George Hansen

idaho RANDY
STAPILUS
 
Idaho

Idaho has seen no retail political campaigners better than George Hansen, the former member of Congress who died last week. A few may have been as capable, but none better.

In campaigning mode, he was tireless and fearless of going anywhere and talking to anyone. At the handshake he was charming and just a bit self-effacing; that touch of humility was the key added ingredient. I remember following him one day in one of his campaigns for the U.S. House – it may have been 1978 – culminating for me as he relentlessly worked the late afternoon shift change at the Pocatello Simplot and FMC plants. The plants were having a bad air day and the air was full of gunk which rained down on us. Hansen was oblivious to it. A lot of those workers were old-line Democrats, but Hansen’s manner was impossible to dislike.

Afterward, I went home and showered. And rested. Hansen, if memory serves, was just getting started. Late at night, he’d work the bowling alleys and anything else still open through midnight hours. And his campaigns worked. He won seven races for the U.S. House. He also won the job of mayor of Alameda, a city which merged with Pocatello – with Hansen’s support, though it eliminated his mayoralty.

Hansen started his adult life as a salesman (of insurance), and built on those skills. His problem may have been that he internalized his political pitch too much; while his manner one on one could be humble, he tried to build around him a kind of sense of historic destiny. His 1984 campaign (his last) featured a comic book called “George the dragon slayer!” in which Hansen was depicted as the courageous knight doing battle with the IRS and OSHA.

He was the personification of the growing anti-government attitude in Idaho, the crusader against big and evil government. His campaigns mark the point where demonization of government began to take hold in the state. (His contemporary, Steve Symms, made the case in a lighter, breezier way.)
A certain amount of self-confidence is needed for running for higher office. Hansen went from the Pocatello City Council to the U.S. House in 1964. Four years later he ran for the Senate, against the advice of many. But it eluded him that year and again in 1972, when he lost the Republican nomination to James McClure. Hansen went public with accusations that a Boise big business cabal had lined up against him. Whatever the truth of that, the Senate runs left him financially strapped, and financial problems would dog him for years.

Legal problems grew from that as well. Hansen was convicted early in 1984 of four felony charges related to campaign finance violations, and he spent time in prison. His friends point out that later interpretations of the law led to reversal of his convictions, but the cases were not brought (remember, this was during the Reagan Administration) for nothing. In his last decade in office his finances got wilder and ever more tangled, as he sought loans and financial help from constituents across his district, and got involved in investments that would become the subjects of investigative reports in the Wall Street Journal. He spent ever-expanding amounts of time to patch and scratch and explain and defend. The stakes in his rhetoric – rising up to George and the dragon – rose ever higher, the battle of good and evil ever more stark as his personal troubles became more intractable.

It surely didn’t start that way. Hansen was a bright man, well-informed and often empathetic, capable of serving effectively in Congress (as from time to time he demonstrated).

But when you start believing your pitch too much, and the pitch goes too far, things can go badly awry.

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