To older reporters, the death of former Rep. George V. Hansen, R-Idaho, at age 83 on Friday brought back vivid memories with mixed feelings.
Many recalled the 6-foot-6-inch, 300-pound Idahoan nicknamed "Big George" as one of the early conservative swashbucklers in Congress in the 1970's who were part of what became known as the "New Right."
Whether the issue was thwarting the funding for return of the Panama Canal or the Department of Education or stopping recognition of Red China at the expense of longtime U.S. ally Taiwan, one could be assured that Republican Reps. Phil Crane of Illinios, John Ashbrook of Ohio, and Hansen were among those in the throes of the battle and at one volume: loud.
With the spirit of the demon life insurance salesman and Mormon missionary he once was, Hansen promoted controversial causes. He highlighted heavy-handed tactics by the Internal Revenue Service and wrote a book entitled "To Harass Our People," in which he likened the IRS to the Gestapo. He also attacked the Immigration and Naturalization Service and in 1979, jetted to Iran to attempt to free Americans held hostage in the U.S. Embassy.
But there was another troubling side to Hansen's stormy political career. For a good part of his second stint in the House, from 1975-85, the Gem State congressman was dogged by financial and legal turmoil that finally spelled his undoing.
With Hansen’s troubles, there never was a simple answer. When asked, supporters of the embattled Idahoan would usually say: "You know George. It’s, well, complicated."
In 1974, six years after he relinquished his House seat to run unsuccessfully for the Senate, George Hansen returned to Congress by winning a primary race over his more moderate Republican successor Orval Hansen (no relation). The new campaign finance laws requiring disclosure of contributions on federal forms and limiting the amount of contributions had just gone into effect. Like other candidates that year, Hansen overstepped some of the new boundaries.
But unlike other candidates, the Idahoan was brought up in court on charges that could have led to his ouster from Congress. On advice of counsel, Hansen avoided serious punishment by pleading he had taken the actions he did not because he was devious but, rather, "stupid."
In 1983, Hansen’s indictment for failing to disclose wife Connie’s assets on congressional ethics forms led to a spectacular trial before the U.S. District Court in Washington DC. As the first House Member punished under the Ethics in Government Act (EIGA) of 1978, Hansen argued that since he and Connie had separate assets, he was therefore not required to disclose hers. Hansen also noted that several of his colleagues refused to list their spouse’s assets on the forms, notably New York Rep. and 1984 Democratic vice presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro.
Convicted by the jury and reprimanded by the full House, Hansen lost re-election in 1984 by a microscopic margin of 170 votes out of more than 250,000 cast.
"I’m a political prisoner," Hansen told this reporter during a 1986 interview at the Federal Correction Institution in Petersburg, Virginia, where he was serving a fifteen-month sentence, "I’ve fought the dragons of the federal government—the IRS, INS, all of them. This is their revenge."
The former congressman and his admirers got some vindication in 1995, when his conviction was overturned. This was based on the Supreme Court’s decision in Hubbard vs. the United States, which adopted a narrower definition of the ethics law under which Hansen had been convicted.
But by then, he was back in prison, serving a four-year sentence on other charges. In 1992, Hansen and business associate John F. Scoresby were convicted on 45 counts of federal bank fraud after they admitted owing investors $18 million and an Idaho Falls bank $2 million. Almost incredibly, the investors signed a statement saying they didn’t consider themselves swindled and still trusted Hansen.
Hansen again claimed he was a target of government vengeance and maintained he would have repaid the investors had federal and state officials not shut down his business.
Knowing Hansen only for the turbulence of recent years made it difficult for younger reporters to believe older colleagues when they recalled how the Idahoan was once a star among conservative Republicans. A Ricks College graduate and father of five, Hansen was elected mayor of Alameda, Idaho at age 31. In 1964, amid a nationwide Democratic tidal wave, Hansen, 34, became the only Republican north of the Mason-Dixon line to unseat a Democratic congressman.
Four years later, national TV viewers got their first glimpse of Hansen when, as the Republican nominee for U.S. Senator from Idaho, he introduced his political hero and 1964 nominee Barry Goldwater at their party’s 1968 convention. In 1976, he was one of nine Republican House Members to back Ronald Reagan for nomination over then-President Gerald Ford.
"George was a super-salesman and a true patriot," said James L. Martin, chairman of the Sixty Plus Seniors Association, who knew Hansen for four decades, "But he over-zealously made some mistakes that hurt him and, of course, hurt his family and those who believed in him."
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