Politics 2005Week of March 7

The Last Angry Man

“As my fellow Missourian Harry Truman used to say, ‘If you want a friend in Washington, buy a dog,'” Rep. Mel Hancock (R.-Mo.) said in 1989. “I say fine, but make sure the dog is from Missouri. If he’s from Washington, that dog is likely to bite you on the behind.”

In the freshman year of Hancock’s eight-year stint in Congress, the plainspoken businessman and political outsider from Springfield clearly demonstrated with many pithy quotes that he never took himself or Washington itself seriously. Indeed, “Quotations from Chairman Mel” were a regular feature in this column in those days and were inevitably a hit with Hancock’s fellow conservatives.

Shortly after he took the oath of office as U.S. representative from Missouri’s 7th District, Hancock made headlines by complaining that the acoustics in the House chamber made it difficult for him to hear, “but, then again, about half of what is said in this place isn’t worth hearing.” When I saw the freshman lawmaker a little later and asked him about the charges of critics that he had shown disrespect toward Congress, Hancock maintained that he had misspoken. “What I meant to say,” he told me, “was that 90% of what is said here isn’t worth hearing!”

One of the earliest champions of term limits for officeholders, an unabashed “againster” who preferred killing legislation to passing any bills (“Mel votes no on everything–including adjournment!” was one of the lines about him), white-haired, chain-smoking Mel Hancock seemed to be Dr. Sam Abelman, the iconoclastic physician-hero of Gerald Green’s epic The Last Angry Man, come to life. The owner of a security-system installation company, Hancock in 1980 crafted and campaigned in favor of the Show-Me State’s celebrated constitutional amendment that placed a cap on the amount of money state government could spend. The opposition forces–backed by the leadership of both major parties–heavily outspent the “yes” campaign, but the Hancock amendment was enacted with a handsome 55% of the vote statewide. In 1994 and ’95, the amendment forced Missouri to return more than $1 billion to taxpayers.

In 1988, Hancock, who never before held office, won the all-important Republican nomination for Congress in the 8th District over three opponents, including the handpicked choice of outgoing Rep. (1972-88) Gene Taylor. In November, with all GOP factions joining ranks behind him, Hancock easily defeated Boll Weevil Democrat and Circuit Judge Max Bacon, gospel-singing friend of then-Republican Gov. (1984-92) John Ashcroft. Eight years later, keeping his original promise to limit his tenure to four terms, Hancock (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 100%) retired to his hometown of Springfield, wife “Shug” and their three children.

Mel’s Still Mad

Last week, I caught up with longtime HUMAN EVENTS subscriber Hancock, now 75, a grandfather of nine and soon to celebrate his 54th wedding anniversary. As when we first met in Springfield 17 years ago when he was planning his initial race for Congress, Hancock is still fervent about the issue of term limits–in striking contrast to most Republicans, whose enthusiasm for the issue has waned since the GOP captured the House in 1994.

“[California Republican Representatives] Christopher Cox and Dana Rohrabacher and [Florida Republican Rep.] Cliff Stearns were among my closest friends when we all came to Congress together in 1988,” recalled Hancock. “This was their first office, as it was for me, and they all said they weren’t going to make Congress a long career. Dana, in fact, told me he would serve no more than 10 years and then go write books and screenplays. Well, it’s almost 20 years later, and they’re all still there!”

Conceding that his three old comrades in Congress still maintain strongly conservative voting records, the man from Missouri said: “That is definitely not the case with most members of Congress. Very few get more conservative the longer they stay there. Most get very used to government and won’t vote to limit it.”

Hancock believes this is the reason, in his words, “that Congress never votes on the things we used to talk about when I got there–like reining in entitlements or the balanced budget amendment or closing down Cabinet agencies such as the Department of Education. And under Republican control, for goodness sake! Whatever happened to getting rid of the National Endowment for the Arts?”

Along with Congress, Hancock voiced disappointment with his fellow Republican in the White House: “There’s got to be a bad bill that has come across his desk sometime in the last four years, but he never vetoed anything.” The former congressman told me he also disliked the White House’s propensity to take away Democratic thunder by enacting measures similar to what Democrats want. “Medicare should have never been passed in the first place. And now Republicans compound the problem by enacting this prescription drug bill when the White House has no idea what it will ultimately cost. Choosing between Democratic and Republican bills on prescription drugs is like saying how do you want to shoot yourself–with a silver bullet or a lead bullet?”

Referring to fellow Springfield native son Ashcroft– “A lot better attorney general and senator than he was governor”–Hancock recalled how “John was not as conservative as he could have been when he was governor because he had to deal with a Democratic-run legislature. Now I don’t see that with Bush. He’s got a Republican Congress. So why he doesn’t veto anything is beyond me. The more bills that are signed into law, the less freedom there is.”

Is there anything about being in Congress that Hancock misses? “No, nothing. I was so sick of that place I was glad to finally leave,” he told me. “I got very tired of dealing with a bunch of people who were interested in what was good for themselves and not for their country.”

Short Takes

Change in Keystone State: As speculation mounts that Pittsburgh Steelers football great Lynn Swann will seek the GOP nomination to oppose Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell, and polls show Democratic state Treasurer Bob Casey, Jr. in a neck-and-neck race with Republican Sen. Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania GOPers recently changed their statewide leadership. Alan Novak, party chairman for a state-record nine years, announced his retirement and was replaced by Eileen Melvin of Somerset County. Despite serving as vice chairman throughout Novak’s tenure, Melvin is considered far more conservative than Novak, a favorite of pro-abortion moderates.

Keystone State GOPers also elected 36-year-old Matthew Kirk of Lancaster County, considered a strong conservative, to succeed Melvin as vice chairman.

New Chairman in New Hampshire: Stung by the narrow loss of its four electoral votes to 2004 Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry (making New Hampshire the only state George W. Bush won in 2000 and then lost last year) and by the election of a Democratic governor, Granite State Republicans recently moved to change their party helm. Jayne Millerick, a target of intra-party criticism for the poor GOP performance last year, stepped down as state chairman. The state Republican committee unanimously elected state Rep. Warren Henderson of Portsmouth, chairman of the state House Education Committee, as the new party leader. Both are generally considered moderate-to-conservative.

‘Heartbeat Away from Scott McClellan’: After years in the political trenches and then as the government voice for disaster relief, one of the best-liked of Washington press operatives has just been named press secretary to Vice President Cheney. At the National Republican Congressional Committee, Lea Anne McBride was the No. 2 person in the press shop and in June 2001 was sent out to quarterback the GOP’s effort in the special-election triumph of Rep. Randy Forbes in Virginia’s 4th District (Tidewater). The victory made Forbes (lifetime ACU rating: 98%) the Republican House member with the highest percentage of African-American constituents in the nation. The following year, McBride went on be the spokeswoman for the Federal Emergency Management Administration. In now assuming the second-highest press job in government, Georgia native McBride becomes, in one Washington wag’s words, “a heartbeat away from [White House Press Secretary] Scott McClellan.”

Cleta to Dole’s Team: Less than a month after her election as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R.-N.C.) is winning loud applause from conservatives for her choice of outside legal counsel to the NRSC. Cleta Mitchell, onetime Democratic state legislator from Oklahoma and a knowledgeable attorney on such important conservative issues as term limits and fighting campaign “reform,” will be the NRSC’s new legal eagle. Dubbed “the Gen. George Patton of the term limits movement” by syndicated columnist George Will, Mitchell was one of the early litigators on behalf of term limits for members of Congress. More recently, the combative Mitchell was in the forefront of legal efforts to upend the oppressive McCain-Feingold legislation in court. Mitchell is also a member of the board of directors of the American Conservative Union.