On the back of a Harley, John Walsh reflects on what could have been

Chris Moody
Political Reporter
On the back of a Harley, John Walsh reflects on what could have been


BILLINGS, Mont. — Riding westward and alone across Montana on the seat of the Harley-Davidson he bought to help him process his time at war, Democratic Sen. John Walsh once again had much on his mind.

Just a few days earlier, a New York Times report had laid out in excruciating detail how he had plagiarized a paper while a student at the Army War College. The details of the story called into question Walsh's integrity, judgment and in some eyes, his fitness for office. He didn't know it at the time, but within two weeks Walsh would give up his candidacy for the Montana Senate seat and, months later, see his degree revoked by the Army War College. The document that would ultimately lead to his political demise was a 14-page research paper he wrote to receive a master's degree from the War College in 2007. The paper, titled "The Case for Democracy as a Long Term National Strategy," borrowed heavily from work done by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a Harvard paper.

"I admit I made a mistake. I've made mistakes before in life, and I will probably unfortunately make mistakes again," Walsh told Yahoo News before his Harley ride here in July. "You have to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and move forward."

Walsh, a decorated war veteran who led the Montana National Guard into battle in Iraq, was elected as Montana's lieutenant governor in 2012. He was appointed to the Senate in 2014 after Montana Democratic Sen. Max Baucus joined the Obama administration as ambassador to China. Before the revelation of plagiarism, Walsh had a fighting chance against his Republican challenger, Rep. Steve Daines. In the aftermath, however, polls show Daines to be the inevitable victor, bringing Republicans a step closer to retaking control of the U.S. Senate.

Back in his Senate office in Washington, D.C., a few months later, Walsh reflected on his decision to exit the race, calling it a "difficult choice" after a career spanning more than 30 years in public service.

"The War College paper really became a distraction to what is important to Montanans. The media kind of focused on the paper and took the focus away from the campaign, so I kind of thought the right thing to do was to step aside and so that the focus can be on the issues that are important and that also allows me to focus on what I'm here to do," he told Yahoo News. "It was a difficult choice. We put a lot of time and effort into the campaign and made the announcement last October that I was going to run, and once you make that commitment that becomes, you know, pretty much the entire focus of your life. It was the right decision."

Although he's not seeking election in November, Walsh will serve out his term in the upper chamber. During his brief tenure, Walsh, the first Iraq War veteran in the Senate, has worked to pass a bill aimed at addressing and reducing the suicide rate among current and retired military service members. Upon his own return from war, a doctor prescribed him antidepressants to deal with stress from his experience there.

The slow pace of the Senate, he said, has been frustrating.

"I thought it would be much easier to get things done to sit down and talk with people on the other side of the aisle," Walsh observed, but added that he was hopeful they could pass the suicide prevention bill before his departure in January.

Beyond that, his future is unknown. After losing his degree and a chance at more time in the Senate, Walsh said he plans to take time at home to reflect.

"I hope to spend a lot more time on the Harley. I know that when I leave office in January it will be winter, so hopefully I can get some skiing in back in the backcountry. I'm not sure what my next chapter will be in regard to work, but I do know that public service will be part of my life," Walsh said.

Time on the bike will give him that time to reflect.

"I'm kind of a private person," he said. "I like to get out and spend time with myself. Think about life, where I'm going, what I want to do, what I want to accomplish. When all this is over, what do I want to be remembered for?"