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Requiescat in pace. And in joy.
David Conner Treen was a one-term governor (and four-term congressman) of a troubled southern state. He lost or withdrew from far more elections than he won. His nomination for a federal appeals court judgeship fell apart. And he was the butt of two of the most famous put-downs in American political history. Yet, although almost no history books will say so, he was one of the more consequential figures in late 20th century politics, not just in Louisiana, but nationally.
Dave Treen died yesterday at 81, and national conservatives should pay respects.
Treen was no saint. He had a temper, and sometimes a problematic self-absorption (leavened by a genuine humility), and an incredibly maddening, Hamlet-like indecisiveness on policy minutia and political strategy. But by the political standards of Louisiana, Treen was the touchstone of all that was good and decent, earnest and principled. And he was the very model of admirably dogged persistence for a worthy cause.
Treen played a huge role in breaking the Democratic Party’s monopoly on the South. He played an important role in organizing U.S. House Republicans toward a conservative, reformist model in the late 1970s to help lay the groundwork for the Reagan presidency. He planted the seeds of reform in Louisiana government. He served as the single most important mentor for U.S. Rep. Bob Livingston, the most successful cost-cutting Appropriations Chairman ($50 billion of real dollars cut from domestic discretionary spending in just two years) in American history. And he swallowed his pride and 20 years of frustration when his state needed him the most, in order to provide the single most significant turning point in the effort to stop neo-Nazi David Duke from becoming governor.
His story really is remarkable.
When Dave Treen first ran for Congress as a Republican in 1962 against the powerful Democrat Hale Boggs, there were only some 10,000 registered Republicans in the whole state of Louisiana. And Treen was hardly rolling in dough either personally or politically, with a sparsely furnished house and only about $11,000 in total campaign contributions. But he polled a surprisingly strong 32.8 percent of the vote, and ran again in 1964. That time, he earned 45 percent — again against Boggs, a veritable Louisiana and Washington institution. Four years later, he tried yet again — and this time came so close (officially 48.8 percent of the race) that some of his backers said he lost due only to vote fraud in the New Orleans inner city.
It was during that race that he attended the Republican national convention that was choosing between Richard Nixon and the exceedingly late-starting Ronald Reagan. Everybody knew that Treen was in line for a federal judgeship if he lost his congressional race while Nixon won the presidency — but Treen, a conservative, couldn’t decide between Nixon and Reagan. A Nixon henchman found Treen on the convention floor and told him that if he supported Reagan, his hopes for a judgeship — or for help with his congressional campaign — were over. It was a raw political threat — and it backfired.
A witness said Treen looked like he was about to hit the guy. Nobody bought off Dave Treen: He announced his support for Reagan instead, carrying several other delegates with him. Sure enough, the victorious Nixon never did name Treen to a judgeship.
Three years after Treen’s excruciatingly close loss to Boggs in 1968, Republicans needed a candidate for governor. Treen was a three-time loser in just one district of the state, and had never won an election to any public office — but he was talked into running. In the general election against the flamboyant Edwin Edwards, Treen earned a stunning 42.8 percent of the vote — still a landslide loss, but 5 points better than any Louisiana Republican statewide since Reconstruction. Piece by piece, painful loss after painful loss, Dave Treen was serving as the sacrificial lamb in elections aimed at building a Republican Party where no effective one existed.
After frightened Democrats changed congressional district lines for the 1972 elections in order to move Treen’s house out of Boggs’ district, Treen ran yet again for Congress, this time for an open seat. He won, joining Trent Lott of Mississippi (elected that same year) in opening the Deep South for the first time ever to conservative Republicans running for federal office. And Treen didn’t waste his time. He sponsored successful efforts to raise the exemption for the estate tax, to promote domestic energy exploration, and to block several efforts that would have expanded government support for abortion. And just three terms into office, he became chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, helping (among other things) marshal support for Jack Kemp’s revolutionary supply-side tax cuts.
In Louisiana, governors are limited to no more than two consecutive terms (although they can come back later after a term out of office), so the wildly popular but corrupt Edwards had to sit out a term. In a six-way race in 1979, Treen led in the state’s “jungle primary,” and held off progressive Democrat Louis Lambert in the general election by just 9,000 votes. He was the first GOP governor in the Deep South since Reconstruction.
Republican registration tripled (this is from memory) from the low hundred-thousands to the high 300-thousands — but Treen never won another race. His administration achieved a number of small but important reforms (which were admirable but not of much interest outside Louisiana), but Edwards still pulled all the strings in the state legislature, leaving Treen sometimes looking rather hapless. Everybody knew Edwards was itching for a comeback. It was in that comeback race in 1983 that the Cajun emitted the two famous put-downs. Edwards said that the only way he could lose to Treen was to be “caught in bed with a dead girl or a live boy.” And he said the highly deliberative Treen “takes an hour and a half to watch 60 Minutes.” Hundreds of similar quips left their mark as well, as did an oil-patch downturn in the early 1980s. Edwards won with a whopping 62.4 percent of the vote, and spent the next eight years (four in office, four out of power) still taking shot after shot at Treen, out of sheer spite.
Treen, for his part, kept working to build the Republican Party. But disaster struck — and here is where Dave Treen perhaps stood tallest of all. The disaster came in the form of former KKK leader David Duke, who won election to the state legislature in Treen’s backyard, against Treen’s brother John. Duke used a preternatural ability to manipulate the media as his calling card in running a strong U.S. Senate race in 1990 and then beat two other Republicans to force a general election runoff with an again-returning Edwards in the 1991 race for governor. All during the three years of Duke’s ascendancy, Treen repeatedly worked in public and private to block Duke from taking over the state Republican Party. And then, in the runoff, with Duke claiming to be a Republican fighting against Treen’s nemesis of 20 years, Duke pulled within the margin of error in the most respected poll in the state.
That’s when Treen, still widely admired for his rectitude and judgment even among those who thought he was too boring to be governor, stepped in. In an absolutely remarkable and riveting press conference, he laid into the neo-Nazi.
“This election presents to the people of Louisiana a CLEAR, MORAL CRISIS,” Treen said, emphasizing the words. “Neutrality is no answer. As governor, David Duke would damage this state for decades to come.”
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