – even among political opinion writers.
Popkey’s recent appointment as U.S. Representative Raul Labrador’s press secretary surprised many because it crossed the supposedly cavernous conservative/liberal divide. But more fundamentally, it means Popkey will shift his focus to Washington, D.C. and its Big Important Issues. He will still be a political flack, just on a larger scale. And since the measure of success in modern politics is one’s scope of influence, Popkey’s move is essentially a promotion. What is at first glance a puzzle often turns out to be a reasonable development of disposition and sentiment.
Don’t get me wrong; there are plenty of foreign-born Idahoans who appreciate our home. I don’t doubt that Popkey genuinely enjoys living and working in Idaho; it is, after all, a remarkably enjoyable place. And it will remain enjoyable where appreciation for its character takes precedence over political plot and subterfuge.
For Idahoans who have never contemplated this variety of localism, Tim Woodward’s The Department of Yarns is a great way to get acquainted.