Larry Pressler, the once-and-maybe-future senator from South Dakota, may be the single most interesting candidate of 2014.
On Wednesday night, he'll recite some cowboy poetry at a campaign stop in Sioux Falls. It is unclear whether the poetry is his own or someone else's. Aside from being a poet laureate of the West, Pressler's career looks like a crazy quilt of personal and political moves. He was a Rhodes scholar, went to Harvard Law, and served two tours of duty in Vietnam before going on to serve for nearly 20 years as a Republican senator for South Dakota. Now, at 72, he's running for his old seat again, this time as an independent.
In February, Pressler wrote a column in The Huffington Post announcing his new bid for the Senate and describing his unwitting role in Abscam—the FBI sting operation depicted in the movie American Hustle. Pressler writes that a "prominent Washington D.C. socialite" approached him in the fall of 1979 asking if he'd like to meet with some wealthy donors who were interested in helping to bail him out of the debt he'd racked up during his failed presidential campaign. Pressler agreed to the meeting.
"On the appointed day, we arrived at a two-story redbrick colonial home on fashionable W Street," Pressler wrote. "Inside, the house was furnished with exquisite antiques, elegant chandeliers and, as I would later learn, a battery of hidden television cameras and microphones. Unwittingly, my inexperienced fundraiser had led me into a hornets' nest—the most elaborate undercover sting operation ever launched by the FBI."
At the meeting, "a swarthy man who appeared to be from the Middle East" offered to donate to Pressler in exchange for voting on a bill that would allow a sheikh to evade U.S. immigration law. Pressler, sagely, declined the deal, but seven members of Congress were eventually convicted of accepting bribes.
Pressler's act of morality led Walter Cronkite to ask, "What have we come to if turning down a bribe is considered heroic?"
Throughout his career, Pressler hasn't been content to be relegated to political trivia. In 1979, he ran for president in a campaign that lasted 106 days. In 1998—after Sen. Tim Johnson took his Senate seat—Pressler considered running for mayor of Washington.
Pressler promised to mold Washington into "Hong Kong by the Potomac" by eliminating income taxes and federal capital gains taxes within the District, according to a 1998 Washington Post article.
A white, Republican mayor in D.C. may seem more plausible in 2014, but in 1998 it was risible. In 1990, 65.8 percent of the District's population was black. (By 2013, that share of the population had decreased to 49.5 percent.) So why run? Pressler explained at the time: "I have a lot of African-American friends."
There is also this amazing detail from the same Post story:
[Pressler] once mistakenly walked into a closet while intending to leave a Senate committee meeting. He stayed there for several minutes. Virtually everyone in the room seemed aware that the senator was in the closet. When he stepped out—to cover his embarrassment—he paused and waved as though conferring with someone who was still inside.
Mike Rounds, a Republican, remains the front-runner in the South Dakota Senate race. But Pressler is bringing up the rear, despite having spindly funds and exactly one campaign staffer. A poll released Monday gave Pressler 23 percent of the vote, behind Rounds's 37 percent and Democrat Rick Weiland's 33 percent. Pressler has not said whether he would caucus with Democrats or Republicans if he's elected, but he has said he'd "be a friend of Obama" in the Senate.
You know how the old saying goes: If you want a friend in Washington, get a cowboy poet.