Are You Trying to Seduce Me, Mrs. Chenoweth?
To fall under the spell of the conservative right's dusky siren, to entertain her environmentally suspect vision, well, nothing seemed more unlikely. Then she — belipsticked, besilked, beguiling — entered the room.
By Daniel Coyle
Out of the shimmering blast furnace of an Idaho August morning, the white sedan appears like a mirage. It glides sharklike to the curb, a gleaming capsule of chrome and smoked windows. Scott, an agile, crisp-shirted staffer, emerges and ushers me wordlessly toward the opening door, toward the plush, raspberry-toned sanctum of the backseat, toward ... her. "Hel-looo," Helen Chenoweth purrs. She wears a midnight-blue silk pantsuit, a light spray of gold jewelry, and fashionably oversize black sunglasses that she now slides to the tip of her aquiline nose, the better to see me with. She's poised and immaculate and — it must be said — as ineffably sexy as a 60-year-old divorced grandmother of six and member of the U.S. House of Representatives could possibly be. Perhaps it's the glint of those Maybelline peppermint lips. Perhaps it's the knowing lilt of her voice. Perhaps it's the fervent buzz of controversy that follows her every move, the notoriety that she wears with a cool mix of disregard and pride. Whatever it is, it's clear that Helen Chenoweth knows what it's like to be cast as a femme fatale, and on some level enjoys it.
"Trouble's my middle name," she will say later, referring to a scheduling problem. Then she'll laugh her low and throaty laugh to show that she knows how over-the-top that is. And also how true.
Among environmentalists' kinder appellations for Chenoweth: "A nightmare on wheels." "A nature-hater." "She never met an endangered species she didn't want to eat." "Frightening." "Wacko." "The Wicked Witch of the West." Somewhat more formally, the League of Conservation Voters recently chose her to headline its Dirty Dozen members of Congress and is devoting more than $200,000 to a second effort to oust her in favor of a moderate Democrat, Dan Williams. The anti-Helen sentiment stretches from Washington, where House minority leader Richard Gephardt has declared her "the face of the new Republican party," to Hollywood, where Oliver Stone, Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Michael Douglas, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and Rob Reiner recently attended a $10,000-per-couple Democratic Party fund-raiser, at which Chenoweth's seat was singled out as a chief target. By virtue of Idaho's abundant slate of resource issues and Chenoweth's position as chairman of the Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health, she has a glossy fingernail in just about every one of the West's Big Topics — salmon, grazing rights, old-growth forests, endangered species, you name it, all of which means that in the run-up to the November 3 election, Chenoweth is Environmental Public Enemy Number One, and Idaho's first district ranks as something of a ground zero.
"Chenoweth is the cream of the extreme," says Deb Callahan, president of the League of Conservation Voters. "There are a lot of important elections this time around, but this one is special."
Scott punches the accelerator and the car leaps down the two-lane highway, following the Clearwater River toward the town of Orofino and the Dworshak Dam. There's no time to waste — we're running late for a hearing on dams and salmon recovery, a hot-button issue, especially considering that the National Marine Fisheries Service is considering breaching dams to help restore the Snake River's sockeye runs. Besides, Chenoweth doesn't want to disappoint the hometown folks. Though born in Kansas and raised in Oregon, she spent her early married years in Orofino, a timber town of 3,000. By rights, I expect Chenoweth to put on a show: attacking the idea of protecting the salmon, perhaps referring to the "endangered-salmon bakes" she held during her first run for Congress. Or terming environmentalism a "government-inspired religion," as she's also done. Or even flaunting that "Earth First! We'll Log the Other Planets Later" T-shirt she's so famously worn.
But that's not what happens.
On arriving at a sleepy recreation center near the dam, the first thing she does is hug everybody in sight. It must be noted that a Chenoweth hug is a unique event in Western politics, resembling in no way a politician's brisk, perfunctory clasp. For one, Chenoweth stands nearly six feet tall in heels, with the wingspan of the college basketball player she once was. For another, these are not hugs so much as full-body presses, in which she twines her long arms around a person's body and tucks her chin into the crevice between one's neck and shoulder, leaving the collar traced with lipstick and her constituent — usually a rancher, logger, or cowboy — looking equal parts disheveled and dazzled.
"Oh, Helen," one cowboy named Jim exhales, straightening his hat after a particularly exuberant encounter, "we're so glad you're in there fighting for us."
"Jim," she says, leaning close, "you're worth fighting for." Jim goes scarlet and scuffs his boot against the ground and says that's the nicest thing he's heard in a long time, which makes Chenoweth hug him all over again.
Then she retreats to a small anteroom off the stage, closes her eyes, tips her head back, and goes into what appears to be some sort of meditation. After two or three minutes she opens her eyes, walks out to the crowd, and proceeds to conduct a three-hour-long hearing that is studious, polite, astonishingly free of bombast, and, well ... boring.
"Our natural resources belong to all the people," she concludes. "I look forward to a day when we can all work together, in an inclusive way, to work for a solution that will be satisfactory to all."
Surprising as this kinder, gentler Helen is, it isn't the first time she's ventured into such reasonable territory. In May, she announced she was ready to settle Idaho's long impasse over wilderness legislation, stating, "We need to respect the fact that there are some areas that are very fragile and cannot stand logging." In August, she rhapsodized about the importance of "restoring our salmon and steelhead runs."
Most Chenoweth watchers trace the change to early this year and point to a few possible turning points, most notably the spring hiring of Doug Crandall, a well-respected moderate, as her subcommittee staff director. Others suggest that it's a result of Gingrich's tutelage, or that perhaps she's heeding the message that GOP leaders have been drumming out since the '96 elections: that the American public will not tolerate blatantly anti-environmental positions. Those closer to Chenoweth suggest it may be part of a deeper maturation. "I think she's recently mellowed out a lot," says her sister Charlene. "I think her experiences in Washington have made her more accepting of other views."
To be sure, she hasn't suddenly begun channeling John Muir — she's still behind a passel of pro-logging legislation, and she's quick to attack what she sees as the oversteps of the federal government (which she likes to refer to as King George). But she stops short of tossing the rhetorical grenades for which she is so well known. She seems to have called a cease-fire, retooled her tactics.
Not that anyone thinks she's undergone a philosophical conversion.
"It's a sham, a smoke screen, total greenwash," John McCarthy of the Idaho Conservation League will tell me. "Helen Chenoweth suddenly cares about salmon? About old growth? She's lying. I'll tell her that to her face. She's gotten better scriptwriters, that's all."
"OK, so she's turned off the nutty spigot for a while," says the LCV's Callahan. "She's still Helen Chenoweth."
As I walk out, Chad Hyslop, Chenoweth's press secretary, hands me a letter his boss wrote to Jamie Rappaport Clark, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, offering "heartfelt congratulations" on today's removal of the peregrine falcon from the Endangered Species List. "Helen couldn't be more thrilled about this," Hyslop says.
At first, her people said we weren't going to be able to get together. They recited the usual avoidance haiku: Very Busy Now. There's No Time to Even Breathe. After November. They casually dropped the fact that 60 Minutes had called, wanting to profile her, and Morley and Mike were told sorry, nothing until after the election. Even the local press was having trouble getting a word with her.
Then, suddenly, after three weeks of phone calls and letters, the door swung open. Wide open.
"She said yes," Hyslop coolly informed me. "Nobody around here thinks she should do it. But," he paused weightily, "Helen wants to do it anyway. She wants to show the readers of your magazine how things really are."
He outlined the terms: four days, two with her and two traveling the state meeting "important people" who would help me "better understand the issues." No access to private fund-raisers, but I'd be right alongside her as much as possible. "Nobody gets that," Hyslop added.
Why shouldn't she call the shots? Things look good for her right now. She's comfortably up in the polls over Williams, the mild-mannered Boise attorney she beat last time around. The Lewinsky saga is playing out, keeping Democrats tucked in their hidey-holes and providing receptive audiences for her Christian family-values message, which she delivers with particular relish. So much relish, in fact, that two weeks after I leave, the Idaho Statesman forced Chenoweth's disclosure of a six-year affair with Vern Ravenscroft, a former business partner who happened to be married at the time. (Chenoweth, as she pain-stakingly pointed out, was a private citizen and a single woman, and the affair ended in 1984.) While her opponents whooped at the irony — she won her seat in 1994 in part because of the incumbent's 11th-hour admission of an extramarital affair — the revelation seemed to do little more than put the emphasis on Chenoweth's charm, her ability to connect with her constituency, and her tactical skills. Which, it's clear, are not to be underestimated.
In the days before my trip, I spoke with dozens of current and former Chenoweth allies and adversaries, and the pictures that emerged were divergent, to say the least.
"She's a pretty amazing woman," says Gene Fadness, political reporter for the Idaho Falls Post Register. "She seems simple, but people don't see her ability to work one-on-one. She's a little like Reagan, putting people at ease and showing them simple solutions to complicated problems."
"The thing you have to understand about Helen is that she's basically naive," says Bill Hall, editorial-page editor of the Lewistown Morning Tribune. "She's just got this set of oddball, touchstone beliefs that's fairly typical of small mill towns: the forest will never be used up, the government is out to get you, and so on."
"She's not by temperament a politician," says Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club. "There aren't matters of judgment with her — one side is right, the other is wrong."
"She's evil," says a longtime Idaho politician who'd rather not be named. "She comes across as this innocuous, naive, charming thing, but she's a very complicated person. She catches people in her web, and she knows exactly what she's doing."
As my trip approached, this politician called me more often, sometimes twice a day, with various bits of "information" on Chenoweth: secondhand gossip, unprovable rumor, and dark, oracular theories. His knowledge stretched back decades and included a level of detail that would be unusual to all but the most Starr-like of investigations. He seemed almost obsessed.
"Every reporter who gets close to her seems to end up getting beguiled by her," Deep Throat said. "She'll get you too, if you're not careful."
I tried to get him to lighten up, to let him know that virtually no one else I talked to had the same feelings he did. After all, she's not Mata Hari, is she? Deep Throat laughed along, but only for a moment.
"Be careful," he said.
"Who wants ice cream?" Chenoweth says, sliding back into the car outside the rec center. "Let's go get some ice cream."
"Helen always eats ice cream after hearings," Hyslop informs me.
"I absolutely love ice cream," she says. "Do you?"
Scott wordlessly ushers us through the quiet streets of Orofino while Chenoweth uses the opportunity for a sequence of Capraesque reminiscences: life on the Palmer family dairy farm in Grants Pass, Oregon, where her dad would spice each dinner conversation with political debates (Charlene, her only sibling, grew up to be a genuine, Peace Corps-volunteering liberal). Then came the music scholarship to Whitworth College in Spokane, where she met Nick Chenoweth, quit school, and got married. The couple moved to Orofino in 1961, falling in with the town's thriving conservative/libertarian crowd. They read Ayn Rand novels, talked about reforming the government, and learned, Nick says, "a lot." Now, however, when Chenoweth talks about that time she talks not of politics but of the days spent running the little ski shop at nearby Bald Mountain with Nick, of floating the Clearwater River with her two children. "We would put them into rafts and we would swim for miles," she says. "Miles and miles and miles."
She pauses for transition. "It's a pity that every family can't do that now. Did you hear about what's happening on the Salmon River?" She shakes her head regretfully. "Rafters are now being restricted because some federal biologist determined that their shadows — the shadows of the rafts — might upset the passing salmon." She turns. "Do you think that's right?
"No," I admit. "It doesn't sound right at all."
Stories like this are Chenoweth's stock in trade, and she keeps them at her fingertips: ranches lost because someone notices a snail "the size of a pencil lead" that happens to be endangered; backcountry pilots restricted from fixing their airstrips because federal regulations prohibit them from using wheelbarrows in a wilderness area; families prevented from getting the body of their drowned boy out of a reservoir because the feds won't stop drawing down the water to flush salmon smolt; endless other microdramas that play well in the declining, slightly frightened resource-based towns that comprise much of her district.
But what makes them ring is her delivery, a bit of political theater that is the antithesis of the usual Kabuki poses of outrage or indignation. It starts up in the eyes. As the story begins she evokes a sort of twinkly good humor — a kitchen-table, have-you-heard-this-one intimacy. Then, as the villain (some federal biologist somewhere) slinks onstage, the brows surge up and her eyes take on an expression of disbelief, of wounded innocence that lasts but a moment — for we do not long dwell in the valley of darkness — before returning, with a reassuring crescent of smile, to that previously twinkly state, sadder and wiser but undimmed in their energy, pluck, and an expression of hope that does more than transcend the message. It is the message.
Facts, of course, do not always work so neatly into this drama. Chenoweth's grasp of scientific and political nuance has been called into question on numerous occasions, such as when she asserted that the global excess of carbon dioxide fretted over by scientists could never be a problem because trees would simply "breathe in" the surplus and produce "more fruit and thicker foliage." Or when she accused the government of attempting to reintroduce the grizzly bear in Idaho's Clearwater country "without a shred of scientific evidence" that the bear had ever lived there (plentiful records existed, starting with Lewis and Clark's account). Or when she, in a speech late in the week, implied that President Clinton's 1996 election-eve designation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was the linchpin of a top-secret plan to lock up America's remaining coal supplies, provide a boost to Indonesia's coal-export market, and score a massive illegal donation for the Democratic Party. Details change, but the moral is always the same: King George and the Establishment are out to screw you (and I won't let them).
It's a message she's been honing for a long time. After the divorce from Nick in 1975, Chenoweth moved to Boise and quickly became director of an Idaho Republican Party emptied by Watergate. After leaving (she was too inflexible, according to some), she went through a series of political positions and natural resources consulting jobs that dovetailed in the late 1980s with the founding of the Wise Use movement. With devoted grassroots support, including crucial help from the religious right, she upset all contenders in 1994, coming from behind to win a resounding 55 percent of the vote.
Her first two terms (she's promised that her third will be her last) have been modestly productive, to put it kindly. Unlike many members of the Republican class of '94, Chenoweth has not drafted much successful legislation; indeed, her uncompromising ways have led to some well-publicized spats with the Republican leadership, though she says now "things are really smoothing out as we get to know one another."
By and by, Scott locates the Ponderosa Restaurant, where we dine with the Orofino Chamber of Commerce, talking about salmon, wolves, grizzlies, and the looming possibility that the western cutthroat trout could be listed under the Endangered Species Act. "Over my dead body," says one diner, and Chenoweth nods in agreement. After cheeseburgers and ice cream, Chenoweth turns to me sadly. This is good-bye, for now. She has to go up north, to do some "boring, legislative things."
"But we've got some very nice days set up for you," she says. "You'll get to meet some very interesting people."
As Chenoweth walks out she's met by a mill worker, a guy with a sooty, hangdog face and safety glasses. The guy sticks his hand out tentatively, and she steps forward and gives him a full-on Chenoweth hug, silk pressed against denim.
"Go get 'em, Helen," says the guy.
"We will," she whispers. "We will."
I spend two days barnstorming around the state with Hyslop, meeting and greeting what amount to the field generals of the Chenoweth revolution, specialists and activists on grazing, recreation access, farming. Very interesting they're not, but they do testify to the essence of the Wise Use gospel that Chenoweth is reading from — indeed, that she helped to write. Balance, they chant, balance. People are good. Land is for people. People are for land. Environmentalists, when mentioned, are hastily constructed straw men — smug newcomers who "feel guilty about modern life and think we should return to a simpler age," as Greg Nelson of the Idaho Farm Bureau told me over breakfast, uncoiling a jumbo cinnamon roll. "Frankly," he continued, "I don't want to wander around looking for berries to eat."
Point taken, I break away from Hyslop and arrange to rendezvous with Idaho's besieged environmentalists, representatives of local and national groups, most of whom fall under a general species description: friendly, fortyish, thinning hair, wire-rim glasses, guys who can easily view Chenoweth as some kind of hellish mother-in-law.
Mike Medberry has drawn the toughest assignment. As field coordinator for the League of Conservation Voters, he has the task of swaying a few thousand voters away from Chenoweth. Right now things don't look particularly great: Polls show Chenoweth up by as many as 14 points.
"It's tricky," Medberry says over breakfast at a fashionable Boise coffee joint. "There aren't a lot of angles to play here."
The odds of Medberry's changing anybody's mind about Chenoweth are remote. One half of her constituency adores her, the other half is embarrassed by her. Perhaps the most surreal anti-Helen sentiment was occasioned by William Levinger, her 1996 primary opponent, who suffered a spectacular mental breakdown during a Boise television interview. Levinger, who announced that he was running for Congress because he could not swim to Hawaii, offered a reporter $5,000 cash to kiss him on camera, stripped to his underwear, and then spent most of the remaining six weeks before the primary in the psychiatric ward of a local hospital, nevertheless managed to garner 32 percent of the primary vote.
To help get things kicked off, Medberry headed to the Sun Valley-Ketchum area to organize a protest outside Thursday's $500-a-plate Chenoweth fund-raiser. Last year, when Chenoweth held a similar event, more than 20 protesters met her with boos and hisses and serenaded attendees with car horns obedient to the "Honk if you're anti-Helen" signs. The protest was highlighted by a brief scuffle featuring Frank Bennett, the jowly president of Bennett Lumber Company, who ripped a "Restore Idaho Salmon" sign from a protester's hands, tore it in half, and stomped it. It's precisely the kind of high-profile, telegenic conflict that Medberry wouldn't mind repeating.
But even so, he seems a bit at a loss. The clarity and passion that belong to Chenoweth and her crew do not exist here. Medberry picks at his quiche and offers some ideas as to why.
"On a national level, the environmental movement is in an interesting position," he says. "We've done really well in recent years, we've protected some important stuff, we've changed a lot of attitudes. But it's the problem faced by any successful movement: What do you do when your once-radical views become mainstream? It's come to the point where we can get trapped by our adversarial tactics."
As if to prove exactly how limited those tactics are, Medberry and I spin a hypothetical argument that the environmental movement would benefit from Chenoweth's re-election. After all, she is from a small state, has been a negligible legislative threat, and has a dazzling array of baggage that prevents reasonable people from taking her seriously: her somewhat sympathetic attitude toward the militia movement, her apocalyptic murmurings about black helicopters and world government, and her recent well-publicized hypothesis that one of the reasons more minorities don't live in Idaho is because of the cold climate. ("Let's Send Helen to a Warmer Climate," read the latest bumper stickers around Boise.) To top it off, she still manages to magnetize certain fringe elements, such as Robert Boatman, the campaign ad man who was jettisoned this summer after he wrote a letter to the editor arguing that The Diary of Anne Frank was an elaborate hoax. In short, Chenoweth is the environmental movement's dream date: frightening enough to inspire action, powerless enough to ensure impotence, politically incorrect enough to play to the environmental movement's old penchant for equating nature's nobility with their own. So, the hypothetical goes, why not leave her where she is, a perfectly functioning cog in the greens' own microdrama?
"That's ridiculous," says the LCV's Callahan. "The fact is that she's an important congresswoman for an important state with a terrible record of voting on the environment, and she should be out of there. Period."
"I would certainly never vote for her," counters one prominent local environmentalist. "But I've got to admit that I hope she gets reelected. We're better off with her than without her. You know where Helen stands, and that's worth a lot."
Barring that sort of double-agentry, the other tactic available to Medberry is to charge Chenoweth with greenwash. It's an accusatory strategy increasingly popular among conservationists, designed to expose the true colors of those who are merely pretending to care about the environment. A simple proposition is the case of an industry group camouflaged beneath a woodsy-sounding name, perhaps, but things get more complicated in the symbol-driven world of politics. Is Chenoweth guilty of greenwash? Absolutely. But by spending time and energy accusing people — however accurately — of what essentially amounts to the venial sin of politically driven hypocrisy, the environmental movement cedes the valuable middle ground of reasonableness. Instead of Helen Chenoweth, extremist bomb-thrower, we get Helen Chenoweth, thoughtful moderate, who can talk of "balance," "conservation," and the "misguided zeal of the environmental conflict industry" that has "torn people apart instead of bringing the best of ideas together."
At one point, I ask Chenoweth to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the environmental movement. She doesn't hesitate. "On the big, simple, cultural level, the views of many environmentalists have been accepted. OK, fine. The problem is, they've got no idea what to do now."
She smiles sweetly. "Of course, that's their problem, not mine."
Main Street, Ketchum, Thursday night. The sun has set picturesquely, and the faux-rustic confines of the Pioneer Saloon are brimming with attractive people in microfleece sipping microbrews, heads covertly aswivel for a Bruce or Demi sighting. This town is the pumping heart of Idaho's beleaguered liberal corpus and a uniquely bold place to host a Chenoweth fund-raiser, particularly considering that it lies outside her district. Since I was excluded from the function, I'm having a nightcap with Hyslop, my ever-present Sherpa, when he catches sight of something over my shoulder and hustles to his feet.
Here she is, gliding smoothly through the revelers in her fuchsia pantsuit with white shoes that match her Rosetti purse, a few staff members in tow. "What a mar-velous evening," she breathes. "What a won-derful party!"
She sits down, triumphant. The fund-raiser had come off like a dream: Everyone made it, including Phil Crane of Illinois and Dan Burton of Indiana (who's about to make his own entry into the adultery confess-o-rama). Not to mention the good people from Idaho Power, Hecla Mining Company, Bennett Lumber, Potlatch, Idaho Forest Products, and all the rest, and everyone was so kind! Such wonderful spinach-stuffed mushroom caps! Such a beautiful setting! Such a good feeling in the air! You'd hate to quantify the value of such an evening, but there it was: $30,000 plus.
Were there any protesters? I ask.
"You know," says Chenoweth, as if considering it for the first time, "I believe there were some."
"Three," says Greg Peek, a legislative staffer. "Four, maybe. They stood out there for half an hour, then went back to their jobs. It was pathetic."
Mike Medberry, it turns out, couldn't make it to organize the protest. Seems he got tied up dealing with a Federal Elections Commission complaint filed the day before yesterday by the Idaho Republican Party, alleging that Medberry was working directly for Williams, Chenoweth's opponent. The complaint was flimsy (it was based on an erroneous New York Times article), but it kept Medberry tied up formulating a response, dealing with reporters, and playing defense.
"It certainly wasn't a scene like last year, was it, Greg?" Chenoweth gives one of her low, throaty laughs.
"No." Greg laughs. "Not like last year."
Chenoweth nods sympathetically, looking almost like she feels sorry for the poor, disorganized environmentalists. After all, as a former activist, she knows how capricious this game can be. Was she behind the FEC complaint? That's impossible to say, and she will deny it. But the timing could not have been more perfect for the Chenoweth campaign.
She stays awhile and sips her merlot. Tomorrow is a cattleman's fund-raiser. Then she'll film television commercials, and then there's next week's House Resource Committee hearing in Boise. Then there'll come the things she doesn't expect, like the statement she'll be issuing in two weeks to disclose "a relationship ... I'm not proud of." But those things don't matter now: She gives the hugs, and the dollars flow in. She's surviving. And she will continue to survive, telling her tales and selling her brand of hope to those who will buy.
"It's so beautiful out tonight," she says, smiling up at the stars as she walks to her car. "Don't you just love nights like this?"
We stroll awhile along the deserted street, away from the lamplight. Chenoweth stops, looks up, and smiles at the stars. "I think I'll move the mattress and sleep on the balcony," she says. "I want to breathe that cool mountain air."
Deep throat calls a few days after I get home.
"So," he asks casually, "how'd it go in Idaho?"
He can instantly tell.
"She beguiled you, didn't she?" he asks. "You like her, don't you?"
He sounds disappointed and yet somehow relieved.
"Don't worry," he says. "It happens every time."
Dan Coyle is a contributing editor of Outside and the author of Hard Ball: A Season in the Projects.
Photographs by Vern Evans