Before there was Greg Gianforte, there was H. John Rogers.
Gianforte, if you somehow haven't heard by now, is the Republican congressional candidate from Montana who was charged with misdemeanor assault Wednesday after he allegedly grabbed a newspaper reporter by the throat and slammed him to the ground. A Fox News crew witnessed the altercation and has backed the account of the reporter, Ben Jacobs of the Guardian. There is an audio recording of the encounter but no video.
Gianforte's campaign has sought to cast Jacobs as the aggressor, claiming he “shoved a recorder in Greg's face and began asking badgering questions.” Montana voters go to the polls Thursday to decide a special election contest between Gianforte and Democrat Rob Quist to replace Ryan Zinke, who became interior secretary.
So far, Gianforte has shown no remorse. Neither has Rogers, who punched a TV reporter at a news conference in 1981 on the day he launched a Democratic primary campaign to represent West Virginia in the Senate.
When I reached Rogers by phone Thursday, he initially posed as someone else and told me that Rogers was unavailable. But as I described the events of the previous night in Montana and my interest, Rogers's right haymaker of 36 years ago, he revealed his identity and unspooled a dramatic tale, seemingly unable to resist an opportunity to reminisce.
I asked whether he regretted the incident or still felt that the journalist, Loren Tobia of WSAZ-TV, deserved a black eye.
“Oh, he didn't deserve it,” Rogers replied. But, he added, “one of my several weaknesses within Christian theology is I don't have a real sense of guilt. If you spin that tape back, rewind it like a movie, I would've done exactly what I did or I wouldn't have been me.”
The story of Rogers's punch actually begins with what a contemporaneous Washington Post report described as a previous “run-in with New Martinsville Police Chief Anthony Castranova, who claimed that Rogers spit in his face during an argument.”
Rogers confirmed the expectoration and told me he did more than that during a confrontation in a restaurant: “I jumped him. We got in a big fight. Rolled around and stuff like that.”
“This guy was pretty slick,” Rogers said. “Instead of getting me for assault and battery, he got a mental hygiene."
Rogers spent four days in a mental hospital. When he got out, he decided to run for Senate.
He made for a fascinating candidate, to say the least — a brawling, Harvard-educated lawyer who had twice run unsuccessfully for governor. When I suggested during our conversation that Rogers was “well known” to journalists already, he corrected me; “notorious” is the proper description, he said.
Rogers was a primary challenger to Sen. Robert Byrd. He ran for state Senate last year as a Libertarian and finished third.
Rogers called a news conference July 15, 1981. After reading a brief, prepared statement, he said in a gruff voice: “Now, if you have any serious questions, I'll listen to 'em.”
Tobia asked whether Rogers thought his recent stint in a mental institution would affect his candidacy. Rogers, seated at a table with microphones, sprang up, strode over to Tobia and threw a punch.
“Here was the dilemma,” Rogers told me. “Am I going to spend five minutes on TV explaining to this guy that I'm not nuts? Then I would look like Nixon saying, 'I am not a crook.' I guess in retrospect I proved I was nuts. I couldn't figure out what I was going to do. I was never much of a fighter, but my best punch was a sucker punch.”