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Tags: nethercutt | speaker | foley | term limits | bush

Fmr Rep. Nethercutt: Remembering the Gentleman Giant-Killer

John Gizzi By Sunday, 16 June 2024 05:59 PM EDT Current | Bio | Archive

When the first Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives in 40 years took office in January 1995, the most-recognized and sought-after of the 72 GOP freshmen was, of course, Sonny Bono. The new congressman from California had been a widely known singer and entertainer for decades.

After Bono, the freshman Republicans who reporters were most eager to interview were the three "giant-killers" — political newcomers who, in seeking office for the first time, had toppled Democratic giants in the House: Michael Patrick Flanagan of Illinois, who unseated House Ways and Means Committee Chair Dan Rostenkowski; Steve Stockman of Texas, elected over House Judiciary Committee Chair Jack Brooks; and Washington state's George Nethercutt, who had defeated House Speaker Tom Foley, who had been in Congress for 30 years.

When Nethercutt died Friday at age 79, he was eulogized primarily as that: the man who unseated the sitting speaker of the House for the first time since 1862. But he was also widely remembered as a genuinely "nice guy" who always greeted friend and foe with a smile.

An attorney and Spokane County Republican chair, Nethercutt in 1994 observed that Foley's margins of victory were growing closer in recent trips to the polls and that he relied primarily on the city of Spokane for reelection. That was two years after Evergreen State voters supported an initiative to limit the terms of all elected officials, including their representatives in Congress.

"And Tom Foley has responded with a lawsuit captioned 'Foley Against the People of Washington State,'" Speaker-to-be Newt Gingrich told a private press gathering in Washington, D.C. that year. "That shows how out of touch Foley and the Democrats are."

Nethercutt hit hard at Foley's opposition to term limits and vowed to limit his own tenure to three terms. In nine public debates, however, the challenger was always gracious to Foley and focused solely on their differences on issues. But that didn't stop Foley's campaign from slamming the challenger as a right-wing extremist. 

Nethercutt countered with a TV spot showing him saying Foley had accused him of everything but "kicking my dog." He then embraced his golden retriever, Chestnut, and said, "I'd never hurt you, Chestnut." At their final debate, Foley turned to him and said, "George, I'm not after the dog, believe me." The opponents laughed together.

Elected by a margin of about 4,000 votes (51% to 49%), Nethercutt served on the Science Committee and also on the House Appropriations Committee, deciding how tax dollars are spent — a rare assignment for a freshman. He moved his family to "the other Washington" and almost always skipped the cocktail circuit to be home for dinner and explain to his wife and two children why he voted as he did. 

Rep. Phil English, R-Pa., a fellow member of the "Class of '94," recalled to Newsmax how "once in office, George demonstrated leadership in moving the conservative agenda by his mastery of the legislative process and accessibility to his divided district back home. George's energy, grace, and collaborative smarts were a key buttress to the 'Gingrich revolution.'"

Another '94 alumnus, former Rep. Van Hilleary, R-Tenn., hailed Nethercutt as "the quintessential prince of a human being, who never failed to greet people with a quick and easy smile. He was an even-keeled, sincere, and highly effective member of the Republican 'Class of '94,' who helped produce one conservative policy win after the other for his constituents and our country, including the only four balanced federal budgets in the last 63 years."

Former Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, spoke for many when he said he admired Nethercutt not just for toppling the speaker but "because he was just a genuinely good person."

Classmate and fellow "giant-killer" Flanagan revealed to Newsmax how he and Nethercutt avoided the term, but Texan Stockman fully embraced it "and longed to fundraise and campaign together with George and me as 'giant-killers.' Steve was truly ahead of his time looking to sell merchandise to raise funds. 

"His big plan was to photograph himself, George, and me for a 'giant-killer' poster, in which we would be toting weapons promoting our unwavering support of the Second Amendment. Both George and I were hugely supportive of the Second Amendment, but such support was very touchy in our districts. We tiptoed around the issue at home while being solid votes in favor in Congress. A poster of us wearing crossed bandoleros and brandishing pistols would have been the end of us. 

"So Steve would schedule photographer after photographer to take the photo. We always agreed because we really liked Steve and didn't want to upset him. However, George and I would clandestinely meet a day or two before every photo session to work out which of us would beg off and be unavailable.

"This went on for over a year and canceling about a dozen photo shoots. We never found the courage to tell our great friend Steve that this was death to us in our districts."

Both Flanagan and Stockman were defeated in 1996, but Nethercutt coasted to reelection in his next two trips to the polls.

The Washington state lawmaker surprised admirers in 2000 by announcing he had changed his mind and would run again, rather than abide by his term-limit pledge. While U.S. Term Limits was furious with him, Nethercutt won reelection with ease in 2000 and '02. Two years later, at the urging of President George W. Bush, he declared for the U.S. Senate. In this race, his broken term-limit pledge was deployed against him in hard-hitting TV spots, and he lost badly (55% to 43%) to liberal Democrat Sen. Patty Murray. Geography was also Nethercutt's enemy, as no one from eastern Washington had been elected senator since 1930.

Nethercutt spent the last 20 years of his life on various projects, ranging from launching the local Juvenile Diabetes Foundation to writing a book on patriotic songs to launching a civics tournament with fourth and eighth graders.

In the past year, as a neurological disorder robbed the former congressman of his ability to speak or walk on his own, his family and wide circle of friends readily helped him.

George Nethercutt was a man of consequence and proof that, contrary to the admonition attributed to Los Angeles Dodgers manager Leo Durocher, nice guys can indeed finish first. 

© 2024 Newsmax. All rights reserved.

When former Rep. George Nethercutt died Friday at age 79, he was eulogized primarily as the man who unseated the sitting speaker of the House for the first time since 1862. But he was also widely remembered as a genuinely "nice guy."
nethercutt, speaker, foley, term limits, bush
Sunday, 16 June 2024 05:59 PM
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