Oklahoma's senior U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe has built an electoral career out of scorning government, yet collected a taxpayer-financed paycheck for more than half his 77 years.
He's forever posturing as a small government conservative, yet ranks No. 7 this year in the U.S. Senate in bringing home the bacon -- $53.1 million in solo earmarks.
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He's a publicly declared Christian, yet rarely shies away from pursuing policies that gays and immigrants say relegates them to second-class status.
He's arguably the world's leading climate change denier, yet evidently sees no conflict in scoring massive campaign contributions from the very industry -- oil and gas -- that stands to benefit most from his intransigence.
Man of conviction or contradiction?
The answer almost certainly is in the eyes of the beholder. But love him or loathe him -- or dismiss him simply as the equivalent of your family's crazy uncle -- Inhofe cannot help but be regarded as one of the most confounding figures in Oklahoma political history.
How so? Consider this: How can it be that someone who so regularly enrages or alienates politically-active segments of his constituency manages to keep his seat in the nation's most exclusive club, the U.S. Senate?
Especially when that someone is elected from a state with a long, populist tradition of voters viewing their elected officials with suspicion. So much so, in fact, that 22 years ago the state became the nation's first to impose term limits on its legislature, forcing turnover every 12 years, if not at the next election.
"There is a halo around him -- he's hard to beat," says Dr. Bob Darcy, a now-retired Oklahoma State University political science professor who's studied and analyzed state politics for more than three decades.
"Why, I don't know. I suppose if you're a negative voter and are negative toward politicians, Inhofe is your man. He's accomplished nothing. His concept of an accomplishment is, 'I've prevented all this from happening.'"
Inhofe hasn't publicly tipped his hand on whether he will seek a fourth six-year term in 2014, but he appears capable of being one of those Senate lifers in the mold of South Carolina's Strom Thurmond (who served 49 years; he died six months after leaving office at age 100) or West Virginia's Robert Byrd (who served 51 years) and Massachusetts' Edward M. Kennedy (nearly 47 years), both of whom died in office.
"Don't ask me," shrugged Inhofe's former long-time aide, Danny Finnerty, now director of entertainment at the Cherokee Nation's Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Tulsa.
"I think he'll do it as long as he thinks he can be effective."
In politics, the conventional wisdom is that timing is everything. Exhibit A might be Inhofe.
His electoral career began with one term in the Oklahoma House in the late '60s and continued with two terms in the state Senate ending in 1977. It was a time when Republicans were a tiny minority -- so few in numbers, the old joke went, they could caucus in a phone booth.
Before Inhofe departed the Senate, where he served as minority leader, he launched two other bids to climb the political ladder -- neither successful.
In 1974, he made his first run for statewide office: governor. He captured the GOP nomination, but was crushed by a young Democratic legislator with a magic Oklahoma political name: Boren.
Two years later, Inhofe also sought the state's 1st Congressional District seat, defeating then state Sen. Frank Keating and Mary Warner in the GOP primary, but losing to incumbent Democrat James R. Jones in the general election.
After three terms as Tulsa mayor, Inhofe finally claimed the congressional seat in 1986. And in 1994, when the same Boren -- then U.S. Sen. David Boren -- decided to quit politics to become president of the University of Oklahoma, Inhofe was in the right place at the right time: riding the wave of an anti-Bill Clinton-fueled Republican revolution that gave the GOP control of Congress and installed Newt Gingrich as speaker.
How strong was the Republican tide that year?
Inhofe won the Senate seat over a handsome, rising star moderate Democrat, U.S. Rep. Dave McCurdy of Norman, despite revelations (published in The Dallas Morning News) that he misrepresented his academic record.
That Inhofe was forced to acknowledge he didn't graduate from the University of Tulsa in 1959 as he long claimed -- but rather in 1973 -- is the sort of revelation that once upon a time spelled doom in American politics.
Especially for a candidate with a long, sordid past of ugly public dust-ups, ranging from lawsuits that pitted him against family members and his church to claims that problems in his military record were covered up.
Once elected, however, Oklahomans are typically loyal to their chosen representatives, rarely turning out anyone at the highest levels unless they are deemed tone-deaf on key issues or become engulfed in scandal that suggests they're living a champagne diet on the taxpayers' budget.
U.S. Rep. Mike Synar of Muskogee was defeated for re-election in the Democratic primary because he earned the enmity of the gun lobby and big tobacco, among others. Of course, that rare incumbent loss occurred in the 1994 GOP landslide year as well.
The only two other incumbent defeated in the last 20 years were U.S. Rep. Mickey Edwards, R-Oklahoma City, ousted after it became public that he and other representatives were allowed to overdraw their House checking accounts without being penalized by the House bank, and U.S. Rep. John Sullivan, Republican from Tulsa.
Inhofe, it seems, isn't prone to making the kinds of political mistakes that prove to be fatal. One reason: He held early on to a simple, three-point political playbook that plays well in Bible belt Oklahoma: God, guns and gays.
He's also benefitted from the fact that he's a reliable vote for the state's biggest political interests, including oil and gas, defense (the state's largest employer is Tinker Air Force Base) and highway contractors.
Less well known is his connection with one of the nation's premier political advertising gurus, Fred Davis -- Inhofe's nephew. He's crafted campaign messages for some of the nation's leading Republicans, including former President George W. Bush.
Indeed, the website for Davis' firm -- Strategic Perception Inc. -- hails his role in Inhofe's first Senate campaign:
"Davis was drawn into the world of politics in 1994 when, after having moved his business to Los Angeles in the mid '80s and rechristening it as Strategic Perception Inc., he received a call from his uncle, then Oklahoma Congressman James M. Inhofe, to help rescue his campaign for the U.S. Senate. Hired three months prior to the election, when polls showed Inhofe as a 15-point underdog to Congressman Dave McCurdy, Inhofe won the election by 15 points, a 30-point swing in 90 days."
In Oklahoma, despite Inhofe's electoral success, even his staunchest supporters acknowledge he tends to be a polarizing figure ... which helps explain why his approval ratings in statewide polls have ping-ponged over the years between a low of about 50 percent up into the 60-plus-percent territory -- certainly low numbers when compared with former Gov. Brad Henry and current Gov. Mary Fallin.
"If there's one thing about Jim they will never say is he will tell one person his opinion on one issue at one time and 15 mutes later tell somebody else something different," Finnerty says. "Like him or not, agree with him or not, one thing people can depend on is he's going to tell it to you straight.
"As far as his success goes, that's a lot of it. I may not agree with everything he says, but I can believe him, I can trust him that he is going to do what he says he's going to do."
Finnerty acknowledges that Inhofe can rub people the wrong way, but insists "he's a sweet person. He's a nice guy. ... People that don't know him personally never use words 'sweet' and 'nice' in the same sentence with Jim Inhofe."
Scott J. Hamilton, executive director of the Cimarron Alliance, an Oklahoma City-based lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy and education group, certainly wouldn't.
Hamilton recently denounced Inhofe's so-called Military Religious Freedom Act that the senator claims would protect chaplains from being required to perform same sex marriages for military personnel.
"This bill," Inhofe proclaims, "protects military chaplains from being forced to go against their conscience and religious beliefs in regard to this issue. This is something the chaplains that serve this country need and deserve."
Hamilton, associate pastor at Oklahoma City's Church of the Open Arms, says Inhofe "should know that a clergyperson can refuse to marry anyone for any reason. This bill puts the comfort of military chaplains above the rights of the men and women who put their lives on the line for this country every single day.
"This is another transparent attempt to stir up Inhofe's base at the expense of freedom for all Americans. A recent academic report indicates that the elimination of 'Don't Ask-Don't Tell' has had zero effect on our nation's military. Why he won't accept this and move on is beyond understanding.
"Clearly his bigotry has blinded him to the concepts of freedom, justice and equality, the very things he should be advancing for everyone."
Even those who have come to appreciate Inhofe, after working with him on issues, agree that he can be stubborn, even prickly.
John Sparkman, executive director of the Picher Housing Authority, labored for years to convince Inhofe that an environmental disaster was unfolding in the former mining region of northeastern Oklahoma known as Tar Creek.
Lead dust from huge chat piles and mining chemicals leaching into the water supply and waterways were killing people with myriad cancers and creating higher incidents of developmental disabilities among children.
Sparkman and others knew only one thing could save the children of Tar Creek: a government-financed buyout that would move families to safety. But Inhofe wasn't convinced the problem was as bad as it was -- and he was loath to spend taxpayers' money on a buyout.
"In all fairness to the senator, we knew what was going on," Sparkman says. "We knew he wasn't getting the correct information.
"It took some time to find common ground" but eventually Inhofe helped develop a federal-state response that provided residents a financial lifeline to escape the dangers of the superfund site.
"I will forever be grateful for what he did," Sparkman says, "for getting us the buyout up here."
It is fair to say that Inhofe is better known -- at least outside Oklahoma -- for what he's against than for what he's actually accomplished, other than bringing home the bacon.
And what really put Inhofe on the national and international political radar is his certainty that allegations of man-made climate change are pure hogwash.
Inhofe, of course, isn't a trained scientist, but that didn't prevent him from publishing a book earlier this year entitled The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future.
He's also appeared on Christian radio programs, citing Genesis 8:22 as proof that it's impossible for humans to destroy the planet because God is in charge.
In March, for example, Inhofe appeared on Voice of Christian Youth America's radio program Crosstalk, where he said: "Well, actually, the Genesis 8:22 that I use in there is that 'as long as the earth remains there will be seed time and harvest, cold and heat, winter and summer, day and night.' My point is, God's still up there. 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."
Inhofe's invocation of Holy Scriptures plays well politically in Oklahoma with its long, rich history of anti-intellectualism that often results in public scorning of "pointy-headed professors" and "secular humanists."
"I can't understand it," says Vic Hutchison, George Lynn Cross Research Professor Emeritus of Biology at the University of Oklahoma. "But it's true about evolution. It's true about climate warming. It's true about stem cell research.
"It's an anti-intellectual, anti-science bias that I think goes back to religious feelings. ... They just accept what their pastor tells them."
Hutchison, who helps lead a group called Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education (oklascience.org), says he owns an autographed copy of Inhofe's book, given to him "as a joke" by a friend.
"I have flipped through it," says Hutchison. "I see all the errors. It's highly selective. It's out of context. He doesn't read that (science) stuff. That's part of the problem. We read science. They don't."
Moreover, Inhofe has publicly rebuked environmentally active Christians who warn of the consequences of climate change and urge U.S. leaders to take action before it's too late.
When the National Association of Evangelicals expressed concern about climate change, Inhofe summoned their vice president and chief lobbyist at the time, the Rev. Richard Cizik, to his office.
"I sat there with my mouth open," Cizik recalled. "I was asked to explain my evil deeds because we expressed concern over the growing problem of climate change."
Inhofe later asserted that Cizik was bought off by environmentalists -- an ironic charge given that Inhofe has collected $511,250 in campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry since 2007, the industry with the most to gain from keeping the environment's regulatory status quo.
As New York-based environmental attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr. put it, in a tweet last March, Inhofe is "big oil's top call girl."
If Inhofe was bothered by the remark, he never betrayed his true feelings in public. But Finnerty, his former longtime aide, says Inhofe isn't about to reverse course on the subject.
"We talked about it a lot, discussed it a lot," Finnerty says. "Not in sense of debating, because there was no debating this with Jim Inhofe, because he's sure and believes exactly what he's saying.
"It wasn't like he was going to change his mind. The only discussion was how best to present it, how best to explain it without getting into the weeds on the science, so people stopped paying attention."
What will be Inhofe's legacy?
Will he be remembered for bravely standing against conventional wisdom if climate change doesn't turn out to be as serious as science suggests?
Or will he be largely forgotten, a footnote at best in American political history alongside other unlamented long-serving senators like Indiana's Homer Capehart (1945-63), Iowa's Bourke Hickenlooper (1945-69), South Dakota's Karl Mundt (1948-73) or Nebraska's Roman Hruska (1954-76)?
The jury is still out.
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