It used to be that our lone congressman, Don Young, who avoids talking to media, could be himself while visiting small-town Alaska. Off the road system, word didn't travel far. He was free to do what he customarily does: open his mouth before engaging his brain.
He could give a rangy interview to a couple of reporters in Ketchikan, for example, and steer it into favorite topics like cutting down more trees, what oil does when it gets cold, the evils of the federal government. He could say a few off-color things about the president and casually drop the slur "wetback" to refer to migrant workers who picked tomatoes on his father's farm. Little would come of it. People cut him slack. It was just Don being Don.
But then Facebook and Twitter shrank the world. And what happened in Ketchikan didn't stay in Ketchikan anymore.
Fewer than 24 hours after a small-town radio station posted a story containing Young's racial slur Thursday, the world was pummeling Alaska's 79-year-old congressman on the Internet. Predictably, the Lefties were fired up, but so were his fellow Republicans, who are trying to court Hispanic voters. Rep. John Boehner was dissing him. So was Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus. Sen. John McCain spanked him over Twitter:
"Don Young's comments were offensive and have no place in our Party or in our nation's discourse. He should apologize immediately."
So after one "I'm-an-old-guy,-that's-just-how-we-talk,-I-mean-no-disrespect" non-apology, Young finally issued a statement saying he was sorry. His sins will be washed away in a couple of news cycles. But that doesn't mean he thinks any differently. And, despite the national outrage, it's not clear to me that voters here care one way or another. Locally, Young's comments did not cause much of a stir. Outside of the Hispanic community in Anchorage, which was rightly outraged, and the Alaska Democrats who made a little hay of it, nobody was saying much on Friday. The Alaska Native community wasn't sending out statements. Neither were many politicians. Or ethnic organizations. I called Malcolm Roberts, one of the presidents of Bridge Builders, a prominent multicultural group that aims to "make Anchorage the first city without prejudice."
"I don't want to be quoted on this one," he said.
That's the thing about Don Young. Alaskans will forgive him for anything. Spouting off inappropriate comments like a real-life Grampa Simpson, brandishing an oosik at a hearing, threatening to bite a political adversary "like a mink?" We're cool. The time in 1995 when he used explicit language to describe gay sex to a group of high school students in Fairbanks? There was a little uproar. He apologized. Alaskans elected him again. Eight more times. Even the cloud of ethics violations that's been hanging over him for years. No matter. He's bringing home the bacon. Not as much as the old days, but still.
Here's the ugly truth, Alaska: We say we hate the feds, some of us howl about taxes and deficits, but we'll look past plenty in our elected leaders to keep federal money flowing.
Peter Goldberg, vice chair of the Alaska Republican Party, put it more delicately Friday in an interview with the Daily News: "I mean, if you are a member of that ethnic group, if you're Hispanic, you probably find it offensive. But then again, if you've been in Alaska quite a while, you've known Don Young for up to 40 years, because that's how long he's been a congressman, and I think you'd get past it."
Let's be clear: Don Young said something casually that was deeply ignorant and offensive. And it's not the first time he's done that. He's way out of sync. A fossil. But I don't know that there's a line Don Young could cross that would keep the majority of people here from voting for him, outside of maybe actually getting arrested. Even then, I bet if someone ran against him it would be a squeaker.
Because we so rarely hear from him, I thought I'd share a few more nuggets from his Ketchikan interview that didn't make news:
On what he knows about proposed changes in Alaska's oil tax structure: "I have no understanding what they're talking about, to be honest with you. If anybody else says they do, they're pulling your leg." (He went on to say he supports it anyway.)
On the president: "That jackass, when you think about it, he gets in an airplane $167,000 an hour to fly that Air Force One and he cancels the White House tours? I mean this guy is about as arrogant ... I've been under eight presidents. He's probably the most arrogant as any of 'em I've ever met. He really believes he's king. And he wants to change this country! Into a monarchy!"
On the most recent set of ethics charges against him for taking gifts in exchange for political favors: "In my own heart of hearts, (I) know that I'm personally legitimate in what I've done. ... It's all about flying. I used to fly with everybody, you know, by the way, personal friends is what I'm saying. We'll see. We'll see who's right and who's wrong."
I've heard people say Alaska is changing, that if Don Young ran for the first time now, he wouldn't make it. Every census shows we're becoming more diverse, and that brings different kinds of voters. (Hispanics, by the way, are one of the state's fastest-growing groups. One out of 10 schoolchildren in Anchorage is Hispanic. That trend is expected to continue.)
Some projections say the next presidential election will be close here, which hasn't happened since before I was born. It's possible, people tell me, a little less one-party domination and a little more competition will raise the bar for elected officials.
I'll believe all that when I see it. In the meantime, despite the various petitions now circulating on Facebook, Don Young has no intention of stepping down.
"I'm sort of like one of the meteors that flies through the sky," he told reporters in Ketchikan before all the racism ruckus started. "Until I totally dim out, I'm still gonna fly."