The Craziest Senator

Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma earned national derision when he endorsed nutty birther theories earlier this week. But he is actually a shrewdly calculating politician playing to his state’s far-right base.

07.29.09 11:03 PM ET

In the age of the BlogoYouTweetosphere, the fringe in American politics has increasingly reared its kooky head. But before tinfoil hats went viral, there was Sen. James Mountain Inhofe.

The senior senator from Oklahoma made headlines this week for telling Politico that the birthers—conspiracy theorists who believe President Obama was not born in the United States and is thus constitutionally ineligible to be president—“have a point.” Then, on Tuesday, Inhofe told the Tulsa World, “If there are legal experts who have concerns [about Obama’s birth certificate], I would encourage them to continue looking into it.”

He has since backed off his initial comments. But to those of us who have followed Inhofe’s career, his strange and temporary endorsement of the birthers’ claim was not surprising. Whether he is suggesting that the 9/11 attacks were God’s vengeance for America’s betrayal of Israel or calling the EPA a “Gestapo bureaucracy,” Inhofe has built a career testing the limits of controversy. Far from being an unhinged lunatic, Inhofe is a shrewd politician from the reddest of red states, playing to a conservative base that appears ever more comprised of elements from the fringes of the political mainstream.

“I'm really proud to say that in the recorded history of our family, we’ve never had a divorce or any kind of a homosexual relationship,” Inhofe once said.

Inhofe entered Oklahoma government in 1966, when he won a seat in the state house and became a fast-rising star within what was then a fairly moderate Republican minority. Inhofe and other Republicans cast themselves as reformers running against a corrupt Democratic Party establishment in the state. He went on to become a leader in the state senate and, in 1978, mayor of Tulsa, suffering defeats in a gubernatorial and a congressional campaign along the way. When running on his six-year record as mayor, the voters threw him out of office in 1984, and his political career appeared over.

In the 1986 congressional elections, Inhofe was resurrected from the political grave, but, as one might expect from any creature back from the dead, the resurrected Inhofe looked a tinge different. Inhofe, who had started his career running as a reform candidate, now combined hot-button cultural issues with the less divisive bread and butter issues of the conservative movement.

“There were three issues that he kept drumming away at on me: abortion, gun control, and balancing the budget,” said Gary Allison, the Tulsa law professor who ran against Inhofe in the 1986 race. Riding a wave of cultural conservatism washing across the Bible Belt, Inhofe was fast becoming among the fiercest of culture warriors.

By the time of his successful 1994 run for U.S. Senate, Inhofe had settled on his present campaign strategy—the “Three G’s,” which has become a standard campaign framework for right-wing politicians. By focusing on Guns, God, and Gays, Inhofe keeps the action on his home court, playing to the issues that arouse the emotions of his ultraconservative base. In the 1994 campaign, Inhofe hired a political stooge to wear a Pinocchio mask and heckle Dave McCurdy, his Democratic opponent, at public events. In the wake of Bill Clinton’s aborted campaign promise to allow gays to serve openly in the military, Inhofe released an ad in which images of McCurdy and Clinton’s faces repeatedly morphed back and forth.

In his 2008 campaign against State Sen. Andrew Rice, Inhofe employed the familiar strategy, linking Rice to gay marriage with negative ads that featured unflattering pictures of Rice and photos of two figurine grooms on a wedding cake.

Inhofe’s extremism is most visible in his public statements, many of them made from the Senate floor. From his proud perch as the brashest Senate conservative, over the years Inhofe has delivered a steady stream of statements that elicit uproarious cheers from the ultraconservative fringe and bewilderment from more mainstream onlookers.

In a 2002 Senate floor statement, Inhofe intimated that the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001 were evidence of God’s wrath against the United States. “One of the reasons I believe the spiritual door was opened for an attack against the United States of America is that the policy of our government has been to ask the Israelis, and demand it with pressure, not to retaliate in a significant way against the terrorist strikes that have been launched against them,” he said.

He went on to invoke the will of the Almighty in asking for American support for Israel’s claim to the West Bank and Gaza. “I believe very strongly that we ought to support Israel; that it has a right to the land. This is the most important reason: because God said so.” During a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing following the revelations of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, Inhofe infamously declared that he was “more outraged by the outrage” than he was by the treatment of detainees.

One of Inhofe’s most bizarre statements in recent memory, in which he equated same-sex union with the act of disunion, came in 2006 during debate on a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.

“I'm really proud to say that in the recorded history of our family, we've never had a divorce or any kind of a homosexual relationship.” A courageous statement indeed for a man who represents Oklahoma, a state with one of the highest divorce rates in the country, according to the Oklahoma Department of Human Services.

Sen. Inhofe is perhaps most notorious for his contentious position on global warming. Inhofe, former chairman and current ranking Republican on the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, has called the concern over manmade climate change “the second-largest hoax ever played on the American people, after the separation of church and state."

Describing proponents of climate-change awareness in a 2006 interview with the Tulsa World, Inhofe said, “I could use the Third Reich, the Big Lie. …You say something over and over and over and over again, and people will believe it, and that's their strategy.”

Inhofe’s ultraconservative issue positions have kept him winning elections (57 percent of the vote in the last three) in deep red Oklahoma. But while he may be right wing enough for Oklahoma, the rest of the country may not be right wing enough for him. Inhofe’s latest bold plunge into controversy, briefly endorsing the activities of a group of fringe conspiracy theorists, brought him enough derision nationally that he ultimately backed off his initial statement.

Inhofe is a sharp political animal. He has recovered from apparent political ruin more than once, and when he speaks to his base, he knows to whom he speaks. At 74, he is at the age when retirement begins looking ever more likely. But if he runs again in 2014—and he has indicated that he very well may—odds are he will return to the Senate. If the rest of the Republican Party continues to adopt his strategy of giving credence to the unsupported ranting of the right-wing fringe, the Senate may become a lonely place for Oklahoma’s greatest contribution to ultraconservatism.

Denver Nicks is a writer based in Tulsa, Oklahoma.