WASHINGTON -- There he was, sitting in the House of Representatives, grinning ear-to-ear, and attending his first State of the Union speech since 1974.
It almost didn't happen. Laid low by the scandal of a federal criminal investigation and a near-pariah in his own Republican Party, Alaska's Rep. Don Young has in recent years struggled to stay relevant in a political era that's sidelined the kind of earmarking and horse-trading at which he excels.
Now, though, he's cleared of the investigation, and Republicans are back in charge of the House. The 77-year-old congressman who brags of never using a computer but always carrying a knife? He's back -- and spoiling for another round.
Settling into his 20th term in office, Young has moved his hunting trophies into the biggest office in the House of Representatives. He's holding sway over a new panel on Indian affairs -- and although it's a subcommittee, it returns to him the title "chairman" he cherished for so much of his time in Congress. He's back as the western representative on the House GOP policy committee that helps shape Republican initiatives. He's even taking calls from the White House about spending priorities in Indian Country.
Tuesday night, he was talking about the stir his presence caused after a 37-year hiatus from the State of Union, but it may as well have been about his career: "I have to tell you something," he said. "By being absent for so long, I was wanted."
The renewed vigor comes after a stretch of challenges that his defense lawyer, John Dowd, said would be insurmountable for most people.
"Being under investigation is worse than having a gun pointed at you, particularly when you're a public official," Dowd said. "It's extremely difficult."
In August 2009, Young lost his wife of 46 years, Lu, his constant companion. If she hadn't persuaded him to file for re-election before her death, he might not have run last fall, Young said in an interview recently.
"And it was the best thing she did to me, because if I hadn't had the job, I would have been dead in a heartbeat," he said. "Now I've got more to focus on, so it keeps me going, and I thank her for that."
But he's also free of the federal investigation, which looked at whether he accepted illegal campaign contributions and gifts from a now-defunct Alaska-based oil-field service company, Veco, and its convicted chairman Bill Allen. Young was also being investigated for an earmark in a transportation bill for a Florida interchange sought by a campaign donor.
In August, Young said the Justice Department had told his lawyer, Dowd, that it had dropped its investigations.
Young has never fully addressed the accusations but spent more than $1 million on legal fees from his campaign account in fending them off. Several of his aides were snared in them. One aide from Young's time on the Transportation committee, Fraser Verrusio, is on trial now, accused of illegally accepting an expenses-paid trip to the 2003 World Series and lying about it on a financial disclosure form.
In granting a rare interview with the Daily News, Young would allow just one question about the federal probe. Asked whether he learned who his true friends were, it was the only time during the interview that he struggled to control his emotions.
"Let's put it this way. I learned who was not my friend," he said. "It's like a movie star who has three flops in a row. Nobody goes to their movies, nobody knows who they are anymore."
"I'm very happy with those that did stay with me," he added. "Those that didn't? You recognize that. And just have a little short pile in the back of your head and just remember that."
He continues to revel in his reputation for colorful metaphors, bluster and the possibility of fisticuffs. There's the transportation bill he admitted was "stuffed like a turkey" with earmarks. There's the legendary tale of him in 1994 brandishing an oosik -- the penis bone of a walrus at a female Fish and Wildlife Service chief. In 2007, he threatened on the House floor to bite a political opponent "like a mink."
He's also now counted among lawmakers who may or may not carry a gun -- he's not saying for sure where or when he does. But following the shooting this month of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., Young said he wouldn't hesitate to use firepower, if necessary.
"I carry it wherever no one can see it," he said, although he says he does not have a concealed weapons permit. "I don't use it as a threat. My biggest fear is someone that's a nut that might try to make a statement, and I don't have a chance to retaliate, that's all."
DEFINING A LEGACY
He is, his friends say, little changed from the man who made his way to Fort Yukon to make his mark in Alaska's Interior in its first year of statehood. You might catch him cleaning his fingernails with his Bowie knife, said Dan Kish, a former aide on the Natural Resources Committee, but don't be fooled.
"Despite the gruff exterior and the un-Washington ways, sometimes his intuitions and insights into things are extraordinary," said Kish, who acknowledges he's also "nearly come to blows arguing" with Young.
"But it's born out of respect," he said. "Washington is full of that crap, and Don's different. It's a different cut of cloth. He continues to have that bright-faced optimism."
Those closest to Young are eager to paint him as something other than caricature. As Young enters the final stages of his career, they're hoping to define the legacy of a man who has had perhaps the renown of iconic fellow Alaskan, Sen. Ted Stevens but never his gravitas.
Before agreeing to an interview time, Young's office asked that several former staffers be contacted first. Each sought to tout a list of Young's all-time career highs: the 1973 legislation that created the trans- Alaska pipeline, the legislation that established a 200-mile fishing limit, and the $286 billion transportation bill named after his wife.
All former staffers, the men on the list are either lobbyists or run companies with ties to energy or Alaska Native corporations. They've benefited greatly from their ties to Young, who for his part is unapologetic about the success of the people close to him and calls them "his sons."
"What's wrong with that?" Young said. "They're knowledgeable; they know what they're doing. I've said this publicly before, many years ago: The lobbyists are one of the most important branches of any government, because they know the issue. You have interest groups who say, 'Oh, lobbyists are bad.' But the funny thing about it is they have their own lobbyists."
Among the lobbyists close to Young is Jack Ferguson, a former aide to both Stevens and Young.
At just a decade younger than his former boss, Ferguson hesitates to call Young a father figure. But he is among Young's closest friends and, as a lobbyist, best positioned to describe why the congressman has pictures on his office wall of him signing bills with nearly every president since Nixon.
'AM I JEALOUS? NO'
Young is skilled at building coalitions other Republicans won't touch, Ferguson said, including with organized labor. And he knows how to trade.
"There's something about Don Young that enables him to make friends on both sides of the aisle, to further his chairman in sort of a sly way and be such a cooperative sort of fellow that they work close," Ferguson said. "He's like a trapper. Trappers learn how to trade. You've got a certain number of pelts, they've got what you want, you've got to put a value on it, then you've got to strike a trade. He's always been like that."
When asked whether he has ever been envious of Stevens' stature in Alaska, Young says no, and he asks a staffer to retrieve a framed photo of Stevens kissing Young's ring.
Then, Young launches into a story about the work he did with former Rep. Gerry Studds, D-Mass., to pass the landmark fisheries bill known as the Magnuson-Stevens Act. The 1976 bill created 200-mile exclusive economic zones off the country's coast and led to Alaska's multi-billion dollar fishing industry.
Young said he recognized the need for the legislation during a trip to Kodiak, where whole fleets of foreign fishing vessels were visible at night, just one mile off shore. Then-President Gerald Ford, who was on his way to Asia and refueling in Alaska, invited Young along. Young said he used the long trip on Air Force One to persuade Ford to sign the legislation, over then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's concerns about the effect it would have on U.S. ties to Japan.
"I said -- and Gerry Ford is a friend of mine -- 'Mr. President, with all due respect, that's bull****,'" Young said. "I said, 'they will figure out a way to get the fish, but we will control the seas 200 miles out.'"
"This went on until we got off the airplane," Young said. "On his way back, he signed that bill. And I take credit for that every time. Of course, Ted got it named after him. Am I jealous? No. I didn't really care, as long as it happened."
'I DON'T NEED A LOT OF FRIENDS'
Young still demonstrates that behind-the-scenes cajolery. Mid-interview, Young excused himself to take a call from Jacob Lew, the director of the Office of Management and Budget at the White House.
"I believe very strongly that if you read the Constitution and our agreement with the American Indians and Alaska Natives, we have an obligation," Young said after the call. "And I don't want to see us balancing the budget on the backs of those we have an obligation to."
Young said he has always worked well with Democrats. He points out that some of his signature achievements -- including the Alaska pipeline -- happened while Democrats controlled the House.
Yet there's no question of his Republican loyalty -- Young wore a tie emblazoned with elephants to Tuesday's State of the Union address, where much was made of the first mixed-party seating at the annual event.
He also is a bit of a self-acknowledged loner. As one of the senior House members -- the only Republican to have served longer is Rep. Bill Young of Florida -- Young has outlived many of his friends.
But Young said he's fine with that. He grew up on a remote ranch, and in high school, he said, he learned that drama was a great escape from his own personality.
"Not because I had any interest in really acting," he said. "But because when I was on the stage, I was never Don Young, I was whoever I was acting. And you can do all kinds of weird things when you are somebody else."
"I don't need a lot of friends," he added. "I never have."
Those House members closest to him include former Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., the chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, who lost re-election last fall after 36 years. Loner or not, Young takes "a very personal approach," Oberstar said.
"He knows members' first names, he talks to them one-on-one, he's very approachable," Oberstar said. "When you watch Don Young, when he smiles, the room lights up. And he's just very likeable, a delightful person."
'I KNOW HIM AS AN INDIVIDUAL'
Even Young's so-called "enemies," such as Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., have great affection for him. Both Young and Miller, who called their years of sparring "a rocky wild ride," served together on the House Natural Resources Committee.
For decades, they've been on opposite sides of epic congressional battles, including the one fight Young has been incapable of winning in his 38-year career: opening up the coastal plan of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil and gas development.
"People look at me in disbelief that I would work with Don Young, that we would like one another," said Miller, who has been hunting with Young and shares with him an appreciation for the conservation of Africa's big cats and apes. "But I know him as an individual."
"He's a real legislator. You don't always get it your way, and he knows that that's true," Miller said. "He's more than willing to sit down and talk a deal. He may say, 'That's a deal I can't accept.' But he'll entertain those discussions. Some people today, it's only their-way-or-the-highway. He doesn't start out that way."
Young will entertain all ideas from all comers, Miller said.
"And he'll tell you right to your face: 'That's the dumbest thing I ever heard.' But he'll hear you out. Or he'll say, 'We can do something around this idea.'"
Although he has suggested recently that he might be on the lookout for a successor, Young said in the interview that he intends to run for office again, as long as he is physically able. He has asked his staff and his daughters to be honest with him, and let him know if he should retire.
"Will I be replaced someday? Yes." Young said. "God will either take care of me or the devil, I don't know. I hope it's God, because I want to see Lu again."
By ERIKA BOLSTAD