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Humanity and hubris

Searching for Jim Inhofe

We have a lot of fun here at the home office at the expense of Sen. Jim Inhofe—not that he doesn't deserve it. His peculiar mix of buffoonery, cynicism, ignorance and truculence is positively Pavlovian. A constant facepalm, his career will be studied for years to come—that is, unless his tireless efforts in fighting against global warming solutions, basic human and civil rights for LGBTQ+ people, sensible gun control, universal healthcare, and unseemly work for a shadowy group pushing Jesus in Africa on the government dime, don’t kill us all first. 

“Inhofe has crisscrossed the continent for the Family, bearing its “principles of Jesus” to leaders from Nigeria to Sudan—and often flying on military planes, to which he has access as the second-ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

In America these days—an America currently in the throes of constitutional and philosophical metastatic cancer—the news that Inhofe may seek re-election to the U.S. Senate is, by comparison, a mere case of Shingles. Nevertheless, if Inhofe runs in 2020, and serves a full term, he will have been our United States senator for 32 years, far and away the longest tenure of any elected leader in Oklahoma history.

Inhofe, first elected to the Senate in a 1994 special election, took in $310,000 during the first three months of this year and is well ahead of the fundraising pace of his 2013-14 reelection campaign, according to Federal Election Commission reports. (Tulsa World)

In the story by Tulsa World’s Randy Krehbiel, neither Inhofe nor his staff would admit he’s running again, but that’s just a formality. Inhofe may be culturally mean-spirited, intellectually dishonest, and pretend he abhors government, but he likes vexing liberals more. Oklahoma’s Senate seat is his for as long as he wants it—and it's not like Republicans these days have a reputation for casting out the cultural and intellectual cluelessness from their midst.

Most of the $310,000 came from out of state, and 60 percent was from political action committees.

That is the kind of fundraising data that would send Inhofe into orbit if, say, a Democratic opponent raised that kind of money from outside Oklahoma. But Inhofe is nothing if not selectively indignant.  

According to OpenSecrets.org, the Center for Responsive Politics, the senator loves him some big donors.

From 2015-2020, he has received $1.3 million from PACs (energy and defense are the top contributors. Our own OGE Energy Group was his second largest), $846,000 from large individual contributions, but only about $12,000 from small contributions of less than $200, in case you’re wondering whose calls get answered when the phone rings in the office.
Inhofe, as often mentioned in these parts, is off his political rocker, combining both doddering cantankerousness and evangelical goofiness.

Only God can change climate: “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.” (Market Watch)

Even so, and for reasons that defy understanding, I’ve been wondering lately if there is something about Jim Inhofe, beyond his sloganeering and posturing, that I'm missing … that everyone on the left is missing? Is there more to this man who brought a snowball on the Senate floor to “disprove” climate change or refused to take his horse for a trot because a parade in Tulsa didn't place “Jesus” in a big enough font on the posters?

For some answers, I called up good friend of the column Ken Neal, former editorial page editor of The Tulsa World, who has known Inhofe for 45 years. He first started covering Inhofe in 1974, when Inhofe ran for governor (and lost ignominiously; David Boren beat him by more than 325,000 votes). Neal and Inhofe are not, in fact, friends, but after spending that much time in the same arena with someone, you tend to develop a mutual respect for each other’s game.

“Jim is and has been dead wrong on cultural matters,” Neal says. “His initial senatorial campaign in 1994 was ‘guns, gays and god’ and he of course is an idiot on abortion, climate change, economics, etc.”

I must interrupt for a moment. It’s the “and he of course is an idiot on …” that makes it art.

Let’s continue.

“But he is the consummate politician, understanding Oklahomans far better than any of us,” Neal says. “Inhofe is hopelessly partisan as evidenced by his failure to stand up to Trump. He could make himself a statesman by leading the charge against this truly terrible president.”

Nothing much out of the ordinary there, but then Neal reminds us that there have been a number of Jim Inhofes through the years. There was the Inhofe who, when mayor of Tulsa, put together a consortium of local refuse operators that corrected a very poorly operated and corrupt system; there was the Inhofe who arranged a complicated deal that resulted in the low water dam; there was the Inhofe who fought for the first one-cent sales tax for capital expenditure, which has been a mainstay for Tulsa capital spending since it was passed in 1980; and there was the Inhofe who helped make The River Parks a reality. 

Inhofe is someone, Neal tells me, who understands you need money to build roads, which means he’s willing at times to make a deal, which is a good thing because that’s how the work of government gets done;  unfortunately, he’s never willing to make such deals on things like expanding healthcare or tempering his giddiness of the often execrable U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) or his full-throated support of a racist president. Compared to the sanctimony of his colleague of many years, Tom Coburn, Inhofe was and is the more effective senator, but that bar is set pretty low and man does not live by owning the liberals and tax breaks alone.

He has had his moments, though. 

After initially opposing the findings of the effects of toxic mine tailings on the people of Picher, Oklahoma, Inhofe was convinced by experts the best thing was to shut the city down and relocate the residents.

He led that effort.

Let that sink in: Inhofe changed his mind after listening to experts on an issue.

If only it happened more often

Inhofe remains, most notably, unconvinced by the overwhelming scientific consensus around climate change, but only a cynic would say that has something to do with the contributions he receives from energy companies. 

Call me a cynic.

All that aside, what do you do with this? 

When Inhofe’s son Perry died in a plane crash in Owasso in 2013, the senator’s tin-eared bombast was temporarily shelved and replaced by a kinder, gentler, humbler man—one almost unrecognizable.

In the wake of his personal tragedy, Inhofe said, “All of a sudden the old barriers that were there — the old differences, those things that keep us apart — just disappear. It’s not just a recognition that I know how much more important this is, but they do, too. And they look out. And they realize that you’ve lost someone. And that brings us closer together.” (HuffPost)

He was talking about the Senate. He was talking about his colleagues. He was talking about Democrats, and he was talking about then-Senate Majority Leader, Nevada’s Harry Reid.

“Harry and I ... disagree on all this stuff, this political stuff. But we were both married the same year, in 1959. And we’ve both had some illnesses. So yeah, I would say that when something like this happens, you get closer together. The differences are still there. ... But your attitude changes,” said Inhofe.

But there were those who didn’t draw nearer—his own people. Republicans. 

It stung.

“I probably shouldn’t say this, but I seem to have gotten more — well at least as many, maybe more — communications from some of my Democrat friends,” Inhofe told host David Gregory on NBC’s Meet the Press. “And I’m a pretty partisan Republican.” 

Neal went to that memorial service for Perry.

They embraced, and the senator, according to Neal, held on.

“I don’t know how to explain it—the deep feeling we both had at Perry’s funeral. Guess just two old guys with children empathizing.”

I wrote Inhofe and asked him—not about the funeral, obviously—about policy, friendship, adversaries, and when your world view, even if just temporarily, changes. What came back was pretty boilerplate:
 “I think there is a lot of time and attention in Washington devoted to identifying how people are different. When you put that aside, and focus on the job I’m here to do— represent the people of Oklahoma—I find that I can deliver results by standing up for my conservative principles, but also working honestly and fairly with everyone.” 

This sentiment would be begrudgingly laudable if not uttered by the same guy who questioned the loyalty of Barack Obama (“I just don’t know whose side he’s on”) and said those accusing the first black president of faking his U.S. birth certificate “have a point.”

So maybe that hug means nothing, but maybe—maybe—there’s something restorative and reassuring about it.

Were there more moments Neal would share?

There was one in particular.

“His staff once sent me a bouquet of black roses with a fake dead bird in it.”

Which is just about perfect

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