Neither ridicule nor political debacles nor prison nor shackles at 20,000 feet can stay George the Dragon Slayer from his self-appointed rounds
THE "HONOR CAMP" AT THE FEDERAL PRISON IN PETERSburg, Va., is the temporary home of nearly 200 very respectable felons -- prominent bankers, lawyers, judges and politicians -- but only George Hansen, the former and possibly future Republican congressman from Idaho, held monthly press conferences there. He would have held them even more often, he assured reporters, but the killjoys who ran the place wouldn't let him.
Every month, George -- nobody calls him Mr. Hansen -- beckoned the media with collect phone calls, the only kind of calls he was permitted, and the media responded. Although he had violated a federal law, reporters knew that George had never committed the crime of dullness.
One morning last August, a dozen reporters were huddled around four television cameras in the camp's little living room when George, 57, strolled in, wearing his beige prison uniform, a shaggy black beard and a politician's smile. Though he had dropped 70 pounds in prison, he was still larger than life. Six-foot-six and 250 pounds, he was as hefty as a nose tackle and his Size 15 black Reeboks were as big as clowns' shoes. "Hi, everybody," he said as he started working the room, shaking hands, slapping shoulders, saying "good to see you again." He would no doubt have kissed a baby, too, but none of the reporters had managed to smuggle one past prison security.
Digging into an enormous pile of paper, he passed out photocopied press packets -- only George could produce a press packet in prison -- then launched into his opening statement. "I've got enough for about nine hours' worth," he said. "Are you all ready for this?"
Ready or not, he steamed ahead, full speed. When George orates, commas replace periods and thoughts clang against one another like coupling boxcars. He called himself a "political prisoner." He announced that he was suing Ed Meese and a posse of lesser officials for violating his constitutional rights. He displayed a full-page Washington Times advertisement urging President Reagan to "Let George Hansen Go!" He suggested that every judge and congressman ought to do some time, just to see what it's like (an opinion he hadn't aired during his long appeal process). And he denounced the prison bureaucracy for various outrages, including wasting tax money, harassing innocent visitors, failing to stem the spread of AIDS, serving bad food, violating George Hansen's First Amendment rights by curtailing his access to the media, and . . .
Wait a minute. Hold it. Violating First Amendment rights? Curtailing access to the media? What about the four television cameras? What about the 12 reporters?
Well, okay, maybe George went a little overboard there. But that's his charm. He doesn't weigh his words, he speaks his mind. He's a crusader, not a compromiser. George never met a federal bureaucracy he didn't like to fight. He sees himself as a "populist" defending the little guy against big government. George would rather fight big government than eat, and he loves to eat.
Seven times the good people of eastern Idaho sent George to Washington to fight Washington and, in his own eccentric and theatrical way, George fought. But in 1983 Washington fought back. The Capital City slickers snared George in the net of post-Watergate ethics laws that he never believed in or voted for or understood. They nailed George for failing to report his wife's income on a House financial form and convicted him of four violations of the Ethics in Government Act.
But George kept fighting. He isn't the kind of pol who quits as soon as he's caught swiping a speech or bedding a bimbo. After his conviction, he won the 1984 Idaho Republican primary by a comfortable margin and lost the general election by a mere 170 votes out of 200,000.
Even in prison, George tilted at the windmills of the bureaucracy and bombarded reporters and former congressional colleagues with pleas to help inmates he thought were getting harassed. He also managed, solely through the medium of the collect phone call, to coordinate a campaign seeking a presidential pardon. It was a typically zany and quixotic Hansen production. A more politic, and less mischievous, prisoner would probably not have sought clemency by authorizing supporters to fill the airwaves with radio advertisements attacking the attorney general to the tune of the Mickey Mouse Club theme song:
"Who's the jailer of our land who won't set Hansen free?
"Mickey Meese, I mean Ed Meese,
"Don't ever let him get his hands on thee!
"Please be strong, right the wrong, and give George liberty!
"Mr. President, tell Ed Meese
"To set George Hansen free." SOMEHOW, THE MICKEY MEESE CAMPAIGN DIDN'T WORK. President Reagan did not hear the jingle on the radio and then sit right down to sign the pardon papers.
Instead, George had to serve out his sentence. He got out of jail last October 1 and was back in action a few days later at a welcome-home party in Washington sponsored by the Conservative Action Foundation and the Conservative Network. His prison beard shorn, and his prison khakis replaced by a pin-stripe suit, he shook hands, kissed cheeks, slapped backs, smiled for photographers and generally behaved more like a politician who'd just won an election than a politician who'd just left the clink.
For the occasion, the Capitol Hill Club was festooned with yellow ribbons and packed with 400 Hansen supporters. Strom Thurmond was there. So were Sen. Steve Symms and House Minority Whip Trent Lott and a dozen more congressmen. Other, less prominent political figures appeared, too, like the guy who gave out business cards reading "Dam Right, I'm a Republican, You Commie Sumbitch," and the guy who carried signs saying "Senator Chappy Quiddick, You're All Wet, America Needs Bork!" and the guy who took out his billfold to show how he edited all his money so that the phrase "This note is legal tender for all debts, public and private" now read, "This note is all debt."
The money-changer wore a Populist Party "George Hansen for President" button. The Populists -- who backed Bob Richards, the former Olympic hero and Wheaties box cover boy, for the presidency in 1984 -- had nominated George as their 1988 standard-bearer back in September, while he was still in prison. Now, several Populists were on hand, hoping that George would accept their nomination.
Lee Bellinger had another idea. Bellinger, president of the Conservative Action Foundation, hoped that George would announce his candidacy for his old House seat. "Look at those people out there!" Bellinger whispered into George's ear as the big man moved to the podium. "You're an ass if you don't tell 'em you're going to run!"
George nodded, greeted the crowd, called his wife Connie, his children and his grandchildren up to the dais, introduced Connie as the "Mario Andretti of I-95," for her perseverance on the highway to Petersburg, quoted scripture and thanked his friends for standing by him. But he didn't announce any political plans. Instead, he spoke in a biblical parable: "I feel a little like Jonah. I was swallowed by that whale. We ended up tickling his stomach till we gave him an ulcer, and he finally spit me up. And I hope to tickle him a little more."
After the party, George kept playing it coy, leaving his options open, letting the suspense build. Whenever anybody asked if he was going to run again (and people asked all the time), he said he hadn't decided. He wanted to do lots of things, he said, big things.
He wanted to write two books about his prison experiences. He wanted to fight for prison reform and tax reform. He wanted to produce a conservative political almanac. He wanted to "troubleshoot for people who need help with the wonderful world of Washington." He wanted to organize a mass movement called "Free America" to help elect a conservative Congress. "And I'm not talking about a do-nothing conservative Congress," he added. No, he was talking about a Congress full of swashbuckling conservatives, guys like George Hansen. And maybe, just maybe, he'd run himself. "A lot of people think I ought to run," he says. "I think very frankly if I were to do it, I would win. I have no question in my mind that I would."
In Washington, that statement might sound like pure hubris -- after all, the man is an ex-convict -- but in Idaho, nobody is smirking. In Idaho, people know that George has been pronounced dead countless times only to pop out of the grave. Not everybody in Idaho likes George -- many are uncharitable enough to hold his criminal record against him -- but even the Hansen-haters love to talk about him, to tell stories of his adventures and misadventures, to marvel at his colorful character. George is the Muhammad Ali of Idaho politics, an old Ali no doubt, an Ali with a big belly and tired legs, but still The Greatest. If George stays out of the political ring, Idahoans fear, they'll have only prosaic palookas to watch.
Consequently, a lot of folks would secretly enjoy an excuse to vote for George again. And in October, they may have found one. It came, ironically, from George's old nemesis, the House ethics committee, which had recommended that he be officially reprimanded after his 1984 conviction. This time, the committee investigated Rep. Richard Stallings, the Democrat who holds George's seat, and ruled that he had violated House rules by borrowing $4,800 from his campaign to buy a car and lending $1,000 in campaign funds to an aide. The charges weren't particularly serious -- the committee called them mere mistakes and recommended against punishment -- but people in Idaho can just imagine what George could do with that bit of information. "It does level the playing field a little," gloated one Hansen partisan.
Columnist Jack Anderson, who has written about George for more than a decade, put it more bluntly: "He'll probably run, and he'll probably win."
Stallings is taking the prospect of a Hansen run seriously. The man cast by fate to play Larry Holmes to George's Ali knows that Idahoans tend to dislike government and to like George. In fact, he kind of likes George himself. He'll say unkind things about George if a reporter presses him, but the former history professor can't resist adding that he has considered writing a biography of the big man. "George Hansen," he says, "is one of the most interesting politicians of this century." GEORGE HANSEN WAS BORN IN A PLACE WHERE TWO WORLDS collide. Look west from Tetonia, Idaho, and all you see is flat, dry farmland, a view as plain as a plain of potatoes, which is just what it is. Look east, and the Grand Tetons soar to the sky, majestic, dramatic, flamboyant.
Obviously, George took after the mountains.
George's father was a devout Mormon who ran a grain elevator, a gas station, a motel and a cafe' and worked himself into an early grave. George opted for another path. Teaching school and selling life insurance, two trades plied with the tongue, prepared him for politics. After serving an apprenticeship on the Pocatello City Commission, he ran for Congress in 1964 and pulled off a minor miracle, beating an incumbent Democrat amidst the LBJ landslide. He did it the old-fashioned way, by ringing doorbells, shaking hands, pouring his folksy charms all over the voters.
In Washington, he worked like a plow horse: in the office from dawn to dusk, home for dinner with his wife Connie and their five kids, then back to the office to work into the wee hours. He won a reputation as a pit bull on constituent services, sinking his incisors into the leg of the bureaucracy and hanging on until it produced the missing Social Security check for the little old lady in Twin Falls. It worked: He won reelection in 1966 with 70 percent of the vote.
In 1968, he returned to Idaho to run for the Senate, challenging Democratic dove Frank Church on the Vietnam issue. He got trounced. Two years later, he lost another Senate bid. Then, in 1974, he regained his old House seat by ousting an incumbent Republican named Hansen and beating a Democrat named Hanson.
That was the last time anybody had to wonder which Hansen was George. He quickly established his identity as a knight-errant eager to joust with the dragons of the big bad bureaucracy: "George the Dragon Slayer!" was the title of his official campaign biography, which was a comic book. "Congress' Crusader Rabbit," a columnist once dubbed him for his tireless campaign against liberal Democrats, "the megabucks Eastern press," the Trilateral Commission and "international money interests," among other evils.
When the Immigration and Naturalization Service arrested Idaho farmers for hiring illegal aliens, George accused the agency of entrapment. When a Pocatello electrical contractor refused to permit OSHA inspectors into his shop, George helped him fight the case all the way to a landmark victory in the Supreme Court. When Jimmy Carter proposed transferring the Panama Canal to the Panamanians, George got some Idaho buddies to load a flatbed truck with two-by-fours painted to look like bars of gold. They drove it all the way to Washington, where George used it as a mobile symbol of the money squandered in the "giveaway."
And those campaigns were mere sidelines. George's main battle was with the ultimate dragon, the IRS, which he accused of everything from discrimination against Mormons to "Gestapo tactics" to bringing this great land of ours "alarmingly close to totalitarianism." He denounced the tax collectors in countless House speeches, in a book and in television commercials that advertised the numerous anti-tax organizations he founded and christened with such inspired acronyms as VOGUE -- Victims of Government United Everywhere.
George also found time to conduct his own foreign policy. He was full of nervous energy, and when he got to feeling cooped up, former aides recall, he'd take off like a tourist-class Kissinger. He flew to Nicaragua on the eve of the Sandinista revolution and pronounced it "a peaceful and pastoral private enterprise nation." He flew to Taiwan and promised its leaders, who'd been spurned by Jimmy Carter, that they would get "the final equipment necessary to complete the atomic program you have started." And, most famously, he flew to Iran, where he became the first American to visit the hostages. He also became the first American to suggest that "Henry Kissinger and David Rockefeller ought to be sitting there instead of the hostages," and the first American to wander into mobs of flag-burning militants to shake hands and slap backs as if he were running for the Revolutionary Council. Tehran TV loved George. So did the average militant in the street, one of whom loudly identified him, in Farsi, as a "big American cowboy."
The Iran expedition drew sharp attacks from the State Department and members of Congress who saw it as "dangerous and irresponsible" showboating. But it played in Pocatello. George won his next election in 1980 by a landslide and it looked, for a spell, like he might remain in Congress forever.
But legal problems did him in. His troubles began in 1975, when he ran afoul of campaign finance laws. George pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor charges of filing late and false finance reports, and he was sentenced to two months in prison. His lawyer later persuaded the judge to suspend that punishment, arguing that the congressman was "stupid but not evil." That phrase kept George out of the cooler, but it wasn't exactly something he could put on a bumper sticker.
Citing the high cost of his legal battles, George asked the House ethics committee for permission to seek public contributions to help pay his personal debts. Not surprisingly, the committee refused. Six months later, George and his wife Connie legally severed all their financial ties to each other. Then she sent out a direct mail appeal, soliciting contributions to the Connie Hansen Fund, asking for "hundreds of thousands of dollars" to "save my family from financial disaster." Jack Anderson promptly nicknamed her "Tin Can Connie."
The worst came in 1983, when a federal grand jury indicted George on four felony counts of filing false financial disclosure statements to the House of Representatives. The indictment charged that George had concealed a $135,000 loan from a convicted bank swindler, several loans made to Connie by billionaire Nelson Bunker Hunt and the $87,475 profit she had made by speculating in silver futures under Hunt's tutelage.
George argued that he wasn't required to report Connie's finances because they were separate from his own. He was a victim, he said, of a "selective and bogus prosecution" designed to "silence my strong dissents."
The jury didn't buy that. In April of 1984, it found George guilty on all four counts. The judge sentenced him to 5 to 15 months in prison.
George was in the midst of a reelection campaign when the verdict came down, and Idaho's Democratic chairman gleefully pronounced George a has-been. Dan Adamson, who was running against George in the Republican primary, knew better: "If George was dead, he'd get 35 percent of the vote." Alive, George did even better, beating Adamson by nearly 2,000 ballots.
Still, his chances in the general election looked grim until America learned that Geraldine Ferraro, the Democratic candidate for vice president, hadn't reported her husband's finances on her financial disclosure forms. There were differences in the cases -- for example, Ferraro revealed on the form that she was not including her husband's finances -- but that didn't stop George from playing it for all it was worth: "You notice that the government doesn't have any plans to prosecute Miss Ferraro. They only do that if you're a conservative from Idaho."
He did not explain why a conservative Republican administration would choose to prosecute a conservative Republican over a liberal Democrat. Instead, he compared himself to other folks who'd run into problems with government -- Lech Walesa, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Jesus Christ and Mormon Church founder Joseph Smith. It almost worked: When the ballots were counted and recounted, he'd lost by only 170 votes.
The Supreme Court turned down George's appeal, and he entered prison in June 1986. Six months later, he was paroled. All he had to do to stay free was remain in the state of Virginia, where he was living, get a job and report his earnings to the parole board. But he couldn't do it. His job, he said, was lecturing around the country, and he refused to tell the feds who was paying him. "It would just throw them to the wolves," he explained.
That dispute was scheduled to be heard by the U.S. Parole Commission on April 21, but the feds apparently couldn't wait that long. On April 15 -- income tax day, George is quick to point out -- they grabbed him. After speaking in a Baptist church in Nebraska that afternoon, he was in the airport in Omaha, waiting to board a plane for Dulles, when he was arrested by federal marshals, handcuffed and thrown into the county jail. The next day, the marshals rented a Lear jet and flew George, handcuffed and chained at the waist and ankles, back to Virginia. They booked him in the ancient Alexandria jail under the alias Fred Smith -- "to avoid a lot of media attention," a spokesman for the marshals explained -- and threw him in a dank cellar cell. Later, they revoked his parole and shipped him back to Petersburg.
Suddenly, George's dragons didn't seem like paranoid hallucinations. Not only did the feds shackle him at 20,000 feet but they also wasted tax money chartering a jet to transport a prisoner who already held a ticket home. A spokesman for the Parole Commission refused to comment on the tactics, but politicians, columnists and editorial writers, liberal and conservative alike, denounced the actions. "The federal authorities," wrote Jack Anderson, "seem intent on breaking his spirit."
But George's spirit proved durable. So did his sense of humor. Soon, the airwaves were alive with the sounds of M-I-C-K-E-YM-E-E-S-E. GEORGE IS WORKING A CROWD OF 400 FANS AND FRIENDS gathered in Pocatello for yet another welcome-home party, working them for all he's worth. In Idaho, as in Washington, he has the same effect on his fans as the full moon has on a coyote. He takes the stage to a standing ovation, introduces Connie as the "Mario Andretti of I-95," quotes scripture and thanks his friends for standing by him. Then he tells the story about his now-famous bust for violating parole. "The first arrest warrant was requested because I'd been seen coming out of a Mormon church in Pocatello, Idaho. And I was arrested after coming out of a Baptist church in Lewisville, Nebraska. Now, I don't know if it's dangerous to go to church in this country anymore." The crowd laughs and cheers.
"Then on April the 15th -- doesn't that make sense, April 15th and here's a guy who's been bashing the IRS about what they've been doing to the public -- on April 15, I was picked up without a warrant in Omaha, Nebraska, and whisked to Washington, D.C., in a Lear jet in the dead of night. And I'll tell you, that's pretty expensive, and the taxpayers paid for it. They took me to Washington, booked me under an alias and put me in the slimiest hole they had . . . It shouldn't happen in this country, and we're gonna fight it to the end."
The crowd roars its approval. Once again, George Hansen is doing the impossible: turning a prison term into a political asset.
After the speech, the crowd feasts on piles of homemade cookies, popcorn, brownies and orange punch that the ladies have set out on tables. The punch packs no punch, of course. This is Mormon country, and the presence of booze would quickly accomplish what guilty verdicts have failed to do: kill George Hansen's political career.
Soaring on sugar, George's fans start swapping George stories. A 59-year-old farmer with a pencil-thin mustache and a string tie has one of the best. During the 1984 campaign, he says, he got so blasted angry at an anti-Hansen column in the Twin Falls Times-News that he went to the bakery and got a pretty pink cake box with a lace cover on it. "Then I went to my pasture and found a cow pie that was just crusted enough so it wouldn't run." Carefully, with a piece of cardboard, he scooped up this pungent letter-to-the-editor and placed it gently into the box. "It looked like the cow had put it there herself," he says with a smile. At the newspaper office, he left it on the managing editor's desk with a little note: "This box contains the same ingredients as the article on George Hansen."
A few feet away, George is shaking men's hands and kissing ladies' cheeks. Somebody mentions Richard Stallings' troubles with the ethics committee and George grins. "I think it's his turn to go to a government honor camp, and somebody else can take his place."
A woman greets George with a smile and receives a big bear hug. "Where do we go from here, George?" she asks.
"Oh, we've got big things!" he says, smiling broadly. "Big Things!" ::