MSNBC’s Chris Matthews retired this week after too many on-air and off-air comments about the relative attractiveness of female reporters, politicians and even former acting U.S. attorney general Sally Yates when she testified before the House Intelligence Committee in March 2017. When Matthews said his mea culpas, I remembered a similar instance with a member of Oklahoma’s congressional delegation.
At first, I was not entirely sure which person made the comment, but I knew who it was about: U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-California. After that, it did not take much mind-racking to remember that the culprit was U.S. Sen. James Inhofe, the senior senator from Oklahoma.
On the morning of Aug. 2, 2018, Inhofe was in front of a safe crowd, holding a town hall meeting at Midwest City Chamber of Commerce, 5905 Prosper Blvd. An article in The Oklahoman later that day reported what he said.
“Inhofe named four liberal senators believed to be considering a presidential run and said he originally favored Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders ‘because he would be the easiest to beat’ but now believes Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., could be better for Republicans. ‘She’s by far the best-looking one,’ Inhofe said to laughter.”
OpinionFrom George Lang, our lead opinion columnist
Yes, “to laughter.” This was roughly eight months after the #MeToo hashtag gained currency on social media with the revelations surrounding the now-convicted rapist Harvey Weinstein. And yet, here was Inhofe, diminishing one of his fellow senators by commenting on her appearance.
The Oklahoman buried the lede, but Harris’ status as a woman objectified by Inhofe is just one of the prehistoric notions in the senator’s worldview.
“God, guns and gays”
In 1994, during his first successful run for the U.S. Senate, Inhofe coined the phrase “God, guns and gays” as a strategy for winning elections on social issues. In that campaign and those that followed, Inhofe consistently leveraged fear and prejudice into green marks in the “win” column by using that formula.
First, there is God. As a member of The Family, a religious-political group that co-opts lawmakers to spread a so-called “political philosophy of Jesus,” Inhofe reaches out to political strongmen throughout Africa to promote business in their countries in exchange for listening to The Family’s pitch: that Christians trying to help the poor and disenfranchised should instead be helping powerful men become more powerful.
Between 1999 and 2008, Inhofe took 20 such trips to Africa and spent upwards of $187,000 in public funds to promote his Youth Corps program with The Family, according to a December 2008 story in The Oklahoman, spreading this kind of trickle-down Christianity to up-and-coming future despots in the developing world. For these young leaders, it is a little like sitting through a time-share pitch, except they get the keys to the kingdom of God and some sweet business deals to go along with them.
As for guns, Inhofe is one of the most celebrated acolytes of the National Rifle Association, voting against regulation time and again while telling his rural constituency on the campaign trail that his election opponents will take away their guns. He has an A+, or 100 percent, rating from the NRA.
In the final corner of Inhofe’s dark campaign triad, the senator voted several times to outlaw same-sex marriage, including a “yes” vote for the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). He voted “no” on prohibiting job discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community. He voted “no” for including sexual orientation in hate crimes legislation. And on June 6, 2006, Inhofe announced on the Senate floor that “I’m really proud to say that in the recorded history of our family, we’ve never had a divorce or any kind of homosexual relationship.”
All of this is said and done to rally his base at the polls, and I have not even mentioned his horrible record on fossil fuels, the environment and being a toady for the petroleum industry. It deserves its own column.
A fair percentage of Oklahomans are unsurprised by anything the senator does, mainly because we all have been living in Jim Inhofe’s world for some time.
He became mayor of Tulsa when I was in fifth grade and he held that position until just before my senior year. He was my congressman in the 1st Congressional District when I returned home from military service in 1990. When I finished undergrad, he became my senator within weeks of me starting my first journalism job.
This is my protracted way of saying that Inhofe has cast a shadow over me and my fellow Oklahomans since I was 11 years old, and I am now well into middle age and Oklahoma still has not escaped that shadow.
Of course, a majority of voters are happy playing “Me and My Shadow” with Inhofe. Since his first senatorial election in 1994, when he got swept in on Newt Gingrich’s red wave, Inhofe has mostly improved his percentages at every reelection, culminating in a 68-29 victory in 2014 over Matt Silverstein, chief executive officer for FirstNation Health. This is a conservative state, and it became even more conservative during Inhofe’s long career.
However, Inhofe is now facing his most formidable political opponent since he was elected to the U.S. Senate. According to an Okie Polls survey released Feb. 3, Inhofe’s Democratic challenger, former journalist Abby Broyles, has accrued 43 percent of voter support. Broyles, who is running as a progressive, only needs to make up 8 points to beat Inhofe.
One thing is certain, though: nothing is certain. Inhofe is expected to announce March 6 whether he will pursue a fifth term. If I were Inhofe at 85, I would probably grow tired of fighting alternative energy sources and meeting with anti-LGBTQ+ politicians in Uganda and just spend my days landing my plane at south Texas airfields that are closed for construction.
Or, maybe just apologize to Senator Harris for the gross slobbering over her appearance.