Like an ancient god, Borst performed mighty feats, conjuring the structure of Unigov out of the stuff of dreams, helping to give birth to the lottery and tallying up other accomplishments to list. Five different governors came and went while Borst sat secure in his perch as the chair of the Indiana Senate Finance committee and shaped the state’s economic strategy.
Like an ancient god, he demanded deference. If he found himself challenged in the Finance Committee or on the floor of the Senate, he took a tight-lipped glee in humiliating the person who questioned him, often continuing his assault long after his opponent had signaled surrender.
Gods do not suffer defeat at the ballot box, but politicians do.
In the May 4 primary, Borst’s 38-year career in the Indiana General Assembly came to an apparent end when he finished 48 votes behind a challenger who hadn’t even been born when Borst first took office. Borst has asked for a recount, but the likelihood of him prevailing is about as great as that of the Parthenon being converted into a multiplex.
Because Borst’s power and prominence were so great, the presumption is that some other mighty force must have hurled the thunderbolt that brought him down. The conventional wisdom is that the gambling interests laid him low.
It is true that the gaming lobby did not weep at Borst’s fall, but many other factors brought about his tumble.
The ancient Greeks believed that a person’s greatest strengths also could be one’s greatest weaknesses — that, in fact, triumphs bore with them the seeds of disaster.
That certainly was the case with Larry Borst. A man of incredible gifts — tremendous intelligence, relentless determination and an extraordinary capacity for hard work — he had difficulty disguising his disdain for those not as smart, not as driven, not as hardworking. In fact, he rarely attempted to disguise that disdain.
I remember talking with him once on the floor of the Senate when I was covering the General Assembly for The Indianapolis Star. He wanted to explain how the Legislature worked.
Waving his arm in the direction of his Senate colleagues, several of whom could overhear him, he said that the General Assembly was like a professional sports team. Most of the members of the Senate and the House of Representatives were role players of limited skills.
“When it comes time to get things done — to win — only a few of us know how to step up,” he said. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see one of the supposed “role players” shaking his head and seething.
One doesn’t often hear such statements from successful politicians, who generally want to wheedle their way to consensus. The fact that one did hear such things from Larry Borst was part of his charm. He really did say what he thought, and didn’t care much about the consequences.
That’s an approach that might produce a lasting career in talk radio, but it presents perils for a politician, particularly for one in Borst’s position.
Being the chair of Senate Finance or the House Ways and Means is, by definition, a high-wire act. All of the chair’s decisions and rulings involve money — who gets some and who doesn’t get any or enough. With each budget, the chair angers at least as many people as he or she pleases. Each session brings the moment when those who are angry form a critical mass a little closer.
If one factors in Borst’s determination not to hide the light of his intelligence under a bushel — even he acknowledges that he is not a particularly humble man — then his long hold on power begins to seem like a miracle.
That he maintained his grip for so long is a tribute to his prodigious gifts. Those gifts made him one of the most respected and feared figures in Indiana politics.
Those gifts allowed him to mold and shape the state for more than three decades.
But those gifts also left him isolated when the opposition to him built to threatening levels.
It has been said that all political careers end in defeat. In Borst’s case, it always was possible to see how the end would come.
I remember being over at the Statehouse a couple of years ago. I was lobbying then for the Indiana Civil Liberties Union, and I ran into one of Borst’s fellow Senate Republicans.
He just recently had clashed with Borst, and was preparing to go into a meeting at which he hoped to make peace.
“I’m going in to kiss Larry’s ring,” he joked.
Then he laughed and shook his head ruefully, before adding, “I hope that’s all I have to kiss.”
John Krull is director of the Pulliam School of Journalism at Franklin College.