During the New Year's break, a state official asked me whom I considered to be Missouri's "best" governor I had covered.
I paused. The term "best" is a value judgment that government reporters avoid.
So, I decided to take the tactic politicians often use to answer difficult questions.
I chose to answer a question I was not asked: "Who were the most effective governors I'd covered?"
Of the nine I have covered, I named three – Warren Hearnes, Kit Bond and Mel Carnahan.
All three accomplished fundamental changes that left lasting legacies for Missouri we have not seen since.
Warren Hearnes modernized state treatment for the mentally ill, consolidated higher education and endangered his political future to get the legislature to overturn voter rejection of a tax increase that financed major expansions in state services.
His successor, Kit Bond, pushed through a package of campaign finance restrictions, lobbyist disclosures and consumer protections that his own GOP party resisted. The first law requiring public access to campaign finances, government meetings and government documents came under Bond's administration.
In the beginning of the anti-tax era, Mel Carnahan won legislative approval for a major education tax increase without voter approval followed by measures to expand health care for children and establish the role of schools to provide preschool services for working moms.
You may disagree with their policies, but these three got things done that left a legacy unequaled by other governors I've covered.
After my December conversation, I've been pondering what made those three governors so successful.
One element, I think, was courage.
These were self-confident and tough governors who took political risks and challenged their own parties as well as politically entrenched special interests to pursue their objectives.
We reporters saw that courage in their willingness to speak with us without hesitation.
None of those three governors used official "communications directors" to control media access with infrequent "media moments."
When they met with reporters, they did not have a staffer shouting out "time for one more question" to shut off further inquiry by reporters as we now encounter.
Instead, I sensed a real eagerness from those three to engage and explain their views. They sought lengthy discussions about the issues they felt important – even with their opponents.
Carnahan once agreed to public debate with the Missouri Catholic Conference lobbyist about abortion and family planning rights that Carnahan supported.
Warren Hearnes regularly sat in a legislator's office during House sessions to argue with members. His staff would drag me into his office for personal interviews for even the most simple questions I had raised with a staffer.
When Kit Bond met with reporters, we'd sit around a coffee table for endless discussions. Then, when we were finished, he'd ask if TV reporters needed a better visual setting for a second news conference to accommodate the limited time we had with old film cameras.
How different from subsequent governors whose news conferences are given standing at a podium with a boom box.
I don't intend to suggest reporter relations defined successful governors.
Rather, I think that the eagerness we saw from those three governors to engage with us reflected something broader about their drive to lead our state by engagement in public discussions.
Candor, courage, self-confidence, vision and a passion to take risks to lead our state in that vision are the attributes of those three governors I named that I think contributed to their accomplishments.
But, I fear, another factor involves a change in the political climate that has made less possible the political compromises necessary for success.
Political parties have become more ideologically rigid since Hearnes, Bond and Carnahan. Party discipline is more sternly enforced in the legislature.
It has led to an era in which it is far more difficult for governors to build bipartisan support FOR major, divisive public policy issues.
Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and a faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.