The 74-year old Vietnam veteran and Rhodes Scholar from South Dakota has flipped the playbook on the GOP.
Former Sen. Larry Pressler may have loyally carried the Republican flag over two terms in the House of Representatives and three terms in the U.S. Senate, but in this upside-down year in presidential politics, the 74-year old Vietnam veteran and Rhodes Scholar from South Dakota has flipped the playbook on the GOP and is now publicly endorsing former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s Democratic bid for President.
Always known as a moderate Republican, Pressler has moved further to the left during the 2016 Presidential election cycle, calling on other Republicans not to “sit out” Donald Trump’s insurgent candidacy and insisting that “voting for Hillary Clinton is the only responsible thing to do.”
Pressler is perhaps best known as the “one senator who would not be bought,” according to The Washington Post, having been only one of nine known members of Congress approached in 1980 by undercover FBI agents to take a bribe – and turned them down.
Raised on his family’s farm in hardscrabble Humboldt, South Dakota, Pressler was the first one in his family to attend college, at the University of South Dakota, before winning a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University, followed by degrees from the John F. Kennedy School of Government and Harvard Law School.
Briefly an attorney, Pressler volunteered for two tours in Vietnam, serving in the U.S. Army from 1966-68, before returning to work for several years in the State Department as a Foreign Service Officer. Elected to the House of Representatives from South Dakota in 1975, Pressler served for four years until his 1978 election to the Senate.
In 1980, a year after taking office as senator, Pressler was approached by FBI agents posing as representatives of Arab sheikhs who offered him and eight other lawmakers cash in exchange for legislative favors.
In its reporting of the Abscam investigation, The Washington Post describes a grainy FBI video in which Pressler tells the undercover agents, “It would not be proper for me to do anything in return for a campaign contribution.” After refusing the bribe, he reported the bribery attempt to the FBI.
In his final review of the Abscam cases, Judge J. Pratt praised him for his singular act of honesty: “Pressler, particularly, acted as citizens have a right to expect their elected representatives to act…He showed a clear awareness of the line between proper and improper conduct, and despite his confessed need for campaign money, and despite the additional attractiveness to him of the payment offered, he nevertheless refused to cross into impropriety.”
In the Senate Pressler proved to be a dogged legislator, chairing the Commerce Committee and serving on the Foreign Relations, Science and Transportation Committees and the European and Asian Subcommittees. He authored and won Congressional and Presidential approval of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, sweeping reforms which broke up the “Baby Bells” and fostered competitiveness and innovation in the telecommunications marketplace which largely stand today.
He also became known for the so-called “Pressler Amendment” which banned most economic and military assistance to Pakistan unless its president certified on an annual basis that the Middle East country possessed no nuclear explosive device.
Pressler served until 1997, when he lost his bid for a fourth term by two points to Democratic Congressman Tim Johnson.
Upon leaving the Senate, Pressler chose to stay in Washington, serving as a lawyer, lecturer, business advisor, “but not a lobbyist,” he’s careful to point out. When Sen. Johnson announced his retirement in 2013, Pressler ran as an independent for the seat he lost to Johnson two decades earlier but lost in the 2014 mid-term elections to Mike Rounds.
Washington Life magazine spoke to Pressler in his home in Washington, where he lives with his longtime wife Harriet.
WASHINGTON LIFE: What made you decide to recently endorse Hillary Clinton?
LARRY PRESSLER: Because voting for Hillary Clinton is the responsible thing to do. When I learned that the alternative is Donald Trump, I said to myself “Really?” I mean, God almighty, I’m so frightened. It’s almost like the elections in Germany in the early 1930s. I’m so astounded that he is the Republican nominee. How can he attack a Mexican-American judge like that? It’s just unbelievable, and he just keeps going on and on. So my intention is to endorse and vote for Hillary Clinton, as I did by endorsing Obama in 2008, when I did some surrogate speaking for him as a veteran. I expect to do that as well for Hillary Clinton.
WL: Do you feel there is something broken about the process?
LP: I served as a Republican, and I’m still thought of as a Republican, and I’d love to be a moderate to liberal Republican today, but I just don’t feel like there’s any room today in the party for me, at least not in South Dakota. They’re just so far to the right. There’s something very wrong about the Republican Party today. There’s something almost evil that has come out of the way these primaries were run and the way the candidates talked to each other and the way very few issues were raised and the way Donald Trump won, and I just don’t feel good about it. It’s a toxic situation.
WL: Tell us how your humble childhood in rural South Dakota shaped you.
LP: I was a very shy farm boy with a severe stutter in high school, so it was a struggle. When I wasn’t in school I worked on the farm driving a corn cultivator. I really envied the guys who got to go to the elite prep schools. I came from a small high school, so I didn’t get quite enough math and science and English. So I got to the University of South Dakota –where I went because it was the lowest cost school for me–I had to do remedial courses as a freshman to catch up, and took speech therapy classes. I still have a stutter, to some extent. But I guess all of this formed the roots of my independence.
WL: What convinced you to volunteer for service in Vietnam, where you ultimately did two tours and won the Bronze Star?
LP: My dad was a real simple, straightforward, honest guy, and because he was of the World War II mentality, he said to me once, “Well, you could easily avoid service, but if you do, somebody poorer than you and less able than you might have to go, and that might bother you for the rest of your life.”
WL: Returning from Vietnam, what was the atmosphere like at Harvard back then?
LP: Vietnam veterans were not very popular, because they thought we were strong supporters of the war. At one point there was a strike to shut down Harvard and end the war. I didn’t disagree with it, but I crossed the picket line and went to my classes. And that made people treat me very coolly at Harvard Law School.
WL: Do you think the Republican Party has become too extremist?
LP: Yes, I do.
WL: Having witnessed this evolution from inside the party, what’s changed about it over the years?
LP: The Republican Party has become the party of big spenders. They’ve become the party of big spending but no new revenue. They just want to add more and more to the military budget, which usually doesn’t make us any stronger, because it’s usually just expensive weapons that the Pentagon has not asked for.
WL: When did you feel like you were turning away from the party?
LP: When Bill Clinton became the only guy who really balanced the budget, and did it by raising taxes and balancing out some of the spending. That’s another reason why I supported Obama. Nobody knows this, but the Republican Senators vote for bigger deficits than Democrats do, because they vote for all the military spending, and all the social spending, and they won’t vote for any tax increases or any revenue enhancement.
WL: Do you feel more comfortable in your skin as an Independent?
Actually, I’ve come to believe that maybe being an Independent is not so effective. Independent voters kind of vanish on election day, and morph back into whatever they were before.
WL: You’re a big advocate for stricter gun control, correct?
LP: Yes, especially after the Orlando mass shooting. We need to go the route of more gun control such as universal background checks on all gun sales and a ban on all assault weapons as a result of Orlando and all the other shootings that have occurred. But it’s almost as though Republicans are saying gun control shouldn’t be part of the conversation at all.
WL: Last year you joined the Church of Latter Day Saints and now teach Sunday school at a Mormon church. What are your thoughts on Trump’s rhetoric towards religions such as the Muslim faith?
LP: This is a very dangerous national conversation we’ve slipped into. Among others, Mormons are very nervous. Mormons are the only religious group besides the Jews who have been ordered by the government to be killed, such as in 1838 when Missouri Gov. Liburn Boggs ordered all the Mormons in his state to be killed, which forced many to leave the state before eventually resettling in Utah.
WL: Do you think Republicans should be more outspoken about a nominee that many don’t support?
LP: The worst thing is for Republicans to be silent. A lot of Republicans are just saying, ‘I’ll sit it out, I won’t vote.’ Or, ‘I’ll vote for a third-party candidate.’ But if they don’t vote, they are giving more power to dark forces.
Larry Pressler’s new book, “Senator Pressler: An Independent Mission to Save Our Democracy” (Fortis Publishing, 2016) is available on Amazon.