At the end of last year, with most of his colleagues stuck in Washington for an important Senate session on a Saturday, Sen. James M. Inhofe was in Tulsa getting spurs fastened onto a pair of boots.
“They’re ostrich,” said Inhofe (R-Okla.), the country’s most prominent climate-change denier, referring to his footwear. “Probably some endangered species; I have a reputation to maintain.”
Inhofe could have been wearing Birkenstocks and it wouldn’t have put a dent in his notoriety. The senator cemented his status as public enemy No. 1 for environmentalists long ago, topping it off with his 2012 book on climate change, “The Greatest Hoax.” This year he takes over the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee — the panel most associated with climate policy oversight — and says he plans to continue his role as a “one-man truth squad” on the issue.
Spurs on, Inhofe mounted a spotted horse named Speck and prepared to join the Tulsa Christmas parade. He may be 80, but he looked the part of a cowboy, with his leathery face and glacial blue eyes. He even speaks with a gravely Midwestern twang, as if Clint Eastwood were hosting “A Prairie Home Companion.” Inhofe hadn’t ridden in this parade since before 2010, when, in a nod to inclusiveness, the city changed the name of the event to the Parade of Lights. “If Jesus isn’t invited, then I’m not coming either,” he sniffed. This wasn’t a joke to him. Since the 1980s, his faith has affected nearly every aspect of his life, including how he does his job.
After years of public pressure, the parade organizers changed the name back in 2014. Inhofe returned to ride through the streets of Tulsa as the conquering hero, missing a couple dozen votes — including a big one to fund the government — in the process. “I won,” he said. “Jesus won.”
But Speck wasn’t having any of that. The horse lurched forward, careening through a downtown parking lot past a group of people putting on costumes from the Disney movie “Frozen.”
“Rein it in, James,” shouted a woman nearby. “Rein it in!”
The advice was of little help. Before Inhofe could regain control, the horse smashed into the side of a parked minivan with the words “Merry Christmas” painted on its back window. The crash dented the brand-new vehicle, forcing Inhofe’s staff to exchange information with the owner as the senator galloped on to the parade.
This is how Democratic activists like to think of Inhofe: as a doddering caricature of conservative values who, given a platform such as the chairmanship of the Environment and Public Works Committee, will regularly supply punch lines to the opposition. They see him as an untethered radical off in a world apart even from his conservative colleagues; a Don Quixote with Jesus as Sancho Panza, on a quest to rein in overzealous lefties. Their hope is to use him as a foil. Their worry is that his maneuvering could cause a lot more damage when he is wielding a gavel than when riding a horse.
Climate change is certain to be a major issue for Congress in the next couple of years. Tom Steyer, the billionaire Democratic environmentalist, topped the list of campaign donors in the past election cycle; there’s still the Keystone XL pipeline to figure out; and a number of new rules from the Environmental Protection Agency are set to take effect this year. On all this, Inhofe aims to take center stage.
“Expect huge and enormous fireworks in the committee,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer (Calif.), the senior Democrat on the committee. “[Inhofe’s] going to go after everything, and I’m going to stop him dead on the floor of the Senate. . . . The biggest denier of all is the chairman of the environment committee — that’s a cruel joke.”
In 2003, Inhofe became the chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee for the first time, after nine years in the Senate. He put his mark on the post with a floor speech in which he said catastrophic global warming is a hoax.
In his speech and his subsequent writing, Inhofe argued that the debate over global warming was “predicated on fear rather than science.”
The vast majority of scientists believe in human-caused climate change — as many as 97 percent, according to an oft-cited study in the journal Environmental Research Letters. But Inhofe thinks that number is greatly exaggerated and has a genuine distrust of government-sponsored climate research. He likes to say that we may just be in a cycle of relative warming, and that as recently as the 1970s we were being warned of a looming ice age. Plus, as he writes in his book, “God is still up there, and He promised to maintain the seasons and that cold and heat would never cease as long as the earth remains.”
He’s well aware that his view is out there by Senate standards.
“You know, I’m known for doing things that nobody else will do,” he said in an interview. “When you do things that people won’t do because it’s politically stupid, it’s good to have peace with it.”
And yet, as easy as he is for opponents to mock, Inhofe is a much more complicated figure than he is portrayed as. In a number of ways, his colleagues see him as a throwback to a Senate that Democrats and Republicans pine for. “Earmarks” and “compromise” aren’t necessarily dirty words for a senator who, unlike the newer legislators of tea party bent, happily fights for government spending back home.
He also happens to pal around with people on both sides of the aisle. Inhofe will go as far as to say that he considers Sen. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.), a potential presidential candidate too liberal to call himself a Democrat, his “best friend” in the Senate.
“On a personal level, I like him,” Sanders said in a statement provided by his spokesman. Even Boxer said she kind of views them as siblings who just happen to see the world completely differently. When Boxer got the committee chairmanship in 2007, Inhofe gave her a mug. It featured a picture of the Earth, with icicles that melted when hot coffee was poured in. When Inhofe holds his first hearing, he said, he will wear a polar bear tie that Boxer gave him.
“Of course, that doesn’t mean I don’t think his views are dangerous,” she said. “I think he’s waaaay out of the mainstream, but we can still be friends. And on other issues, I imagine we are going to be able to get things done.”
So which is it? Is the senior senator from Oklahoma a made-to-order quote machine for Democratic fundraising, or a chairman with the ability to legislate? Inhofe may just be the rare breed of senator who manages to be both.
“Philosophically his colors are bold, but his politics are transactional in the best sense of the word,” said a fellow Oklahoma Republican, Rep. Tom Cole.
Inhofe has been elected to the Senate five times, and he won with the highest percentage of his Senate career (68 percent) in last year’s election. And it all began because he loves a good fight.
As a developer in the late 1970s, Inhofe purchased an abandoned building. The only eyesore, he said, was an ugly fire escape that he wanted to move to a less visible outside wall. A city official told him that it would take about two months to even find out whether that was possible.
“I told him that I was going to run for mayor and fire him,” he wrote in his book. “So I ran for mayor and I fired him.”
As mayor he could almost be described as moderate: He proposed a city tax increase, supported solar and wind power, and appointed the first black city commissioner. Even his dining room table was bipartisan. His wife, Kay, was born to a staunch Democratic family. She couldn’t even vote for her husband in his first election because she wasn’t a registered Republican.
“We were always having dinner with my grandfather, who was a Democrat for years,” said Molly Rapert, Inhofe’s daughter (she is a Republican, but for a time dated former Arkansas senator Mark Pryor, a Democrat). “It was all so civil. It took me a long time to realize that not everyone debated politics this way.”
Having battled with the government as a businessman (he often tells the story of going to 26 government bureaucracies to get one permit for a condominium project), Inhofe trained his attention on an effort to pare back regulations.
In Oklahoma, where roughly 1 in 4 jobs is tied to the energy industry, this often involved environmental issues.
These days, the oil and gas industry is his top source of campaign money. But don’t tell him he’s been bought: “Anytime someone asks me how much money I get from the oil industry, I always tell them the same thing,” he said, smiling. “Not enough.”
If he appears to see climate change policy as a scheme to overregulate businesses, primarily energy businesses, Inhofe is at least equally influenced by his religious beliefs.
In his view, God created resources for man to use, and while climate change may occur as a result of natural cycles, he does not believe human action can be the primary driver.
“The arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He is doing in the climate is to me outrageous,” he said in a 2012 radio interview.
“Oh, he’s a true believer, through and through,” Boxer said. But it wasn’t always that way; Inhofe’s outspoken faith was an evolution.
“Dad grew up a passive Christian but really became an active Jesus person in the mid-1980s,” Rapert said, citing a series of trips to Africa as a turning point. “That respect he has for his faith has played a big role in how he sees events around him. Whenever I’ve talked with him about [climate change], I know the underlying core is the reliance on Jesus. It’s always with him.”
Inhofe says the teachings of evangelist Bill Bright, who founded the Campus Crusade for Christ, allowed him to truly become a man of faith.
But he’s quick to argue that the way the news media write about his religion is off-base. Yes, he says, he believes that it’s arrogant for people to think they can change the climate, but no, he doesn’t try to win debates by evoking God.
“I’m mature enough to know that it doesn’t win arguments,” he said. “I have never pointed to Scriptures in a debate, because I know that would discredit me.”
So, instead, he tries to focus more on cost-benefit analysis than on Scripture.
He’ll start with the highway bill, a piece of legislation that he and Boxer have previously worked well on together (their 2012 compromise measure got 85 votes in the Senate). From there he’ll move on to rolling back new EPA regulations. He plans hearings on new limits on greenhouse-gas emissions by power plants and refiners, and new ozone standards. He also wants a crack at changing the Endangered Species Act.
It’s an ambitious agenda, but it’s not just the goal of a lone crusading climate-change denier. What is really worrisome to environmentalists is that while Inhofe’s rhetoric may be more extreme than that of his Republican colleagues, their objectives appear to be the same.
David Goldston, director of government affairs for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the focus on Inhofe is a red herring.
“In the end, I don’t see any difference between Senator Inhofe and Senator McConnell when it comes to these issues,” he said.
There is one instance, however, when a burdensome regulation is worth it for Inhofe. And it involves turtles. For decades, he has vacationed off the coast of Texas on South Padre Island, among the few homes to the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle.
Inhofe remembers the nights he used to volunteer to help hatching sea turtles make their way to the ocean, protecting them from predators. In 2003, Inhofe co-sponsored a bill to force shrimpers to put turtle excluders on their boats to keep from accidentally catching them in their nets.
“It was very inconvenient for them, taking up all that room that they could use to catch more shrimp,” he said in an interview in his Capitol Hill office. “The Chamber of Commerce was mad, the infamous Tom DeLay was really mad because it was in his district. And people say I’m not concerned about the environment.”
Asked what made sea turtles more worthy of burdensome regulations than other objects of environmental concern, Inhofe looked wistfully at a painting of a sea turtle in his office.
“You know, you’d really just have to see a Ridley sea turtle to understand.”
Inhofe, who has been in politics since the late 1960s, likes to say that he’ll stop running for office when he gets too old to fly a plane upside-down. So, on the morning of the Tulsa Christmas parade, he took me up in his “experimental” two-seater to show he was nowhere near that point.
The senator was essentially sitting in my lap; the only thing between us was the back of his seat, which bore this sign: “Passenger Warning. This aircraft is amateur built and does not comply with the federal safety regulations for standard aircraft.”
“He’s a really good flier. He just likes taking risks, so he might show off for you,” his communications director, Donelle Harder, said earlier.
“I recently vomited while flying in ‘the Rocket’ with him,” said an Inhofe field staffer, Michael Junk.
For all the casual talk about adventurous flying, in late 2013, Inhofe’s son Perry, shortly before his 52nd birthday, died in a crash near where we were about to take off. He was flying solo at the time. Heading to the hangar before our flight, Inhofe’s wife, Kay, worried about the fog cover. “I’ve already been through one crash,” she told him.
But Inhofe has never thought about giving up his hobby.
“Not at all,” he said. “We were really an aviation family.”
As with everything else for Inhofe, his faith allowed him to get through the loss.
“I know it’s just a wink in time we’re here and then I’ll be with Perry, and he can explain to me what happened,” Inhofe said. “When you [accept Jesus] you get peace, you just don’t feel anxiety.”
Inhofe is 15 years older than the legal age limit for commercial pilots, and he has already gone under the knife for heart surgery, all of which seemed especially relevant as we screeched down toward the small runway at the private airport outside of Tulsa.
I closed my eyes when it seemed clear that there was not enough real estate to get the plane off the ground, but at the last second, we shot up into the air. Inhofe is always game to put on a show, often more in control than he appears.
“That’s how I cut ribbons at ribbon-cutting ceremonies,” he said with a smirk.