On Friday night, thousands who were gathered at the Western Conservative Summit in Denver paused for a few moments to share a tribute to Bill Armstrong, the father of the modern Republican Party in Colorado, whose civic work across six decades has inspired multitudes and established Armstrong as a role model for the modern conservative.
“There’s never been a Republican in Colorado like Bill Armstrong. He’s been a phenomenon ever since he stepped on the stage,” says former U.S. Sen. Hank Brown in a video appreciation of the man whose seat Brown won in 1990, after Armstrong decided against seeking a third term in the U.S. Senate.
Brown noted that Armstrong, 79, was the youngest legislator ever elected in Colorado when he began his public career, and he followed that by more firsts, including becoming the state’s youngest congressman soon after that.
Recalling the early 1980s, political consultant Floyd Cirulli says in the video, “It became clear that Ronald Reagan was maybe going to be the greatest president of that era. There was Bill Armstrong, sort of in advance, representing Colorado with those same values, being authentically conservative.”
From tax relief to term limits and the push for a balanced federal budget— there’s hardly a hallmark of modern conservatism that doesn’t bear Armstrong’s influence.
Equally important, friends say, have been the lives he’s touched, the careers he’s fostered, the community he’s created by gathering smart, dynamic people.
The audience was visibly moved by the 10-minute video, produced by longtime Armstrong aide and confidant Walt Klein, and emotions swelled as Jeff Hunt, director of Colorado Christian University’s Centennial Institute, the summit’s sponsor, urged those who have known Armstrong to remember him and introduced him to the rest.
“We stand on the legacies of giants,” Hunt said, naming Armstrong and John Andrews, Hunt’s predecessor as the institute’s director.
There was more than a tinge of melancholy blanketing the summit. Armstrong had announced earlier this year he would be stepping down after nearly a decade as president of Colorado Christian University, and in recent days, following a lengthy battle with cancer, his health had taken a turn for the worse.
On Saturday, two days into the summit — in its seventh year, it’s grown to be the largest gathering of conservatives outside Washington, D.C. — a group of former Armstrong staffers and volunteers met to reminisce, trade stories and catch up, in what has become a regular occurrence over the decades.
“One of the things he never forgot were the people who worked with him in the House and in the Senate and in the campaigns,” recalls Klein, who first went to work for Armstrong as chief of staff at his congressional office, then managed his successful 1978 Senate bid and later handled media for the 1984 re-election campaign.
“Over the years, Bill would regularly hold get-togethers here in Colorado to bring former staff members and their families together for an evening or a luncheon or a celebration. There’s probably no former elected official who was more persistent and consistent about keeping track of the people that had helped him along the way,” Klein says.
“We’ve been friends for life as a result of the early years. He’s been a mentor for me every step of the way.”
There are likely too many to count who feel the same, all veterans of Armstrong’s campaigns and decades in public office.
Dick Wadhams worked nine years for Armstrong, first running his Senate office in Pueblo and then working out of Washington and Denver, finally as Armstrong’s state director. When Armstrong came home after 12 years in the Senate, Wadhams turned to managing Brown’s successful Senate run and then went on to a career managing campaigns, eventually serving two terms as state GOP chairman.
“They were wonderful years,” Wadhams recalls. “He was a wonderful man to work for, and he’s remained a friend since then.”
Wadhams says that when Armstrong first hired him he imposed one condition, and decades later it stands as a testament to Armstrong’s character. He told Wadhams he’d only hire him if he went back to college and finished his degree, since he’d gotten involved in political work and stopped a year short.
“That gives an insight into how interested he was in the people who worked for him,” says Wadhams, who indeed completed his degree soon after. “He didn’t know me well, yet he took that interest. I look back and marvel that he did that.”
What’s remarkable, Klein says, is how nearly everyone who came together over the weekend to remember their time with Armstrong related a version of the same point.
“As they talked about it, they said this was the seminal experience in their professional life and in their personal life,” he says. “Some were with him for a couple years, a few were with him for all 12 years in the Senate — but whether it was just a short period of time or the entire tour of duty when he was an elected official, even though they’ve all gone on to do interesting things in their lives, for almost everybody the highlight of their career was the time they spent with Bill Armstrong.”
Pausing for a moment, his voice breaking slightly, Klein added, “They were talking about it being the best year — the best job they’ve ever had.”
Between his terms in the Legislature and Congress, Armstrong served 28 years in elected office, and Wadhams says his departure from public life will mark the passing of an era.
Armstrong won a seat in the Colorado House of Representatives in 1962, when he was just 25 years old, and then won a state Senate seat in the next election. After winning a second term in 1968, he was elected the youngest Senate majority leader in the state’s history. In 1972, Armstrong won a seat in Congress representing the 5th District and went on to re-election twice before challenging U.S. Sen. Floyd Haskell, the incumbent Democrat, in 1978.
Armstrong won that race, taking just shy of 60 percent of the vote — the same year Gov. Dick Lamm, a Democrat, scored exactly that share of the vote to win his second term — and cruised to re-election in 1984 over Democratic challenger Lt. Gov. Nancy Dick.
“Bill Armstrong’s election to the Senate in 1978 is one of the watershed elections of the Colorado Republican Party,” Wadhams says. “Four years before that, Watergate had emasculated the party, wiping out an entire generation of leaders. You can trace the elections of Hank Brown, Wayne Allard, Bill Owens and others to that election. Look at all the things that emanated from that ’78 campaign. It really created — in many ways, it defined the Republican Party for the next 30 years.”
It’s a sentiment that’s widely shared in Colorado.
“The impact that Sen. Armstrong has had on Colorado politics and this state is nothing short of remarkable,” says Ryan Call, a former successor to Wadhams as chair of the state Republican Party.
Armstrong was born in Fremont, Nebraska, on March 16, 1937. He attended Tulane University and the University of Minnesota and served as a 1st lieutenant in the Army National Guard. He married the former Ellen Eaton, and the couple has two children, Anne and Wil. In addition to his public service, Armstrong owned radio and television stations, including KEZW-AM in the Denver area and KPVI-TV in Pocatello, Idaho, and at one time was chief executive of the Colorado Springs Sun newspaper.
A noted aficionado of ice cream and pizza, Armstrong also drove a 1973 Pontiac for years after friends and family urged him to trade it in.
“Once you started working for him, you were part of the family,” Klein says. “That’s the way people were treated.”
Spend even a few minutes talking with Armstrong’s friends and colleagues — and even political adversaries — and there’s a word that’ll come up.
“He was the consummate gentleman,” Wadhams says. “Bill Armstrong is a seriously conservative Republican, but he was such a gentleman at all times. He had this undaunted optimism that pervaded everything he did.” He pauses to reflect. “Could it really have been nine years I worked with him? It seemed like a month. I loved working with Bill Armstrong — he just was an inspiration to be around.”
Former U.S. Rep. Pat Schroeder, a Denver Democrat elected to her first term in Congress the same year as Armstrong, regularly clashed with the Republican on policy matters. But she echoes Wadhams’ assessment.
“Bill was very conscientious and a hard worker,” she says. “We often didn’t agree but could always talk and often found middle ground. That is how government should be. He served Colorado well and never played games or tried to straddle issues. He was a gentleman and an honorable colleague.”
Klein recalls that even as Armstrong ascended the ranks of power and influence, he worked hard at staying humble.
“In the House and in the Senate,” Klein says, “he had a gigantic cork bulletin board made, and he hung it right next to his desk. He’d pin actual letters on it, the nastiest letters he would get — people writing to complain about a vote he cast or something he’d done — written in the most vitriolic language. Bill would write a wonderful response, even to the most critical of the letter writers, and send it off. But he would place the nasty letter on the bulletin board so that anybody who came to see him would see these letters.”
Klein chuckles at the memory.
“I never asked him directly why he did that, but I came to the conclusion that Bill was posting those letters as a reminder to himself, to help him keep his frame of reference anchored. It was a reminder that, as a congressman or a senator, you’re never going to make everybody happy, so what you need to do is what you believe is the right thing to do in your own heart and your own mind, taking into consideration all the relevant facts of the situation.”
Armstrong was the only senator to sit on three major financial committees — the Budget Committee, the Finance Committee and the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee— and he chaired the Social Security and Income Maintenance and Financial Institutions subcommittees.
He won the National Taxpayers Union’s Taxpayers’ Best Friend award every year from its creation until his retirement from the Senate. Washingtonian magazine named him “gutsiest member of the Senate,” citing his “willingness to fight spending abuses even at the risk of offending the Senate’s clubbiness.”
Armstrong took a shot at the go-along, get-along atmosphere on his very first day as a senator, Klein recalls. Armstrong, he notes, had hired the recently retired Senate parliamentarian to tutor him in the chamber’s arcane procedures, and he put them to work right after being sworn in.
Russell Long, a Louisiana Democrat, chaired the Senate Finance Committee and was known as the dean of the rules and regulations that governed the Senate. When Long unexpectedly presented a bill to authorize an increase in the national debt, Armstrong stood to offer an amendment, and because of his training in procedures, he presented it in a way that it wasn’t something Long could ignore without allowing a vote.
“For two days the Senate was deadlocked while Russell tried to figure out a way to get around what Armstrong had offered. Armstrong lost the vote, but only with the concession that it was the last time a debt increase could be offered without proper notice, and they had to provide the opportunity for other amendments to be offered to that bill,” Klein recalls.
“That’s the kind of senator he was,” he adds. “He never tried to accomplish anything by name-calling or demeaning his opponents. He learned the rules and regulations, and he used them in a way that made him a very important contributor for the 12 years when he was in the Senate.”
Armstrong made his mark in the Senate perhaps most enduringly by sponsoring legislation to index tax brackets, putting an end to “bracket creep,” where taxpayers would find themselves paying higher rates merely as a result of the steep inflation of the 1970s and 1980s. He was instrumental on numerous other issues, including allowing C-SPAN to televise Senate proceedings, battling for victims of forced labor in the Soviet Union and strengthening enforcement of child support obligations. Armstrong also played a key role in policies that put the Social Security Administration on sound financial footing in the 1980s.
When he was inaugurated as president of CCU in 2007, Armstrong told the story of Eric Liddell, the runner immortalized in the movie “Chariots of Fire,” who “electrified the world” in the 1924 Olympics.
“The thing I want to ask you to recall, particularly as you ask God what he’d have you do,” he said, “is what Eric Liddell said when they asked him, ‘Why do you run, why do you train, why do you push yourself in this way?’ He said, ‘God made me fast, and when I run, I feel God’s pleasure.’” When members of the CCU community go about their work, Armstrong concluded, “I believe, and I certainly will pray, that you feel God’s pleasure.”
Klein recalled a story — many stories, really — about the impact Armstrong had on the people whose paths he’d crossed, particularly the thousands who had played a part in the 1978 and 1984 Senate campaigns.
“When the campaign was over, we produced a little over 25,000 personal thank-you notes, which Bill Armstrong signed himself, many of them with personal notes that went to people who had volunteered to help on the campaign and to people who had made financial contributions,” Klein says. “Over the years, I can’t tell you how many times I have received a phone call — I’ll get a call from Bill, and he’ll say, ‘Do you remember so-and-so? I think he was on the campaign.’
“One time, he said he’d had a call from this man’s sister, lives in Montana, and she called to say, ‘He’s in hospice, he’s not expected to live very long,’ and she was wondering if it was possible for him to give a call because she knew nothing would make him feel better than to spend a few minutes on the phone with Bill Armstrong. So I called Shari Williams” — an Armstrong alum, she heads the Leadership Program of the Rockies — “and she found a couple newspaper stories about this guy. Right in the middle of a bio, he listed that he was in charge of Businessmen for Armstrong in 1984. He was a prominent businessman in Colorado — on his deathbed — and one of the last conversations he’d like to have is with Bill Armstrong, because the experience he had as a volunteer in Bill’s campaign was a life-altering experience for him.”
Klein stops for nearly a minute before being able to continue.
“In the last 10 years, I’ve probably had a dozen calls like that, where we’re trying to track somebody down because a spouse or relative is trying to put Bill Armstrong with them before they pass,” he says.
Klein pauses again, each word difficult.
“I was hoping that Bill Armstrong would give the eulogy at my funeral, because I’ve been convinced this guy would live forever,” he says.
“It’s not going to happen that way.”
Another pause, this one brief.
“He will be remembered.”