What Ever Happened to…South Dakota’s Larry Pressler?

Citing the experience of 42-year-old Teddy Roosevelt and suggesting that the burdens of the presidency were so great that the nation might be better served by electing a person in their prime rather than someone in the twilight of his career — a not-so-subtle attack aimed at 69-year-old Ronald Reagan, the presumed Republican frontrunner — freshman Sen. Larry Pressler of South Dakota embarked on a short-lived bid for the presidency in September 1979.

The 37-year-old Pressler, who made his startling announcement only eight months after taking his seat in the U.S. Senate, was hardly a household name, but had received considerable publicity for turning down a bribe from FBI agents dressed as Arab sheiks in the 1979 Abscam sting — an undercover operation that resulted in the arrest and conviction of New Jersey Sen. Harrison A. Williams, six congressmen, and several other public officials.

Pressler is the only one who didn’t take the bait. “Wait a minute,” he told the gift-bearing Arabs. “What you are suggesting may be illegal.”

Pressler was surprised and puzzled when he was later considered something of a hero for storming out of the meeting with the undercover FBI agents. “I turned down an illegal contribution,” he said. “Where have we come to if that’s considered heroic?”

In becoming the eighth person to announce his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination that year, the little-known but eagerly ambitious Pressler declared his intentions about six weeks before Reagan formally joined the race. It was also long before most Americans began paying close attention to the 1980 presidential election — a situation that changed drastically on November 4 when Iranian militants sacked the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took 66 Americans hostage.

Naturally, the media ridiculed Pressler’s lack of experience. Columnists Jack Germond and Jules Witcover, among others, poked fun at his candidacy, calling it preposterous. Nobody in the mainstream media took it seriously. 

In retrospect, however, Pressler had actually spent more time on Capitol Hill than Barack Obama when he declared his candidacy for the nation’s highest office in February 2007.

Things have obviously changed since Pressler embarked on his long-shot bid for the presidency nearly three decades earlier.

As early as 2006, the Washington Post ran a story under the headline, “Time in Senate May Be Irrelevant if Obama Runs,” and former Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), who was quoted in the article, said that the freshman Illinois senator might be wise to run while he was still a shooting star in Democratic politics rather than waiting until he was “tainted by an excessive period in the Senate.” 

Graham, who tried running in 2004, was speaking from experience.

Unlike Obama, nobody gave Pressler a similar green light — or even a cautionary flashing yellow light — in 1980, but he really wasn’t worried about what the pundits or those in his own party had to say about his overtly ambitious bid for his party’s presidential nomination.

He always marched to the beat of his own drummer, but he was also realistic about his chances. “I am not harboring any illusions,” he said in declaring his candidacy. “I am a realist.”

Besides, if he had listened to the naysayers he never would have won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives six years earlier — a year in which it was almost impossible for a Republican challenger to win a seat in Congress. He also never would have landed in the U.S. Senate four years later.

Ignoring the counsel of GOP professionals, Pressler ran for Congress during the Watergate year of 1974 and pulled a stunning upset against a two-term Democratic lawmaker, thereby becoming one of only a handful of Republicans in the country to defeat a Democratic House member that year — a mid-term election in which the Democrats, picking up 52 seats, captured an overwhelming 291 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.

A Rhodes scholar and Harvard-educated lawyer who had served a two-year stint in Vietnam, Pressler won a three-way GOP primary that year on an unusually modest budget of $3,100 — half out of his own pocket — and overcoming widespread apathy and cynicism fostered by Watergate went on to defeat Democratic incumbent Frank Denholm by 15,000 votes in the general election.

Pressler, who had worked briefly in the State Department before returning to his rural South Dakota roots, campaigned as an outsider who promised to clean up Washington and dispense with politics as usual.

Incredibly, he had no staff or headquarters and ran his low-budget campaign from his family’s farm in Humboldt while canvassing the district in a $700 used car that he purchased earlier that spring.

He intimated that he had no qualms about giving up his $25,000-a-year post in the State Department to run for Congress. “I got fed up with the Washington bureaucracy,” he said. “I’m too independent a spirit.”

Unlike many Republicans at the time, the slim, 32-year-old farm boy-turned-politician believed there was a need for impeachment proceedings in the U.S. Senate as the only way to determine President Nixon’s guilt or innocence. Understandably, it was a position that didn’t make him particularly popular among the President’s dwindling defenders in rural, sparsely-populated South Dakota, but his frankness and courage in calling for the impeachment of a President of his own party probably contributed to his remarkable 51 percent showing in the primary.

He also wanted the GOP — a party desperately out of favor with the American public as a result of the Watergate scandal — to take the initiative in cleaning up Congress and the executive branch while relentlessly hitting corruption wherever it might be found.

Pressler was reelected with 80 percent of the vote against credible Democratic opposition in 1976 — the second-largest majority ever received by a South Dakota House member and the largest of any candidate with a major-party opponent.

In 1978, Pressler again defied his party’s professionals and ran for the U.S. Senate seat held by retiring Democrat James Abourezk. Once again turning conventional wisdom on its head, he surprised the pundits by amassing 67 percent of the vote against Democrat Don Barnett, the former mayor of Rapid City, to become the state’s junior Senator and the first Vietnam veteran to serve in the U.S. Senate.

By cultivating his constituents — he spent more time back home than any other South Dakotan who had been sent to Washington during that period — Pressler scared off a potential challenge in the 1978 Senate primary from Rep. James Abdnor, an increasingly popular conservative lawmaker who had won by large margins in 1974 and 1976 after first winning his seat in the state’s 2nd congressional district during the Nixon landslide of 1972. (Abdnor later unseated George McGovern, defeating the former Democratic presidential nominee by more than 60,000 votes in 1980.)

"I just got the feeling that Obama will be able to handle this financial crisis better," explained Pressler.

Something of a regular on the Washington social circuit — he was reportedly often seen at embassy parties — Pressler’s legislative record had come under close scrutiny from Al Hunt of the Wall Street Journal and other journalists who sharply criticized him as a congressional “show horse” with no discernible legislative accomplishments aside from forcing the issue of a congressional pay raise on the floor of the House, compelling members to publicly vote for or against the measure. While popular back in South Dakota, his actions earned him the enmity of many of his colleagues.

Surprisingly, Pressler’s voting record in the House was initially that of a liberal Republican — a rarity for a South Dakota Republican — and he occasionally voted against increased military spending, an even greater anomaly.

Early in his congressional career he enjoyed a 65 percent rating from the liberal Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) — a score higher than many Democrats — but grew more conservative during his second term in the House and after entering the U.S. Senate.

Pressler, who later served as chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, authored the Telecommunications Act of 1996, considered one of his most significant legislative achievements.

The boyish-faced South Dakotan, who developed a reputation for sending out more press releases than almost anyone else in Congress, was certainly ambitious. “Larry will go a long way,” said one of his colleagues. “But I don’t have the slightest idea what he’ll do when he gets there.”

As in his first congressional campaign and his run for the U.S. Senate four years later, Pressler again brushed off his skeptics in mounting what can only be described as an improbable bid for the White House in 1980.

“We’ll let the chips fall where they may,” he said.

Unfortunately, they fell quickly — and hard.

Unable to gain any traction and excluded from the televised debate in Iowa along with the party’s other second-tier candidates, Pressler withdrew from the race in early January — about ten days before the Iowa caucus and approximately seven weeks before the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary.

Citing a lack of funding, Pressler’s withdrawal from the race was covered on the widely-watched CBS Evening News — the only mention of his threadbare candidacy on that network during the entire campaign.

In dropping out of the crowded race, the South Dakota Senator became the campaign’s second casualty. Connecticut’s Lowell Weicker withdrew from the race the previous spring after an even more abbreviated stab at his party’s nomination.

Following his aborted bid for the presidency, Pressler was reelected to the U.S. Senate twice, winning impressively with more than 74 percent of the vote in 1984 — the widest margin in South Dakota history — and by a much closer margin in 1990 before being narrowly defeated by Democrat Tim Johnson six years later. He was the only incumbent senator to lose in 1996.

Since leaving the U.S. Senate, Pressler has pursued a teaching and consulting career and has served on several corporate and advisory boards. A visiting professor and Senior Fellow at UCLA, he has taught and lectured at several other institutions, including Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Oxford University and Georgetown. He’s also a visiting scholar at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

In 1998, Pressler won a settlement in a libel suit against Verso Books, the publisher of Washington Babylon — a book in which co-authors Alexander Cockburn and Ken Silverstein wrote that Pressler had hastily married “amid speculation that he was gay,” an assertion vigorously denied by the South Dakotan yet some believe might have contributed to his defeat two years earlier.

Missing the political arena, Pressler mounted an unsuccessful political comeback in 2002, losing a Republican primary contest for South Dakota’s lone seat in the U.S. House by a two-to-one margin to former Gov. William J. Janklow.

In 2008, Pressler was one of several nationally-recognized Republicans to endorse Barack Obama for president, joining an impressive list that included former Secretary of State Colin Powell and ex-Massachusetts Gov. William Weld.

Contending that John McCain’s handling of the financial crisis made him nervous, the 22-year veteran of Capitol Hill said that he believed the Illinois senator — an untested politician without much more experience than Pressler possessed in 1980 — would be able to handle the crisis much better.

In declaring his support for Obama, Pressler told Politico that he had serious reservations about the GOP. “We have to be a moderate party,” he said, lamenting that the Republican Party that he knew in the 1970s no longer exists.

Last November, President Obama appointed the 68-year-old Pressler to the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad.

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