The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Remembering Rep. Don Young of Alaska

The bullheaded GOP congressman was willing to do anything to send money to his home state, even pull a knife

Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) in his Rayburn office in 2010. (Libby Casey)

One of the great stories of Capitol Hill folklore goes like this: Early in John A. Boehner’s career — back when he was a freshman congressman, long before he became House speaker — he gave a floor speech railing against earmarks and suddenly found himself shoved up against the back wall of the House chamber with a 10-inch knife to his throat.

His assailant: Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska).

“He held this blade at my throat, screaming at me,” recalls Boehner, who says that he managed to tell off the Alaskan lawmaker with a curt expletive. “One of the prouder moments of my career.”

As the tale was retold over the years, Young deemed it “mostly true” and claimed the knife blade wasn’t open, but it matched the persona he cultivated until his death on March 18 at the age of 88. Young lay in state at the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday, as congressional leaders took turns sharing tributes, and President Biden made a rare trip to the Capitol to pay his respects. Memorial services are planned for Wednesday in Great Falls, Va., and Saturday in Anchorage.

Don Young, dean of the House of Representatives, dies at 88

Feisty and bullheaded, his office walls covered with animal trophies and a 10-foot grizzly pelt, Young was a former riverboat captain willing to do anything to send money home to Alaska. Boehner’s sin that day on the House floor was attacking the pork barrel spending that secured Young’s job as Alaska’s lone congressman for 49 years, making him the longest-serving Republican in House history — despite his threats of violence, offensive comments and a corruption investigation.

I got to know Young in the 13 years I was a reporter for Alaskan public radio stations, including four as the Washington correspondent for the Alaska Public Radio Network. He routinely kicked me out of his office when I asked a question he didn’t like, whether I was quoting a critic or citing an investigation into one of his spending bills. He would yell and tower over me, or even worse, silently stare me down until he growled, “Get out.”

When I got tickets to a congressional dinner thrown by the Washington Press Club in 2010, I invited Young, never thinking he would say yes. A staffer called to say the congressman would indeed attend and that it would be his first big outing since losing his beloved wife of 46 years, Lu.

Usually at these dinners, people mingle and work the room, but I realized Young was to be by my side for the night. Searching for an icebreaker, I asked if he really carried a knife everywhere, including to a formal dinner.

“That’s right,” he hollered, and pulled out a closed-blade buck knife.

“You can disable a man like this,” he said, and used my gown-clad back to teach me where to strike an attacker with just the knife handle, a defensive skill, he said, every woman should know. I remember the wide eyes of the people near us in the crowded ballroom. That night Young told me stories about his early days on the Yukon River and meeting his wife, a Gwich’in Athabascan who wasn’t interested at first in the cocky newcomer to Alaska. Then Young held my hand and cried as he shared how happy he was the day Lu agreed to marry him.

As we talked, politicians and lobbyists gathered to shake his hand and say, “Hello, Mr. Chairman.” By that point the title was merely honorary because Young had been stripped of his prized and powerful committee leadership by Speaker Boehner. Young was under the cloud of a corruption investigation, and despite our news stories detailing a $10 million earmark benefiting a campaign contributor and an eventual rebuke by the House Ethics Committee for accepting trips and gifts, Alaskans kept sending him back to Washington.

It was an unmatched reelection record that mystified many people — except the ones who voted for him again and again. He bedeviled a Who’s Who of Alaskan Democrats and even Republican challengers.

It didn’t seem to matter what he said or how he said it: He told me the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill was not a natural disaster but nature taking its course. He joked that a set of black eyes, the byproduct of minor surgery, was from a fight with a “greenie commie.” A staunch opponent of gun control, Young told me after Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) was shot at a constituent meet-and-greet in 2011 that he would carry a gun to similar events, “returning anything that happens to me.” He suggested that Jews could have survived the Holocaust if they had been armed. He told lawmakers who wanted to protect the gray wolf that he’d like to introduce wolves to their district and solve their homeless problems. He struggled to backtrack after offhand racial and homophobic slurs.

And just as spring thaw follows winter, Alaskans would reelect Young.

A brief history of Rep. Don Young’s incendiary remarks. (All right, it’s a long history.)

What set Young apart from today’s fever pitch of anger and discord was his willingness to work across party lines and buck Republican leadership, including President Donald Trump, if he felt it would benefit Alaskans or was the right thing to do, like being the lone Republican to vote for a 2019 bill raising humanitarian standards at border detention facilities. Young could go from shoving you — in my case, literally — to bringing you in for a bear hug.

“Don Young worked with people on both sides of the aisle, and he respected people on both sides of the aisle,” Boehner said.

Before his death, Young lamented the loss of days when committee chairs held the power and shared it with members regardless of party, with Democrats and Republicans gathering in a chairman’s office at 5 o’clock to hash out a bill.

“Have a little shot of bourbon and water, maybe a of couple shots, and by the third shot we’d solve the problem,” he told former congressman Sean P. Duffy (R-Wis.) on his “Plaidcast” podcast in 2018.

Young lived long enough to see earmarks, now called “congressionally directed spending,” make a comeback, a decade after Boehner banned them.

In a twist Boehner said he couldn’t have imagined when he was against the wall, he ended up being Young’s best man when Young remarried in 2015 at the Capitol at the age of 82.

“He was as different as they came,” Boehner said, “but a good, solid member who did a whale of a job on behalf of Alaska.”