Writings and observations

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Orval Hansen recalled that when one of his sons was born, he was celebrating with a friend in Idaho Falls who, like him, was active in politics. This was in the late 1950s, and Hansen then was one of the members of a state House Republican caucus in close contest for control with the Democrats.

Hansen said he was sorry about one thing: His son was born exactly one day too early, one day short of turning 21, to vote in the still-distant 1980 general election. The friend advised him not to worry: Who knows? He may turn out to be a Democrat.

Jim Hansen did become a Democrat, at one point leading the staff of the state Democratic party, served in the Idaho House as his father had, and even ran for the 2nd District U.S. House seat his father had held – as a Republican – for six years.

Orval Hansen’s own concern, by contrast, didn’t materialize, and partly because of his own actions. As a lawmaker, Hansen helped push through the change that allowed 18-year-olds to vote.

Call it a case of being shaped in part by unavoidable external conditions, and in part by active reshaping of the world. All of that is the core of his new memoir, Climbing the Mountain, which Hansen has just self-published.

In some ways, earlier on, Hansen was more often swimming with the tide than against it. He was a Mormon Republican in a substantial family in the Idaho Falls area. (One of his brothers, Reed Hansen, would go on to serve in the Idaho Legislature years after Orval Hansen did.) He seems not to have had great difficulty winning election to the legislature, and soon joined the ranks of leadership there. Though he lost his first bid for the U.S. House, he won his second. He became a well-established local attorney, and he wasn’t an outsider rebel, either by personal history or temperament.

But leaving it at that would distort the story. His years in the Navy gave him, apparently more than most, a perspective well beyond home. When he attended law school in Washington, D.C., he also worked as a congressional staffer. He distinguished himself from early legislative days by a willingness to vote his conscience when that cost him politically.

He lost his U.S. House seat in the 1974 Republican primary election to the similarly-named (but very different in other ways) George Hansen. That was an unexpected turn; a lot of people, including Orval Hansen, had figured him for a fourth term. After that, with his family and other connections ensconced at Washington, he decided to stay there. (Not long ago, he moved back to Idaho, and now lives in Boise.)

But here again, in that unexpected twist he made his own distinctive contribution. For many former congressmen, leaving congress would be a prescription for a lobbying career, and he did a bit of that as a practicing lawyer. But more of his attention went to the Columbia Institute for Political Research, a research and seminar development group aimed at expanding and fostering knowledge on a wide range of issues. He also worked with a wide range of nonprofits. There are easier paths for former members of Congress situated in Washington, and some of Idaho’s other former members have taken them. Orval Hansen took a harder and more public-spirited route.

He’s set some measures against which you can fairly measure other office holders. You can find the story in Climbing the Mountain.

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