Lives of the Republicans, Part Two

Published September 16, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)


She may have committed adultery and lied about it, just like President Clinton. But Helen Chenoweth has one up on the president, so far -- she says she's had a chat with the Lord, and he says it's OK.

"I've asked for God's forgiveness, and I've received it," she reports.

Whether Idaho voters will forgive her is another matter. The two-term Republican representative from the conservative rural state's northern district has always made a big deal about morality -- after all, she was first elected over the back of a Democratic incumbent who stumbled when he admitted (in an increasingly familiar-sounding scenario) to a one-time sexual relationship with a former co-worker after earlier denials.

Chenoweth's own vulnerability in the sexual arena came to light when she decided to go on the attack over Clinton's troubles in the Lewinsky affair. A longtime champion of "family values" (only one of a wide range of right-wing causes she's associated herself with over the years, including support for the militia movement), she ran a series of ads that sought to link her opponent, a Democrat named Dan Williams, to Clinton.

"Our founding fathers knew that political leaders' personal conduct must be held to the highest standards," intoned Chenoweth in the first ad. "President Clinton's behavior has severely damaged his ability to lead our nation, and the free world.

"To restore honor in public office, and the trust of the American people, we must affirm that personal conduct does count, and integrity matters. Where do you stand, Dan?"

A couple of veteran political reporters from Boise's Gannett-owned Idaho Statesman, who like nearly everyone else who worked the state's political beat had heard rumors of several Chenoweth affairs, decided it was time to ask her about one in particular: a longtime sexual relationship with an associate named Vernon Ravenscroft. Chenoweth confessed.

She admitted that she had carried on a six-year illicit romance with Ravenscroft, now 78, a rancher from Tuttle who is something of a right-wing legend in his own right: Ravenscroft was the architect of the "Sagebrush Rebellion," a 1980s anti-federal land-use movement popular in Western states like Idaho and Nevada. Chenoweth and Ravenscroft had the affair in the 1980s, when she worked for his natural-resources consulting firm.

Chenoweth was quick to point out that there were key differences between her case and Clinton's: She's single (divorced in 1975 and never remarried) and she was not in public life. "My private life was my own life. I am a single woman. After the divorce, I dated," she told the Statesman, adding that unlike Clinton, she hadn't lied about it.

"As a member of Congress, I'm concerned about the president's ability to lead our nation in this time of worldwide economic crisis. And I think you have to look at the facts squarely. You have to tell the truth. It's not a matter of whether one forgives the president. It's a matter of trust."

The revelation, arriving at a moment when Clinton's troubles were hitting a feverish pitch on the television networks, suddenly propelled Chenoweth onto the evening broadcasts -- most of which featured quick hits of her confession as a seriocomic leavening to the day's gloom. Chenoweth quickly ducked from view and continues to refuse to grant further interviews, issuing only a few terse press releases with her official position on the matter.

The day following her confession, she was hit with another barrage: Turns out she actually had denied the affair when questioned about it in 1995. When the Spokane (Wash.) Spokesman-Review's Ken Olsen had asked her about the Ravenscroft affair in an interview, she had acted offended and aghast at the mere suggestion.

"For heaven's sakes, that is low," Chenoweth reportedly sputtered. "That is so bizarre. I'm utterly speechless. My official answer would have to be, this indicates a measure of desperation. When they can't debate the issues, they turn to character assassination ... People who know me, know better than that. People who know Mr. Ravenscroft and his fine family know better."

Olsen, however, did not tape-record the interview; though he did keep notes in his reporter's notebook. Chenoweth said she couldn't remember ever making the remarks and hinted that Olsen's notes were incorrect.

Chenoweth's problems may have just begun. Rumors had swirled around her for years linking her romantically not just with Ravenscroft, but with a bevy of Republican figures. These ranged from a former attorney general to her former boss, retired U.S. Sen. Steve Symms. Chenoweth had been Symms' chief of staff in 1977-78, when he held the same seat in Congress she now occupies, and the rumors had begun circulating then. They continued through all the years prior to her sudden 1994 ascension aboard the anti-Clinton wave that swept the GOP to majorityhood. Since then, they've quieted down considerably.

Chenoweth had been the beneficiary of the same gentility that spared her old boss. Symms, too, had gained something of a sexual legend over his eight years in the House that grew larger once he was in the Senate; it was widely known among reporters that he was a big-time D.C. party animal and could be seen most evenings in the company of a woman other than his wife, Fran. She in fact was a kind, sweet woman who suffered terribly from arthritis and couldn't socialize much. Most of the state's political reporters knew about the situation but figured it was no one's business unless Symms made it an issue. However, when Fran finally had enough and divorced him, the emergent details of his philandering -- and the ensuing shelled-out poll numbers -- persuaded him to not pursue reelection in 1992.

Likewise, the tales were ripe surrounding Chenoweth. And the breadth of the rumors, most of them related to her term as a lobbyist for the timber industry, is impressive. One veteran political reporter told Salon: "On Thursday (the day Chenoweth made her confession), there were a lot of nervous legislators down at the Statehouse." As one GOP political operative in northern Idaho once told a reporter in an unguarded moment: "Helen is living proof that you can fuck your brains out." (Chenoweth is widely considered, in Idaho parlance, dumb as a mud fence.)

However, other than reporter Olsen, no one had broached the subject with Chenoweth on the record (though now-deceased Twin Falls Times-News reporter David Morrissey once confronted her with the rumors about Symms off the record and she did not deny them). Most reporters simply felt that it wasn't anybody's business -- a sentiment that seems now to have vanished with the ascendance of an ethos built around the Starr and Drudge reports.

Chenoweth changed the landscape by striking what is now a familiar Republican pose: outraged moralist shaking her finger at the naughty Democrats. To her regret, she discovered that making your private morality a story by questioning the president's is a really bad campaign idea. The ads that provoked the Statesman reporters promptly disappeared. Asked if they -- or any further references to Clinton's morality -- are likely to reappear in the campaign, Chenoweth spokesman Chad Hyslop replied tersely: "Probably not."

It's hard to gauge at this point how much the backfire has damaged Chenoweth's reelection chances. Dan Williams was likely to give her a close race as he had done in his first try in 1996, and the revelations may have tipped the scales in his favor -- but only for the short term. While many Idahoans have little trouble spewing bile about Clinton, they seem to be relatively forgiving of Chenoweth's frequent gaffes, and may be shrugging off this latest. "The reaction has been supportive to this time," says Hyslop. "There's been a lot of calls to our office, and they've run very supportive of Helen on this issue. Basically, they've said, 'You made a mistake and you did the right thing in admitting it, and now it's time to go on.'"

Several observers of the Idaho political scene say that Chenoweth, who has looked unbeatable up until now and whose seat was considered locked up for the GOP, could prove to be vulnerable if Williams delivers a good campaign this time around.

Chenoweth's example, combined with the more high-profile evisceration of Dan Burton, is likely to freeze into place any other Republicans in Congress hoping to capitalize on Clinton's failings. It's a reminder that the sword Clinton has handed them in the form of the Starr report is sharply two-edged in nature. If they're not squeaky-clean themselves, any past misdeed is almost certain to catch up to them now -- should they play the "Clinton card."

Republican leaders in Washington already are signaling that people like Chenoweth will be cut adrift on the sea of their own mischief. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott warned Monday that anyone with such skeletons in his or her closet would have to face the consequences if they were discovered. Lott told the Hill: "If anybody's got a problem -- and I'm not talking about one mistake, but a problem over years -- maybe they shouldn't be in this business" -- a note that doubtless sent a chill down many spines in libido-laden Washington.

Whether that is Chenoweth's fate will depend somewhat on the strength of the opposition building against her back home for the bold hypocrisy of her now-buried attack ads. Harriett Ravenscroft, the wife she wronged, was among the many who were steamed by the ads. She voiced what probably crossed many voters' minds when she told the Statesman: "I don't see how Helen can live with herself and do this."

Luckily, Chenoweth at least has gotten God's forgiveness. Clinton, with his new coterie of spiritual advisors, can hardly be far behind.

By David Neiwert

David Neiwert is an investigative journalist and author based in Seattle, whose most recent book is And Hell Followed With Her: Crossing the Dark Side of the American Border (Nation Books). He has won a National Press Club award for his reportage on domestic terrorism, and is also known for his work as the senior editor of the popular political blog Crooks and Liars.

MORE FROM David Neiwert

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Bill Clinton Democratic Party