My father had a marvelous sense of humor and he would often joke about the little town where he grew up in western Nebraska. Dad would say, “Most little towns have a town character. Where I grew up, the characters had a town.”
Like Dad’s hometown, Idaho hasn’t limited itself to one political character. We’ve had more than our share over the years. One-term Senator Glen Taylor comes to mind. A singing cowboy before he got into politics, Taylor ran for Vice President in 1948 on the Progressive Party ticket, lost his re-election, tried twice more to return to Washington, and settled for inventing the “Taylor Topper,” a toupee line that made him a millionaire. Now, that’s a character.
No list of Idaho characters would be complete, of course, without Steve Symms, a libertarian apple farmer from Caldwell who parlayed his charm and quotable one-liners about guns and government into stints in both the House and Senate. The former editorial page editor of the Lewiston Tribune, Bill Hall, used to joke that when Symms was starting out in politics, Bill would regularly refer to him as “an engaging kook.” Hall said, the late, great Idaho Statesman political writer, John Corlett, had to set him straight. Symms, who went to Washington to “take a bite out of government” and stayed on to lobby, was, according to Corlett, more kook than engaging.
Ol’ John should have known, he covered Idaho’s political characters all the way back to William Borah.
There are plenty of other political characters in Idaho’s history but, if forced to nominate just one for “character in chief,” it would be former Congressman George Hansen who was back in the news the last few days. The Idaho Supreme Court ruled that Hansen owed $700,000 to people he defrauded in a years-old case involving an investment scheme. Considering that charges of financial misconduct dogged him for years, its not too surprising that George Hansen reached the front page again with a story about financial misconduct.
Hansen has been out of public office since 1985, and anyone new to the state or its politics since then would be hard pressed to appreciate Hansen, the character, or understand his Ron Paul-like appeal over a long period in Idaho.
Long before there were Tea Parties or Birthers or Ron Paul, there was Big George, or George the Dragon Slayer, prowling the Second District of Idaho and teeing off against the federal government. Hansen ran twice unsuccessfully for the United States Senate, but somehow managed 14 years, spread over three decades, in the House of Representatives. Hansen wasn’t the first, nor last, to get elected time and again by trashing the federal government, but he may have been one of the more successful. For someone who spent a good part of his life in government, he sure hated government.
Not to be unkind to the Tetonia native, and he was hard not to like on a personal basis and I interviewed him many times on television, I cannot recall a single legislative accomplishment during his time in Washington. He did generate lots of headlines, however, as a highly quotable, outspoken foe of the IRS and OSHA, among other federal agencies, and he perennially turned up on the list of “most conservative members” of Congress.
Then-Rexburg college professor Richard Stallings defeated Hansen in 1984, while the incumbent congressman was a convicted felon. Hansen had failed to disclose certain information on required disclosure forms, but even with that heavy baggage hanging from his big frame, Hansen lost re-election by only 170 votes. It is still the closest Congressional race in Idaho history.
The Spokesman-Review’s Betsy Russell has a good take on Hansen and his appeal. For one thing, at 6-feet-8 and close to 300 pounds, the guy dominated a room. Big George was an aggressive retail politician; shaking hands, slapping backs, smiling and waving and moving on to the next voter. With his breathless, impassioned speaking style, Hansen could deliver a stem winder. One of his great assets was his attractive, articulate wife, Connie. Hansen often tellingly joked that Connie should have been the member of Congress. Heads would nod in agreement.
As a conservative Republican, Hansen also benefitted from having his political base in normally Democratic Pocatello. Hansen was once the mayor of Alameda, an Idaho town that no longer exists thanks to it having been incorporated years ago into Pocatello.
One of the last times I saw him he was boarding an airplane in Pocatello with two of those big brief bags that lawyers use when they are headed into court. But George had his cases stuffed full of his anti-IRA tome. I think he must have been on a book tour.
One of Hansen’s most memorable stunts was to travel to Iran during the embassy hostage crisis there in 1979. Much to the chagrin of the Carter Administration, he set up shop and tried to personally intercede with the Iranian government. Nothing came of it, but he generated a lot of media attention, including, I admit, a very expensive, half-hour satellite uplink interview that I conducted with him. Considering the perilous financial condition of public television in those days, I’m still not sure how my boss let that happen. Then again, George Hansen was always great copy.
Unfortunately, while the political characters usually do make the best copy, it is not often that they make the best public officials.