I have a string of enduring memories of former Idaho Congressman George V. Hansen that date back nearly 40 years. Hansen died this week in Pocatello at age 83 and to the extent he deserves a place in Idaho and American political history it will be as one of the most controversial politicians the state, maybe the nation, produced in the second half of the 20th Century.
On one memorable occasion years ago I ran into Hansen as he struggled to squeeze his six foot, six inch, nearly 300 pound frame into an undersized Horizon Airlines plane on a particularly hot summer afternoon in Pocatello. He was huffing and puffing, perspiration streaming down his face, but every hair on his slicked down pompadour in place, packing his own luggage, smiling his big grin, off again to slay his dragons.
Hansen, whose spectacularly controversial career as an elected official came to end in 1984, was not long out of jail for failure to file the required federal financial disclosure forms when I encountered him that day in Pocatello. Big George recognized me – I’d interviewed him many times, since publicity good or bad was the jet fuel of his political success – and, of course, he said hello and asked how I was doing. In turn I asked what he was up to and he pointed to the two oversized lawyer-style briefcases that were stuffed with paperback copies of his book assailing the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Hansen was on-the-road again that day selling his books and preaching his never ending gospel about the evils of the IRS.
In his death, as in his life, we will no doubt hear strongly mixed assessments of his career as, ironically, the mayor of an Idaho town (Alameda) that no longer exists, as perhaps the most conservative Congressman in Washington over seven terms spread from the early 1960’s to the early 1980’s, as an unsuccessful three-time U.S. Senate candidate, as a felon who eventually saw his conviction overturned in a cloud of classic Hansen confusion, and later as a private citizen ordered to repay hundred of thousands of dollars to investors he bilked. The one consistent element of his wild career was his determined crusade against the IRS, a crusade conducted by a publicity generating gadfly who regularly neglected to file his own federal tax returns.
Hansen fits squarely into the gallery of Idaho political characters from Sen. Herman Welker to Rep. Bill Sali who largely held political office to fight against government, generating big headlines by tilting at windmills as they played fast and loose with political and personal ethics, not to mention the truth. It is not difficult to recall Hansen’s legislative accomplishments since there really weren’t any, but it has always been difficult to keep straight his various brushes through and around the rules most of the rest of us play by.
As news of Hansen’s death spread this week a friend reminded me once again of the spectacular story of Hansen’s failure over many years to file federal tax returns. The blockbuster story was broken by then-Lewiston Morning Tribune reporter Jay Shelledy who, as he wrote years later, had been tipped off by various anonymous sources about the fact the the self-styled congressional critic of the IRS apparently so disliked the agency that he took it upon himself not to file his own tax return. Hansen denounced the story, the newspaper and the IRS and his southern Idaho constituents promptly re-elected him, perhaps because they appreciated the audacity of his denials.
Shelledy, a brilliant reporter who went on to edit newspapers in Moscow and Salt Lake City and teach young journalists at Louisiana State University, revealed the story behind the Hansen tax returns in 1988 after the death of former Idaho state IRS director Cal Wright, who had been one of Jay’s confirming sources. The reporter had promised the sources confidentiality in exchange for information about a story of an elected official flaunting the law. Idaho being Idaho and Hansen being a darling of the right wing the story hardly registered on his political career.
Ironically officials in the Nixon Administration were the first to tumble to Hansen’s lack of tax filing while vetting the out-of-work former Congressman for a position at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1969. Hansen had given up his House seat the year before to challenge then-Sen. Frank Church. Despite Hansen’s best efforts to label Church as soft on Communism, Church won the election handily.
According to Shelledy’s account, Nixon’s Attorney General John Mitchell, a man who knew something about breaking the law and going to jail, became aware of Hansen’s tax problems early in 1969. Wanting to avoid a political problem for the White House, Mitchell pulled strings. The attorney general, Shelledy wrote, ordered “the FBI and the IRS to let Hansen file back returns, pay what was owed, and forget about any legal action” that might embarrass the administration and, of course, derail Hansen’s federal appointment. Hansen, the great critic of the IRS, quietly flew to Boise and presented himself at the state IRS office on a Saturday, a day when the office was normally closed, to hand over the late tax returns and a check. He went on to serve several years in a variety of top positions in the Nixon Administration and only years later did the story came to light thanks to Shelledy’s reporting.
It is impossible to escape the irony of a guy who made attacks on the federal tax agency the center point of his long political career, benefiting from the agency bending – or breaking – the rules to cover up his own repeated flaunting of federal law. The story is a lesson about Hansen, of course, but also one more indictment of the rottenness, 40 years after his resignation, at the core of the presidency of Richard Nixon. Years later Hansen was implicated in a massive investment scheme that cost one Idaho couple $300,000. In denying his appeal of a judgment that required him to repay the money, the Idaho Supreme Court said: “Hansen’s argument strangely assumes that he was unaware of his own assets until 2007. Moreover, there is no reason why the judgment would become inequitable simply because the judgment debtor cannot afford to pay it.” That sounds remarkably consistent with so much of Hansen’s tangled and genuinely strange career.
Say this much for Big George: he was a true believer of the Tea Party-type and a buddy of Ron Paul before such politics were fully in vogue. Never in doubt, Hansen styled himself a defender of the little guy against the excesses of Big Government. Google him today and you’ll find Big George lionized as a great defender of the Constitution who went to jail for his beliefs. At the same time, Hansen was a brilliant retail campaigner and as good a politician at working a room as I have ever seen, skills that were at the heart of much of his appeal to voters. Hansen was a rough and tough campaigner who played the race card against Frank Church in 1968, linking Church’s support for civil rights legislation with being soft on crime and Commies. When many Americans felt a growing disenchantment with the nation’s misadventures in Vietnam, Hansen criticized Church’s stand and argued for winning at any cost even if that meant using nuclear weapons. Seldom has a politician been so spectacularly wrong on so many things over such a long period.
Still it was hard not to like him on a personal basis. Hansen was a gregarious, fast talking, glib and even strangely charming salesman of his own brand of political hokum. He remembered names and genuinely seemed to be interested when he inquired about your health and how your kids were doing. Hansen would often introduce his gracious and politically astute wife – Connie Hansen died in 2013 – as the brains in the family and the one who should be in Congress. As Big George delivered that line you could often see heads nodding in agreement.
Reporters loved to interview him because he was good copy and he rarely failed to deliver with his analysis of the latest government outrage or administrative overreach, while skillfully evading every tough questions about his own foibles. When Hansen somehow managed to fly to Teheran in 1979 and literally placed a card table outside the U.S. Embassy in order to negotiate the release of American hostages, the image was unbelievable and irresistible. At the time I was producing a daily public television program in Idaho and, despite what seemed like the outlandish cost involved, my boss authorized a live satellite uplink so we could feature an interview with the Congressman immediately on his return from what, of course, was a failed mission to free the captives. No hostages were released by the intervention of the big, lumbering Congressman from Idaho, but Big George Hansen nevertheless commanded front pages. Like a Huey Long or Lester Maddox of any earlier time, one has to admire the sheer temerity of his career. Even in defeat in 1984, when Richard Stallings and his own ethics finally combined to end his run, Hansen lost by fewer than 200 votes. He had succeeded for a long time in fooling most of the people.
George Hansen’s obituaries mention his self-described identity as “a dragon slayer” of out-of-control federal agencies, and for sure the old Pocatello insurance salesman played his part in crafting his own bigger-than-life political personality. May God rest his soul, sadly the old dragon slayer never bested his own ethical dragons over 40 years in public life and it will be for those incredible shortcomings that he’ll be remembered, that and the fact that even Idaho will have trouble producing another politician so spectacularly over the top as George Hansen.