Firing Up the Crucible with Senator Lee Metcalf & Governor Forrest Anderson -- Judge Gordon Bennett in “The Crucible of Change”

Gordon Bennet
Evan Barrett, Executive Producer

This interview/discussion is a segment of the series “In the Crucible of Change” - Montana’s Dramatic Period of Progressive Change [1965-1980] - From a Corporate Colony to a Citizens’ State and the Challenge of Keeping It That Way - An Evan Barrett Telefilm Series; Produced by: Highlands College/Montana Tech & Orphan Girl Productions (Evan Barrett); Executive Producers: Evan Barrett & John Garic; Host/Moderator: Evan Barrett; Produced in the studios of Helena Civic Television (HCTV) – Production unit: Kirsten Faubion, Stephen Maly, Dave Clarke, Kelsea Kimerly, Lauren Fredrickson, Jeanie McLean-Warden; Opening Voice Recording - Ian Hadley; Photos: Montana Historical Society Photo Archives - Tom Cook; Personal Photo Archives of Evan Barrett; Music: “Living Room Jam” & “Island Breeze” - Richard H. Kuschel - The Recording Center - Missoula, Montana; “Orphan Girl” used by permission of Headframe Spirits – John & Courtney McKee; Partially funded by Grants from Humanities Montana (an affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities), Montana History Foundation, and The Greater Montana Foundation (encouraging communication on issues, trends and values of importance to Montanans).


During the lead-up to Montana second progressive era, Lee Metcalf and Forrest Anderson, along with others, kept the progressive flame lit in Montana. Metcalf’s political history is replete with close electoral wins because of his commitment to progressive ideals when the times were not always politically favorable for that. As State Legislator, MT Supreme Court Justice, Congressman and eventually as US Senator, Lee won races by as little as 55 votes because he stuck to his guns as a progressive. In Forrest Anderson’s career as a County Attorney, State Legislator, MT Supreme Court Justice and 12 years as MT Attorney General he was respected as a pragmatic practitioner of politics. But during that entire career leading up to his election as Governor, Forrest Anderson was also a stalwart supporter of the progressive agenda exemplified by FDR and the New Deal, which brought folks out of the Great Depression that was brought on by the bad policies of the GOP and big business. As MT’s second progressive period began in 1965, the first important election was Senator Metcalf’s successful re-election battle in 1966 with the sitting MT Governor, Tim Babcock. And the progressive express was really ignited by the election of Forrest Anderson as Governor in 1968 after 16 years of Republican Governors in MT. Gordon Bennett played a rather unique role, being a confidant of Metcalf and Anderson, both who respected his wide and varied experience, his intellect, and his roots in progressivism beginning with his formative years in the Red Corner of NE Montana. Working with Senator Metcalf and his team, including Brit Englund, Vic Reinemer, Peggy McLaughlin, Betty Davis and Jack Condon among others, Bennett helped shape the progressive message both in Washington DC and MT. Progressive labor and farm organizations, part of the progressive coalition, benefitted from Bennett’s advice and counsel and aided the Senator in his career including the huge challenge of having a sitting popular governor run against him for the Senate in 1966. Metcalf’s noted intern program produced a cadre of progressive leaders in Montana over the years. Most notably, Ron Richards transitioned from Metcalf Intern to Executive Secretary of the Montana Democratic Party (MDP) and assisted, along with Bennett, in the 1966 Metcalf-Babcock race in a big way. As Executive Secretary Richards was critical to the success of the MDP as a platform for Forrest Anderson’s general election run and win in 1968. After Forrest’s gubernatorial election, Richards became Executive Assistant (now called Chief of Staff) for Governor Anderson and also for Governor Thomas Judge. The Metcalf progressive strain, exemplified by many including Richards and Bennett, permeated Democratic politics during the second progressive era. So, too, did the coalition that supported Metcalf and his policies. The progressivism of the period of “In the Crucible of Change” was fired up by Lee Metcalf, Forrest Anderson and their supporters and coalitions, and Gordon Bennett was in the center of all of that, helping fire up the crucible, setting the stage for many policy advancements in both Washington DC and Montana.

Gordon Bennett’s important role in the 1966 re-election of Senator Lee Metcalf and the 1968 election of Governor Forrest Anderson, as well as his wide experience in government and politics of that time allows him to provide us with an insider’s personal perspective of those races and other events at the beginning of the period of progressive change being documented “In the Crucible of Change,” as well as his personal insights into the larger political/policy picture of Montana.

Gordon Bennett, a major and formative player “In the Crucible of Change,” was born in the far northeast town of Scobey, MT in 1922. He attended school in Scobey through the eighth grade and graduated from Helena High School. After attending Carroll College for two years, he received his BA in economics from Carleton College in Northfield, MN. During a brief stint on the east coast, his daily reading of the New York Times (“best newspaper in the world at that time … and now”) inspired him to pursue a career in journalism. He received his MA in Journalism from the University of Missouri and entered the field. As a reporter for the Great Falls Tribune under the ownership and management of the Warden Family, he observed and competed with the rigid control of Montana’s press by the Anaconda Company (the Great Falls Tribune was the only large newspaper in Montana NOT owned by ACM). Following his intellectual curiosity and his philosophical bend, he attended a number of Farm-Labor Institutes which he credits with motivating him to pursue solutions to economic and social woes through the law. In 1956, at the age of 34, he received his Juris Doctorate degree from the Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, DC. Bennett’s varied career included eighteen years as a farmer, four years in the US Army during WWII (1942-46), two years as Assistant MT Attorney General (1957-59) with Forrest Anderson, three years in private practice in Glasgow (1959-61), two years as Associate Solicitor in the Department of Interior in Washington, DC (1961-62), and private law practice in Helena from 1962 to 1969. While in Helena he was an unsuccessful candidate for the Montana Supreme Court (1962) and cemented his previous relationships with Attorney General Forrest Anderson and US Senator Lee Metcalf. Bennett modestly refuses to accept the title of Campaign Manager for either Lee Metcalf (1966 re-election over the challenger, MT Republican Governor Tim Babcock) or Forrest Anderson (his 1968 election as Governor), saying that “they ran their campaigns … we were only there to help.” But he has been generally recognized as having filled that critical role in both of those critical elections. After Governor Anderson’s election in 1968, Bennett was appointed Director of the MT Unemployment Compensation Commission, a position from where he could be a close advisor and confidant of the new Governor. In 1971, Governor Anderson appointed him Judge in the most important jurisdiction in Montana, the 1st Judicial District in Helena, a position he held for seventeen years (1971-88). Upon stepping down from his judgeship, for twenty years (1988-2008) he was a law instructor, mediator and arbitrator. He currently resides in Helena with his wife, Norma Tirrell, former newspaper reporter and researcher/writer. Bennett has two adult children and four grandchildren.