Streetcar Line

Dave Treen, Political Builder

Requiescat in pace. And in joy.

By 10.30.09

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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."

Treen reviewed the record. He cited irrefutable proof, proof that many voters still, amazingly, were unaware of, that Duke had been a draft dodger, that Duke was a riot-fomenting lawbreaker, that he was a habitual tax delinquent -- and that he was still a Nazi. Treen provided transcripts and audio tapes to prove his claims. And he spoke in clear, unadorned, Cheney-like words and tones.

"David Duke simply is not believable," Treen said. "He is an opportunist who will say whatever is necessary to gain him votes."

Then, he addressed Duke's "Republican" status. This was important. Voters still were confused. Treen noted that Duke actually had lost the Republican convention, that the party had rejected him in numerous ways, and that he was an interloper.

"To my Republican friends, therefore, I say do not be persuaded in favor of Duke simply because he has adopted the Republican label…. Duke affiliated with the Republican Party for one reason and one reason only: pure political opportunism. It is my judgment that David Duke must be defeated. He can't be defeated by voters staying at home out of disaffection for both candidates for governor.… There are but two names on the ballot: David Duke and Edwin Edwards. To defeat David Duke, one must vote for Edwin Edwards. That's what I will do."

Everybody in Louisiana knew the history. Everybody knew how Edwards had mocked Treen for 20 full years. Asked about this, Treen responded: "Everybody knows that I have had my differences with Edwin Edwards. Ummm. People know that he has attacked me personally. And some may suggest that for that reason, I should stay out of it. It has been so suggested. But this is too important. This election is far too important."

I was standing there right in front of Treen, covering the event for Gambit New Orleans Weekly. It's hard to describe the pathos of the scene. Among the assembled media, you could hear not a sound. The sincerity, the swallowing of personal pride and ego, and the clarity of Treen's whole statement (only a small part of it is quoted above) left the normally cynical media struck dumb. They all knew of Treen's moral objections to Duke -- but for him to put himself on the line for Edwards, his own great nemesis, in such stark terms, was something that seemed to come straight out of Aeschylus or Vergil.

The center-left Louisiana scribe John Maginnis, in his brilliant book Cross to Bear, explained what happened next. Other endorsements came in for Edwards, including that of outgoing Gov. Buddy Roemer. The national media started attacking Duke. Volunteers came out of the woodwork for the "crook" over the Nazi. But: "According to [Edwards' own] polling, the most important blessing came from Dave Treen." As the Times-Picayune's Tyler Bridges added in his own book The Rise of David Duke, Edwards' "campaign polling showed that Treen's endorsement mattered as much to Roemer's supporters as did Roemer's [itself]."

Read that again. Even Roemer's own voters cared as much about the word of Treen, out of office for eight years, as they did for that of their own man. Such was Dave Treen's reputation for disinterested probity.

Edwards pulled away and turned the nail-biter into a rout. Duke's ascending star faded. The neo-Nazi tried several comebacks, but only one even came close. In a special election for Livingston's vacated congressional seat in early 1999, when Treen was 70 years old, in the area of the state where Duke had been most popular, a multi-candidate field, almost all Republicans, was taking shape. Treen knew that if the rest of the field split the vote too many ways, Duke could sneak into a runoff even with well under 25 percent of the vote -- and the nightmarish national attention would descend on Louisiana again. I met with Treen at his home as the field was taking shape. "I'm happily retired," he told me, in so many words, during a lengthy discussion. "But I may be the only one with enough name-ID to keep Duke out of a runoff. I'm leaning toward running."

Run he did. Sure enough, he came in first in the jungle primary. Duke was third. Without Treen in the race, Duke probably would have made the runoff and all Hades would have broken loose again.

But Treen spent almost the whole last week of the runoff (general election) campaign away from Louisiana, working to draw national media attention to the search for Treen's grandson, lost on a hike out West. If it had been anybody else's grandson, the young man probably would have died. Instead, Treen's high-profile efforts drew national news helicopters from all over, and after a few days it was a news chopper that spotted him and called in the rescue team. Treen returned to Louisiana the day before the election, looking much older and wearier, and he had an exhausted/angry meltdown on camera about opponent David Vitter's campaign tactics. Vitter squeaked out the victory, 61,661 votes to 59,849. Dave Treen had lost yet another campaign. But his grandson was alive; in effect, it was Treen himself who saved him.

…. And what of Edwin Edwards? Well, the wily old Cajun finally got caught in illegality and went to prison in 2002, where he remains to this day. Bizarrely, in the past two years Dave Treen started publicly advocating that the sentence of his old foe, now 82, be commuted. Reports my old boss at Gambit Weekly, Clancy DuBos: "Friends often asked why he would work so hard to free a man who had caused him so much pain. He told one of them, 'Because every night I say the Lord's Prayer, and when I say the words, 'Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,' I would feel like a hypocrite if I didn't forgive Edwin.' Dave Treen may have lost his biggest political campaign to Edwin Edwards, but in the race that really counts, he was much the better man."

(For a compilation of some of Mr. Hillyer's past writings on Dave Treen, go here.) 

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About the Author
Quin Hillyer is a senior editor of The American Spectator and a senior fellow at the Center for Individual Freedom. Follow him on Twitter @QuinHillyer.