Washington — Not long ago, he was quietly practicing land-and-irrigation law with his father in the firm of McClure & McClure in the Snake River hamlet of Payette, Idaho (pop. 4,521).
Today Sen. James A. McClure (R) of Idaho finds himself, with startling unexpectedness, mapping the energy and public-land policies of the United States as chairman-to-be of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Presidential transition-team members, oil company representatives, and national news media reporters beat a path to his office in the once-placid fifth-floor reaches of the Senate's Dirksen Building. But he receives them all with the same earnest affability of the smalltown lawyer that he was back in the 1950s.
In shirt sleeves and settling into a comfortable armchair, he collects for a visitor his thoughts about what changes may lie ahead under his chairmanship.
The message: less government involvement in the use of the nation's natural resources, but probably not as much less as many have anticipated from the Republican capture of the presidency and the Senate.
"There will be more reliance on individual initiative outside the government, and less on government regulation and direction," Senatore McClure says.
But he dissents from those fellow freemarket conservatives who suggest that "unleashing the oil companies" might return the country to the palmy days of energy self- sufficiency.
"We're never going to stop importing oil," he says flatly. "Energy independence means reducing our vulnerability of being too dependent on imports -- to become independent in our own judgements, short of a total cutoff of imports. That [end of all imports] would be unnecessary and unwise. But greater independence is feasible, in fact, absolutely essential."
Neither does lightening the government's regulatory hand mean for him dismantling the US Department of Energy, despite President-elect Ronald Reagan's much publicized campaign threat to do so.
"That was more symbolic than intended to be literal," McClure explains, a way of "dramatizing" the determination to change the government's role in the field of energy.
McClure is no defender of Washington bureaucracy. He recently slashed his own personal staff by 15 percent as an economy- begins-at-home gesture. But he expects the Energy Department to remain, acting more as a catalyst than an administrator.
As one of Capitol Hill's most ardent advocates of nuclear power, McClure's impending takeover of the energy committee buoys the hopes of this embattled industry and worries the antinuclear movement.
His wish-list of nuclear initiatives includes: policies for reprocessing burned nuclear fuel (banned by Presidents Ford and Carter out of concern for proliferation of atomic weapons), breeder reactor research (delayed by Carter), stepped-up research on light-water reactors and nuclear power plants.
But such congressional interest in nuclear energy is hardly new. The Senate Energy committee and the rest of Congress have long supported most of these measures.
McClure's rise to chairmanship also raises high expectations among Westerners waging a "sagebrush rebellion" against Washington's administration of the millions of acres of federal lands there.
A gathering last month in Salt Lake City of the movement's leaders, euphoric over the election results, produced demands for transferring most of the federal acreage to state control.
But McClure speaks instead of revising federal land-management policies to "reduce the pressures "behind the discontent.
He foresees "some" turnover of federal lands by reactivating laws already on the statute books. But he anticipates "no wholesale divestiture."