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A look back at Don Young's illustrious history of pissing off Americans

Craig Medred
What's the most offensive thing to ever come out of Alaska Congressman Don Young's mouth? Let us know in the comments below. Aaron Jansen illustration

Alaska Rep. Don Young -- the Sergeant Preston of the politically incorrect, the frozen-land congressman whose lips often move faster than his brain -- went to Ketchikan on Thursday, did an interview with the local public radio station and said failed Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney was right about 47 percent of Americans expecting government to take care of them. Then the rotten salmon carcass hit the fan.

Only it wasn't because Young defended Romney for making a statement from which even Romney retreated or, for that matter, claiming the nation has become such a mess that none of the 50 states would these days agree to join in forming "a more perfect union." No, the second-longest-serving U.S. House Republican instead set off a firestorm by letting slip the word "wetbacks" when referring to the migrant workers on his father's California farm in the 1960s. (Listen to the interview here).

Friday morning, the elder statesman from Fort Yukon, population 583, was at the center of an explosive national story, with Republican Party leaders and others demanding a forthright apology.

By then, Young had already told Alaska Dispatch he "meant no disrespect" but that did not quell the storm. Justifiably outraged Hispanics and some of the national media continued using Young as a racist punching bag, although the Washington Post did note, in an apparent attempt to make Young look less racist, that "among his jobs before entering politics as teaching school to indigenous Alaskans and working as a tugboat captain in the Yukon."

The story did not mention that the love of Young's life, the late Lu Young, was a Gwich'in Indian from Fort Yukon, or that the couple's two daughters are members of a minority. They are Alaska Natives. And so the nearly 79-year-old Young finally did something no one remembers him ever doing before. He formally apologized. He issued this statement Friday:

I apologize for the insensitive term I used during an interview in Ketchikan, Alaska. There was no malice in my heart or intent to offend; it was a poor choice of words. That word, and the negative attitudes that come with it, should be left in the 20th century, and I’m sorry that this has shifted our focus away from comprehensive immigration reform.

Four decades of foibles (and counting)

Some were wondering if Young has turned over a new leaf, though there is no real reason to believe he's about to abandon his outspoken, speak-before-you think ways. There's just too much history there.

Long before former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin decided to "refudiate," Young was falling victim to his words getting ahead of his thoughts:

  • He invented the term "bladderdash," which might actually be better than balderdash;
  • He referred to the salivationa of "Priblof's dog," a nod to the salivation of Pavlov's dog
  • And he once even encouraged his wife to get a "monogram" to check for breast cancer.

Alaskans have spent decades laughing at Young's word fumbles yet have elected him an astounding 20 times. He has left Alaskans periodically pleased, perplexed, pissed -- or even all three at once -- with his outrageaous comments and his sometimes over-the-top behavior. 

During the first Clinton administration, he waved an 18-inch oosik -- the penis bone from a walrus -- at Mollie Beattie, the first woman put in charge of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, when she appeared before his Congressional committee in 1994. 

During the term of George H. W. Bush as Republicans sought cuts to federal spending on arts and culture, Young told a group of Fairbanks students that he didn't think the government should fund "photographs of people doing offensive things" and "things that are absolutely ridiculous." When asked by one student for specifics, Young replied "buttfucking," in reference to a then-controversial display of sexually explicit works by the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe

Going back farther, to the second Nixon administration, Young locked his hand in a leghold trap to protest legislation that would have outlawed use of such devices. The "only licensed trapper in this whole Congress," then proceeded to talk about the trapline of 500 traps he used to run out of Fort Yukon in the Alaska Interior. It was 1975, and animal-rights activists in the crowd were horrified when Young said wildlife in Alaska could sometimes survive for weeks in those traps. He was eventually advised to take the trap off his hand because "your fingers...are blue now." 

Outside, many laughed at what seemed a ridiculous stunt. In state, support grew for Young, who'd recently been elected for the first time due to the untimely death of U.S. Rep. Nick Begich, an Alaska Democrat who died in a plane crash. The late representative's son, U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, now serves alongside "Uncle Don" in Alaska's federal delegation, and the two have a friendly relationship.

The list of outrageous statements coming out of Young's mouth over the years is impressive.

  • He was among the first to call global warming a "scam."
  • He declared the Deepwater Horizon oil blowout in the Gulf of Mexico a "natural phenomenon," not an environmental disaster.
  • He told a critic at rally in Alaska to "go fuck yourself."

He's suggested that Alaska doesn't have enough "bridges to nowhere" in response to national scrutiny of federally-funded infrastructure projects for the nation's most-remote state.

Under fire from friendlies, hostiles and everyone else

He once called environmentalists "a self-centered bunch of waffle-stomping, Harvard-graduating, intellectual idiots," which helped earn him a spot on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the "10 Worst Congressmen" in 2006. Young was third.

Though Young cut his political teeth fighting a plan to dam the Yukon River, his battles with environmentalists ever since are legendary. Following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., he suggested the tree-huggers might have been involved in destroying the World Trade Centers and damaging the Pentagon. "If you watched what happened (at past protests) in Genoa, in Italy, and even in Seattle, there's some expertise in that field," he told an Anchorage Daily News reporter at the time. "I'm not sure they're that dedicated but eco-terrorists -- which are really based in Seattle -- there's a strong possibility that could be one of the groups." 

With little hope of ousting Young in an Alaska election, environmentalists have instead fantasized about his going down in scandal, the likes of which befell the king of Alaska's politicians, former Sen. Ted Stevens. Young was under federal investigation at the same time as Stevens but somehow emerged unscathed. 

His political fundraising has led to prodding, probing and what seem like perennial investigations into alleged illegal campaign contributions, questionably financed trips and more. None of it has stuck, leading to hints of a new nickname: "Teflon Don."

Will this latest controversy be any different? Probably not. Alaska is far from D.C.; Young isn't up for re-election again until November 2014 -- some 600 or so 24-hour news cycles away. He's historically enjoyed strong support from Alaska Natives, the state's largest minority, and Alaskans, for some reason, just seem to like him.

Not even an all-around sunny good guy like Sean Parnell, now the state's governor, has been unable to unseat Young.

Parnell challenged Young back in 2008, when the congressman's political power had begun to wane under the pressure of investigations by Congress and the FBI, which was also investigating corruption of Alaska state politicians, thought at the time to be taking bribes to keep oil taxes low. Even then -- and with the support of a wildly popular Sarah Palin, seen as the reform remedy to oil company corruption -- Don Young held sway. Just before Palin was tapped to be John McCain's running mate, she backed Parnell's bid to unseat Young, saying it was "time for principled leadership."

Young was actually present when Parnell announced and Palin endorsed. And he answered: "I beat your dad, and I'm going to beat you."

And, of course, Young won again. His plain-spoken way seems to resonate with Alaskans, even if he doesn't always use the best or politest words.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com