Idaho has produced its share of congressional mavericks – folks who because of their character and style, were colorful and quotable. In the language of the time, they were “good copy.”
Senator Glen Taylor, the “Singing Cowboy,” who reported for duty in 1944 by riding a horse up the Capitol steps all decked out in his cowboy regalia, stands out. His autobiography also is remarkable for its candor. The first chapters cover his work as a youth in a north Idaho house of ill-repute and his loss of his virginity therein.
If any other Idaho political figure could match Taylor for generating questionable publicity, and being a character, it has to be Second District Congressman George V. Hansen, who passed away last week at the age of 83. “Big George” stood six foot six and weighed two ninety-five (Yes, think of the hit song from the 60’s, Big John). His ego and ambition matched his size. His flair for publicity included a one-man mission to Tehran to try to free the American hostages.
He had an uncanny ability though to inspire blind loyalty in voters not because he was a gifted speaker (He wasn’t), but like only one other Idaho political figure, Cecil Andrus, he looked you in the eye and even if just for 30 seconds, made one think they were the most important person in a room. And like Andrus, he had an incredible memory for names and faces.
That combination made the two of them hands down the two most formidable one-on-one campaigners in Idaho political history. To watch either working those attending a must-do event like the Eastern Idaho Fair was to watch two consummate professionals at the peak of their game.
Hansen rose quickly in Second District politics, first as the Mayor of Alameda before it merged with Pocatello, and after an abortive run for the Senate in 1962, won the Second District House seat in 1964 by knocking off incumbent Ralph Harding in the year of the Lyndon B. Johnson landslide.
That race though revealed early Hansen’s penchant for shamelessly exploiting his Mormon faith on the alter of his ambitions. Harding had rightly criticized Church President Ezra Taft Benson on the floor of the House for Benson’s questioning the loyalty of President Dwight D. Eisenhower for whom Benson had served as the Secretary of Agriculture. Benson was playing footsy with the ultra-right John Birch Society at the time.
Hansen charged Harding with publicly exposing a family’s dirty laundry so to speak and cast himself as the Church and the Church president’s defender. Harding was history despite his own “good standing” within the LDS Church.
Hansen played the “LDS Church” card on two other notable occasions.
In 1974 he reclaimed his old congressional seat by defeating in the Republican primary incumbent congressman Orval Hansen (no relation), a former State Senator and attorney from Idaho Falls who was widely admired for his decency and his moderation. Orval Hansen’s English-born wife had made the mistake of saying they occasionally served wine when hosting dinners and occasionally enjoyed a glass themselves.
This was an admission that the Orval Hansens did not strictly adhere to Section 89 of the Doctrine & Covenants which prohibits consumption of alcohol. It was all George needed to reclaim his old seat on the grounds that he was the better Mormon.
Earlier, in the 1972 Senate Republican primary to replace retiring Senator Len B. Jordan, Hansen had also played the “Church card.” Up against First District Congressman James A. McClure, the perceived front-runner, as well as former Governor Robert E. Smylie, and Kendrick doctor/lawyer Glen Wegner, Hansen’s calculus had him winning the nomination if he could capture a solid majority of the LDS vote.
When McClure in a D.C. interview appeared to be questioning the legality of “release time,” the practice of releasing students one class early at the end of the day to attend LDS religion classes at a private seminary usually across the street, Hansen leaped into action, personally delivering hundreds of copies of the offending article to bishops and stake presidents across southern Idaho.
McClure’s campaign manager, Jim Goller, immediately circulated a letter from McClure to newspapers carrying the column (and copies sent to the same bishops and stake presidents Hansen had visited) correcting the misperception he had created and stating his support for “release time.”
That McClure and Goller were truly worrried about Hansen’s threat to their candidacy was further demonstrated when they orchestrated two face-to-face meetings, one in Boise and the other in Pocatello, in which they brought along the lobbyists for all the major Idaho corporations to show Hansen that Idaho business was behind McClure.
They tried to entice Hansen to drop out with among other blandishments pledging that if he did he would be handed the party’s nomination to run for governor in 1974, against none other than Idaho’s other most formidable campaigner, Cecil Andrus. Hansen declined.
That just might have been the all-time greatest bout in Idaho history.
While others may recall Hansen’s antics, as well as his run-ins with the law, folks should not lose sight of the fact that “Big George” was a seriously flawed individual who could have done much good but for those flaws.Share on Facebook