Ill Natured

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JANUARY 20, 2003

Ill Natured

Last month, Republican Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma listened to
Trent Lott speak and gave this assessment: "I think that is a stupid
statement. " Only Inhofe wasn't referring to Lott's repugnant
birthday salute to Strom Thurmond. To the contrary, Inhofe calls
Thurmond "a great man" and blames Lott's demise on the liberal
media. What this snarling conservative actually found so offensive
was Lott's subsequent contrition--specifically his public regret
for having opposed a national Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
Inhofe wasn't in the Senate at the time, but he wanted to make sure
people knew that, had he been there, "I would have voted the same
way."But then, Jim Inhofe has never cared much for mainstream opinion.
Although he has attracted little national attention during his 16
years in Congress, he has consistently been among the most bilious
and defiant conservatives in Washington. He has compared the
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to the Gestapo, vowed not to
hire openly gay staffers, and, in the days after September 11, led
a craven--and widely denounced--effort to link Alaskan oil-
drilling to the attacks and ram it through. Perhaps people ignored
Inhofe because for years he was little more than a back-bencher.
But lately his influence has grown substantially. In a bit of dark
comedy, the Republican conquest of the Senate last year installed
Inhofe--a former developer and Congress's top recipient of oil and
gas industry contributions--as chairman of the Senate Environment
and Public Works Committee. Having risen to become the
third-ranking GOP member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, he
is also becoming a GOP talking head of choice on national security
issues.

Now that Republicans control the White House and Congress, their
greatest fear is that they will overreach and frighten away voters
like Newt Gingrich's revolutionaries did in the mid-'90s. And, if
there's anyone liable to send socially moderate suburbanites
speeding toward Democrats by the SUV-load, it's Inhofe. Maybe
that's why he seems to be trying to moderate his image for the
first time. But, to judge from Inhofe's history, one suspects he's
less like cooling lava than a briefly dormant volcano.

It would be hard to construct a man who better fits the stereotype
of an angry right-winger than Jim Inhofe. For starters, there is
his gruff, macho appearance--reminiscent of the cigar-chomping
General Jack D. Ripper, the fanatical anti-communist who rants
about bodily fluids and touches off nuclear Armageddon in Dr.
Strangelove. The senator hails from Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he was a
real estate developer, state representative, and mayor--making his
name as a scourge of liberals and goody-two-shoes regulators. (Even
by Oklahoma standards, Tulsa, home to Oral Roberts University and a
60-foot statue of praying hands, is a conservative place, a ground
zero for red-state values.) In 1967, he made his first trip to
Washington to testify against Lady Bird Johnson's seemingly
unassailable highway beautification project, which sought to limit
billboards and junkyards along the nation's new interstates. As a
state senator, in 1972, Inhofe declared that Jane Fonda and George
McGovern should be hanged for their opposition to the Vietnam War.

Inhofe was elected to the House in 1986 and quickly got to work
defending business interests, especially the oil and gas industry.
But he was also a rebellious ideologue. In 1993, he drew the
acclaim of everyone from Rush Limbaugh to The New York Times for a
crusade to end the secrecy of House "discharge petitions," signed
by members to force votes on stalled legislation. But Inhofe's beef
was not so much with secrecy as with impurity within the
conservative ranks: Open disclosure, he said at the time, was the
only way to expose "the many members who get reelected by voting
liberal and having conservative press releases."

Some politicians try to moderate their image when they seek
statewide office, but not Inhofe. When he ran for Senate in 1994,
he described his own platform as "God, gays, and guns." Once in the
Senate, Inhofe quickly became known as a virulent Bill
Clinton-basher ("Clinton's unquestionably the worst commander-in-
chief in the history of America," he would declare) and an obsessive
enemy of bureaucracy and regulation. To Inhofe, even Timothy
McVeigh's 1995 terrorist bombing in his own state involved a
lazy-bureaucrat subplot. On the day after the catastrophe, as
rescue workers combed through the rubble searching for bodies,
Inhofe explained to CNN, "We are not sure how many federal
employees are missing because we don't know how many were playing
hooky." And, when it came to gays, Inhofe was on the furthest
fringe. As late as 1993, he ruled out hiring openly gay staffers,
telling The Daily Oklahoman it could be "disruptive in terms of
unit cohesion," as if he were the commander of some crack Capitol
Hill platoon. He also led the fight for a gay-marriage ban in 1996.
Uglier still was his crusade against Clinton's nomination of James
Hormel, an openly gay businessman, to U.S. ambassador to
Luxembourg. Although Luxembourg is the size of Rhode Island, and
its very existence may be news to many Americans, Inhofe saw a
moral outrage. Declaring Hormel "a gay activist who puts his agenda
ahead of the agenda of America," he stalled the nomination for two
years. (Inhofe, attempting to sound fair-minded, said he would
"feel the same way if it were David Duke.")

All this defiant crusading reached its apex in May 1999, when a
propeller fell off a small airplane Inhofe was flying over
Oklahoma. After landing unscathed, Inhofe insisted that the FBI
investigate for signs of sabotage. None were found, but more than
one Clinton-bashing website smelled foul play. "Anti- Clinton
senator's airplane propeller falls off ... hmm," wrote one. "Inhofe
... believes he's been targeted by `someone' for an 'Arkancide' and
... even jokes about the obvious sabotage attempt," added another.
Sound crazy? One former top Clinton administration official
recounts seeing Inhofe on Capitol Hill soon after the episode and
expressing relief that he was unhurt. "You don't mean that," Inhofe
coldly replied. "You were hoping that I'd died."

Throughout his congressional career, Inhofe has applied this level
of extremism to the issue over which he now has the most clout: the
environment. When Inhofe was passed over for chairman of the
environment committee after then-Chairman John Chafee's death in
1999, liberals were horrified at the choice: Senator Bob Smith, who
had a nearly pure pro-business record. But Smith told the greens to
count their blessings: "You think I'm bad--try Inhofe," he told the
National Association of Manufacturers.

He wasn't kidding. Inhofe rails obsessively against environmental
laws and their enforcers, especially the EPA. At an Environment and
Public Works Committee hearing, he accused the agency of employing
"Gestapo tactics" to intimidate small businessmen. Speaking to a
group of Oklahoma farmers, he likened Clinton's EPA chief, Carol
Browner, to "Tokyo Rose," implying that Browner's pleasant demeanor
masked an insidious secret agenda. (Inhofe spent years bullying
Browner in Senate hearings.) His nuanced view of the Endangered
Species Act was apparent in a 1997 floor debate when he said, "We
want to protect the Arkansas River shiner, a bait fish in Oklahoma,
yet we will allow unborn babies to have their brains sucked out in
a partial-birth abortion." And he is such a zealous advocate of
drilling in the Alaskan wilderness that he fought to cram it into
an emergency defense spending bill in the days after September 11,
2001--a stunt called "an astonishingly crass move" by the Chicago
Tribune and "war profiteering" by the San Francisco Chronicle; the
Orlando Sentinel added that Inhofe "should be ashamed." Inhofe has
even positioned himself to the right of the Bush administration on
the environment. When the White House was under assault this fall
from green groups who doubted the toughness of its new "Clear
Skies" antipollution initiative, Inhofe--though publicly
supportive--was reportedly concerned that the measure went too far.
"He thinks we're not weakening the Clean Air Act enough," says
League of Conservation Voters President Deb Callahan.

That sort of talk may worry the White House, where Karl Rove is
shrewd enough to know that GOP anti-environmentalism was a key
reason the last Republican takeover in Congress ended so quickly.
Perhaps for that reason, Inhofe appears to have been restraining
himself of late. In his reelection campaign last fall, Inhofe toned
down his usual purple rhetoric. Since the elections, Inhofe has
lain low--avoiding interviews, "choosing his words carefully and
... trying to soften his image," as The Washington Post recently
put it. Inhofe "wants to work in a bipartisan way, and he's not
looking for fights right off the bat," his spokesman told the Post.
Instead of railing against the "Gestapo," Inhofe now plays the
intellectual, challenging regulations by invoking his favorite
catchphrase, "sound science." "This administration is so clever
about the dismantling of the regulatory system, and I'm sure
they're working hard to make sure he doesn't disrupt it," says one
former Clinton administration official. "If he gets out there and
says the things he's said historically, that'll get the press's
attention. But right now the administration is sitting below the
radar and is just ripping EPA to shreds. "

But, given his nature, it won't be easy for Inhofe to behave once he
takes over the committee (most likely later this month). For
instance, he may soon be faced with the Mother of All Environmental
Battles, as Joe Lieberman and John McCain say they are preparing to
push an aggressive plan--sure to be furiously opposed by Inhofe's
energy patrons--to lower emissions that may be causing global
warming. What's more, Inhofe probably doesn't think that
moderation--as opposed to butt-kicking conservatism--is the path to
political success. Just think back to June 2001. George W. Bush had
just passed his enormous tax cut, named John Ashcroft attorney
general, and was pushing ahead with missile defense. But Inhofe was
already warning the White House against moving to the left. "[H]is
daddy did the same thing--to get elected and move to the left. ...
If he does ... he won't get reelected in 2004," Inhofe groused. That
suggests Inhofe may not want to play the nice guy for long. Of
course, it's also possible that a fire-breathing Inhofe is just
what Bush wants, a foil against which he can cast himself as a
moderate. "He may be so far out there that he makes the White House
look palatable," Callahan says. Want it or not, Bush may have no
choice.

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