The Ten Dimmest Bulbs in Congress
H.L. Mencken once wrote that since elections produced such dreadful results, citizens should stop wasting their time voting and simply pick their representatives at random from the phone book. Mencken's barb has even more sting these days since the quality of political leadership seems to have dropped precipitously, as a few random hours watching C-Span quickly reveals. Identifying the ten most dimwitted members of Congress was a difficult task. To do so, I canvassed several dozen sources-liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican-on Capitol Hill. Seven freshmen and one sophomore won a place on the list. Thanks to the sheer brute stupidity of these newcomers, world-class contenders like New York Senator Alfonse D'Amato and California Representative Bob Dornan didn't even come close to making the final cut. Before turning to the roll call, a few caveats. First, I intended to create a bipartisan list, but was unable to come up with any suitable Democratic candidates. This in no way reflects the high intellectual caliber of the party, which has its fair share of nitwits. However, I found that while Democrats were eager to point to Republicans, the opposite was not the case: Republicans fingered their own. "That's the luxury you have when you're in the majority," one Democratic staffer complained bitterly. Second, while most of the members here come from the GOP's right wing, it would be a mistake to conclude, as many liberals do, that conservatives are generally dumb: Newt Gingrich and Jesse Helms are anything but stupid. Finally, while the distinguished members of the list may enrich the nation's political folklore, their foolishness is dangerous. That said, the winners are: No. 10 Representative Martin Hoke, Ohio (first elected in 1992) Hoke, a millionaire businessman, was a political unknown when he defeated Representative Mary Rose Oakar in 1992. He's accomplished little in Washington and would likely still be unknown if it weren't for his frequent blunders. After President Clinton's 1994 State of the Union address, Hoke and a Democratic colleague, Eric Fingerhut, were asked for comment by a local network affiliate. The pair was wired up by producer Lisa Dwyer. As she walked away, Hoke -- unaware that his observations were being recorded by an open microphone-exclaimed in a mock accent, "She has the beeeeeg breasts." The day after this slip, Hoke expressed a certain relief when an escaped Ohio convict went on a murder spree, suggesting to a reporter that the killings might knock his remark about Dwyer off the front pages of local newspapers. This was not Hoke's only slip in the area of gender politics. Interviewed by The New York Times's Maureen Dowd about the life of the single man on Capitol Hill, Hoke, a divorcee, replied, "I could date Maria Cantwell or Blanche Lambert -- they're hot." Cantwell and Lambert, fellow members of Congress, were not amused. Hoke fervently attacks "big government," but sometimes seems unfamiliar with his target. In 1992, he was demanding urgent reform at the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation, an agency abolished three years earlier. When Hoke defeated Oakar he had the band at his victory party play, "Ding Dong, the Witch Is Dead." Commenting on Hoke's D.C. exploits, Oakar has suggested that the Congressman should change the tune to another song from The Wizard of Oz: "If I Only Had a Brain." No. 9 Representative Don Young, Alaska (1973) The new head of the House Resources Committee, Young is best known for his rabid attacks on ecologists. Animal-rights advocate Mary Tyler Moore once read a poem about the cruelty of steel-jaw leg-hold traps before the Merchant Marine subcommittee, where Young previously served. Accompanying Moore was Cleveland Amory, who periodically inserted a pencil in a trap, causing it to snap shut. The moment was highly charged and Young, as a hunter and trapper, realized dramatic action was required to turn the tide. His solution was to place his hand into a trap he had brought along to the hearing, and then begin to calmly question a witness as though nothing unusual had happened. "I never told anyone, but it hurt like hell," Young later confided to a Congressional staffer. Young also made use of a visual aid at a 1994 hearing during which he waved an 18-inch oosik -- the penis bone of the walrus -- at Mollie Beattie, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Beattie had suggested that Alaskan Natives should be able to sell oosiks only as handicrafts, not uncarved, a proposal Young derided. The incident was especially embarrassing because Beattie is the first woman to head the Service, and the hearing marked her debut on the Hill. Earlier this year, a group of students in Fairbanks invited the Alaskan wild man to speak about the GOP's "Contract with America." Young expounded on a number of his favorite topics, including the need to slash federal funding of the arts. The government, Young said, has funded "photographs of people doing offensive things" and "things that are absolutely ridiculous." One student asked Young what sort of things he had in mind. "Buttfucking," the Congressman replied (a reference to a 1990 exhibit of Robert Mapplethorpe photographs in Cincinnati supported by the National Endowment for the Arts). Young defended his remarks, saying he was merely "trying to educate" the inquisitive youngsters. No. 8 Representative Sonny Bono, California (1994) Sonny Bono, the new Representative of California's forty-fourth district, is best known in his post-Cher incarnation for his four guest appearances on Love Boat. He didn't enter politics because of any keen desire to better the world. He was simply mad about how long it took to get a permit to open a restaurant in Palm Springs. Bono's mental shortcomings have long made him a subject of scorn among California politicians. During his run for Congress last year, Palm Desert councilman Walt Snyder called Bono a "laughingstock," and Representative Al McCandless charged that he took "pride in not having studied [the] issues until just a few months ago." Snyder and McCandless, incidentally, are both Republicans, and they both supported Bono in his race against Democrat Steve Clute. Bono served as mayor of Palm Springs between 1988 and 1992. His public-relations director, Marilyn Baker, later revealed to the Los Angeles Times that she had to rewrite the mayor's agendas into script form so Bono could conduct official business. "For call to order, I wrote, 'Sit.' For salute the flag, I wrote, 'Stand up, face flag, mouth words.' For roll call, I wrote, 'When you hear your name, say yes,'" recalled Baker, who quit after three depressing months of service. Bono's current legislative director, Curt Hollman, is charged with the Herculean task of summarizing complex issues in short, simple memos that Bono can comprehend. Unfortunately, Hollman can't watch over Bono during all of his assignments. At one Judiciary Committee hearing, Bono complained, "Boy, it's been flying in this room like I can't believe today. We have a very simple and concise bill here, and I think it would be to everyone's pleasure if we would just pass this thing." This prompted New York's Charles E. Schumer to dryly reply, "We're making laws here, not sausages." On another occasion, Bono complained that his colleagues were becoming needlessly bogged down in "technical" matters and legalese. This about the Judiciary Committee, which writes laws and deals with trifling matters such as constitutional protections. No. 7 Representative Jack Metcalf, Washington (1994) Metcalf describes himself as "a guy willing to take some kamikaze runs," a statement reflected in some of his policy stances. He has advocated, for example, a return to the gold standard and the abolition of paper money. Even The Wall Street Journal once mocked Metcalf for keeping company with "gold bugs, tax protesters, and conspiracy theorists," and noted with concern that he had secretly buried in the woods thousands of dollars in silver coins in expectation that "a cataclysm of some sort [will] engulf the nation." Metcalf frequently adopts positions that don't square with his actions. He is an ardent champion of term limits, yet he has served for twenty-four years in the Washington state legislature. During the 1994 campaign, he pounded his Democratic opponent, Harriet Spanel, with charges that she opposed the death penalty and was generally indulgent of the criminal element. Then, during the final days of the race, the Metcalf camp covertly contracted prisoners at the Washington State Reformatory to conduct its telemarketing operation. The sixty-seven-year-old Metcalf is an old-fashioned sort, as seen in his views on curbing teen pregnancies. As he told interviewers from Republican Beat-a fictitious youth magazine dreamed up by Spy-people under sixteen "need to be closely chaperoned by their parents. They won't like that, but what causes teenage pregnancies all over that we're worried about is unchaperoned kids. Period." Despite his lack of brain power, the courtly Metcalf is popular in Congress, where he is seen as a well-meaning simpleton. "Jack wants to do the right thing," says one House staffer. "He just doesn't have a clue as to what the right thing is." No. 6 Representative J.D. Hayworth, Arizona (1994) A former TV sportscaster and football player, Hayworth, like Gerald Ford, appears to have forgotten his helmet one too many times. At a recent convention of People for the West!, a group linked to the Wise Use movement, Hayworth said that logging was a particularly beneficial activity because forests are a fire hazard. Hayworth's entire political philosophy can be boiled down to "Big government, bad; less government, good." The Arizona Republic has said that "substance has never been a strong suit of Hayworth's (even by sportscasting standards)," and that he even has "to read his cliches from a script." Hayworth's major activity since coming to Washington -- and one that invariably sets off waves of anguished head-slapping on the floor -- is his daily one-minute statement. His attempts at humor elicit groans, as when he suggested to the opposition party that it "hire Freddy Krueger as the new liberal Democrat spokesman" and "set up a new political-action committee, the 'Whine Producers.'" Though decidedly dumb, Hayworth is also smooth and relentless. "You can't have a real debate with Hayworth," says one Democratic staffer. "He talks as passionately about his need to take a No. 1 as he does about the need to cut government spending." No. 5 Representative John Hostettler, Indiana (1994) Hostettler's dumb roots run deep. He's an enthusiast of Dan "Potatoe" Quayle, who campaigned on Hostettler's behalf. And he has Quayle's penchant for putting his foot in his mouth. In opposing gun control to a group of high-school students, he suggested that the Second Amendment allowed for the private ownership of nuclear weapons as well as handguns. He alienated Jewish voters when at a candidates' forum he made reference to the people "who killed Jesus Christ." Hostettler sometimes cites historical precedent in pushing the Contract with America, though his grasp of the subject is shaky at best. He blithely supported slashing government spending, including deep cuts in social programs, saying in a speech on the House floor on March 16 that "American society can and will take better care of its needy without the interference of the federal government." To back this assertion, he referred to the progressive era, when "local charitable agencies" looked after the poor. (Never mind progressive-era books, like Lincoln Steffens's The Shame of the Cities and Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, that detailed the urban misery that private charities failed to dent.) "The signature notion of the progressive era was the demand for government regulation to ameliorate society's injustices," says Josh Brown, a historian and media director of Hunter College's American Society History Project. "Hostettler's got his history all wrong."No. 4 Representative Frank Cremeans, Ohio (1994) "The Greeks and the Romans were homosexuals. Their civilizations did not stand. Did they come in contact with a social disease like AIDS? I don't know the answer. But I wonder."This was Frank Cremeans pondering the enigmas of history during the 1994 campaign against Democrat Ted Strickland. Comments like this prompted the Dayton Daily News to call Cremeans "a bad joke" whose election would constitute "a mockery of democracy." Cremeans has continued to make bizarre statements since taking up residence in the Capitol. He once declared his opposition to sex before marriage, saying that "marriage is a very sanctimonious commitment." In an interview with a radio station in Marietta, Ohio, during which he discussed Congress's first 100 days under Newt Gingrich, Cremeans excitedly declared to the show's host, "Just think about it, Mike, we're advancing backwards!" Cremeans might have ranked lower here but, unlike some of his competitors, is smart enough to know he's dumb. He wisely refuses to answer any substantive questions from the press or public, referring all such inquiries to his chief of staff, Barry Bennett, a prominent Ohio Republican who is viewed in Washington as Cremeans's babysitter. "His handlers can tell him anything and he'll simply repeat it over and over," says one committee staffer familiar with Cremeans. "He takes direction well but when he tries to think on his feet he quickly gets into trouble." No. 3 Senator Larry Pressler, South Dakota (1978) Most recently noted for his attacks on public broadcasting, Pressler, the only Senator to make the list, is considered to be a hopeless nitwit by virtually all of his colleagues. Ted Kennedy once asked a former Senatorial colleague of Pressler, "Has he had a lobotomy?" South Dakota's other senator, Thomas Daschle, said of Pressler, "A Senate seat is a terrible thing to waste." Pressler has had repeated difficulties with closets. On one occasion he fell asleep in one and arrived late to an important hearing. In another incident he rose from a meeting with colleagues in the Commerce Committee and mistook a closet door for the exit. He realized his mistake but apparently thought the best strategy would be to wait to emerge until everyone else left the room, a tactic that failed when his companions decided to wait him out. Pressler has sponsored virtually no important legislation during his two decades in Washington, a fact he seeks to obscure by issuing frequent press releases touting his meager achievements. One example: "New York Times Carries Pressler Drought Letter." Parliamentary procedure has never been one of Pressler's strong points. During the recent mark-up of the Omnibus Telecommunications Bill, lobbyists assisting the proceedings on TV from a Commerce Committee anteroom roared with laughter as Chairman Pressler mangled the hearings. To keep him from participating in committee affairs, Republican staffers distract Pressler with a constant stream of unimportant memos. No. 2 Representative Helen Chenoweth, Idaho (1994) Chenoweth -- an ultraconservative who prefers to be called Congressman-is a close political and philosophical ally of the loonier sectors of the militia movement. Earlier this year she claimed that federal agents enforcing the Endangered Species Act were landing black helicopters on ranchers' properties in western states.On the campaign trail last year, Chenoweth held fundraisers where she sold baked Sockeye Salmon, an endangered species. Asked if she believed the Sockeye were truly threatened, she said, "How can I, when you can go in and you can buy a can of salmon off the shelf in Albertson's?" According to Chenoweth, "It's the white Anglo-Saxon male that's endangered today." To one group of scientists who testified before the resources committee, Chenoweth said, "I want to thank you for all being here and I condemn the panel." At a field hearing on the Endangered Species Act in New Bern, North Carolina, she apologized to a witness, saying, "I didn't understand everything you said. You all talk so funny down here." On the House floor, she once protested, "Excuse me, but can someone please explain what an ecosystem is?" Chenoweth blindly attacks any proposal emanating from the White House. She once arrived badly late to an energy subcommittee hearing, and quickly began attacking Administration officials who were testifying about a proposed bill that she opposed. The acting chair, John Doolittle of California, finally cut Chenoweth off to inform her that the officials shared her position.No. 1 Representative Jon Christensen, Nebraska (1994) Unquestionably the dumbest man to serve in the 104th Congress, Christensen rails against the "liberal elite," whom he claims is out of touch with the daily struggles of common folk. Christensen himself has no achievements to speak of, and, prior to his election, lived off the interest income of his wife, Meredith, who springs from a rich Texas clan. After graduating from law school, Christensen twice failed the Nebraska bar exam, finally squeaking through on his third attempt. No law firm would hire him (except for clerking duties), so Christensen was forced to sell insurance. He supplemented his income by peddling lawn fertilizer out of his garage. In a brazen display of resume inflation, Christensen now describes his past positions as "Insurance Marketing Director" and "Fertilizer Holding Company Executive." During the 1994 campaign, Christensen held a question-and-answer session at Omaha's Westside High School. Apparently fearful that their man would wither under pressure, Christensen's aides prepared questions in advance and handed them out to students who were volunteers for his campaign, telling them to clutch their pens in their hand so the candidate would know who to call on. Other students learned of the fix, and foiled Christensen's plot by holding pens in their hands when asking questions. "If he can't stand up to a roomful of seventeen-year-olds, how is he going to stand up to the U.S. Congress?," Westside senior Joey Hornstein asked the local press. During a radio interview in Nebraska, Christensen vigorously attacked welfare recipients, saying he favored cutting all government "hand-outs and subsidies" to "eliminate people's reliance on government." When the host pointed out that Christensen had outstanding student loans of between $30,000 and $100,000, the Congressman feebly replied, "Well, I wouldn't have been able to go to school if I didn't have a student loan." In another staggering display of imbecility, Christensen once called a press conference to announce his personal deficit-reduction plan, which called for cuts in government spending of $1.5 trillion. When informed by a reporter that $1.5 trillion was the entire budget, a bewildered Christensen hastily changed topics.