"Dave Durenberger really looks like a U.S. Senator," was a familiar saying among reporters covering the centrist Republican, who was Senator of Minnesota from 1978-1994.
When Durenberger died Jan. 31 at age 88, that is how he was frequently remembered: silver-haired, stentorian-voiced, and inevitably in a dress-for-success three-piece suit, the Minnesotan could be cast in the part he lived as easily as actors Hal Holbrook and Martin Sheen, who made careers portraying politicians.
As the Republican Party veered to the right in the late 20th Century, Durenberger stayed firmly in the middle.
He supported Ronald Reagan's policy of cutting spending and taxes while spending tax dollars to restore America's armed forces. The Minnesotan also believed presidents had the right to nominate Supreme Court justices and voted to confirm Republican nominees Robert Bork in 1987 and Clarence Thomas in 1991 and Democrat nominees Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 1993 and Stephen Breyer in '94.
Durenberger also believed in a strong hand of the federal government. He was a Senate sponsor of the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990 as well as George W. Bush's 1000 Points of Light and Bill Clinton's National and Community Service Act, which created AmeriCorps and its paid volunteers for community service. He believed government needed to protect the environment and abortion was a private matter.
"He served in an era in which both parties allowed at least some room for independent thinkers" former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty recalled to Newsmax. "Dave occupied that space and played a key role in many policy debates."
The same year that the young Pawlenty worked as an intern for Durenberger (1980), he became state chairman of the College Republicans at the historically liberal University of Minnesota and was an enthusiastic campaigner for presidential candidate Ronald Reagan.
But as much as he looked like a senator and unhesitatingly took stands that required grit, the Gopher State senator was a flawed man.
He flagrantly flaunted ethics and rules under which lawmakers had to live. He is the last U.S. Senator to be censured by his colleagues, who voted 96-to-0 to condemn him for evading limits of $100,000 for senators on speaking fees and for using his condominium in Minnesota to illegally collect reimbursements for Senate travel.
Durenberger was disbarred in 1991 and in 1995, shortly after retiring from office, he was sentenced to one year's probation after pleading guilty to misuse of public funds.
Durenberger also admitted to an extramarital affair that ended his marriage to second wife Penny, whom he married in 1971 after the death of his first wife and whose four sons she had helped to raise.
For one who looked so much like a senator, Durenberger's big ambition was to be governor of Minnesota.
A graduate of St. John's Prep School (where he was the top-rated ROTC cadet in his class) and the University of Minnesota Law School, the young Durenberger served in the U.S. army before joining the high-profile Minneapolis law firm started by Minnesota's onetime "boy governor" (at age 31) and perennial presidential candidate Harold Stassen.
Durenberger grew close to the firm's managing partner Harold LeVander. After LeVander was elected governor in 1966, Durenberger served as his executive secretary for four years.
In 1977, he launched a gubernatorial campaign of his own. But the death of Minnesota's revered Democrat Sen. Hubert Humphrey necessitated a special election in '78 and Durenberger abruptly switched to the Senate race.
Minnesota Democrats started a holy war among themselves over Humphrey's seat. Multimillionaire Bob Short, owner of the Washington Senators (which later became the Texas Rangers) baseball team, eked out a surprise win over Rep. Don Fraser, onetime president of the liberal Americans for Democratic Action (ADA).
To liberal Democrats, nominee Short was a DINO — Democrat in Name Only. He strongly supported cuts in federal spending and was an outspoken opponent of abortion.
Durenberger countered with his defense of many government programs and, five years after Roe v. Wade, said abortion was none of the government's business.
"Democrats for Durenberger" clubs mushroomed throughout the state, and Durenberger put Humphrey's seat in the GOP column with 61% of the vote.
Durenberger's middle-road politics and polished demeanor resonated at home. In seeking a full term of his own in 1982, the senator faced department store magnate Mark Dayton.
Deploying $7 million — much of it from his own wealth — to Durenberger's $4 million, Dayton hit hard at his opponent's support of the Reagan tax and budget cuts. Durenberger calmly explained the president's agenda and won by 52% to 46% (Dayton later did serve as senator and governor).
In 1988, Durenberger faced a fearsome challenge from perhaps the best-known Minnesota politician of all 3: state Attorney General Hubert "Skip" Humphrey III, son of the late senator, vice president, and 1968 Democrat presidential nominee.
Durenberger was inarguably boosted by his strong performance in televised debates and his bemoaning that Humphrey used rough tactics of which his father would never have approved. He won again with a stunning 56%.
But it was downhill from there for Durenberger, as his ethical and personal failings eventually led to his retirement in 1994. In his twilight years, he saw his law license restored in 2000. He also endorsed Hilary Clinton for president in 2016 and Joe Biden in 2020.
Perhaps the best post-mortem on Dave Durenberger is that pronounced by biographer Lewis Baston on the British politician Reginald Maudling, whose brilliant political career in the 1960s and 1970s was blackened by blatant corruption: "He was a good man who did wrong, for very human reasons."
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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