The Spectacle Blog

Happy 80th Birthday to a True Pioneer

By on 7.16.08 | 10:40AM

Republicans and conservatives, especially in the South, should all send birthday wishes to David C. Treen of Louisiana, who turns 80 today. Treen put himself on the line again and again to build a two-party system in the one-party South, against what at first were impossible odds, and (at least for a while) much to the detriment of his own personal finances. When he finally won election as the first Louisiana Republican in Congress in the 20th Century, it sent a jolt through the state GOP and set the table for significant growth. In Congress, he served as one of the leading young conservative reformers of the 1970s. When elected governor in a close race in 1979, GOP registration jumped again, quite significantly -- helping set the table for the explosion of GOP growth in Louisiana under Ronald Reagan.

Treen also served as an early mentor to U.S. Rep. Bob Livingston, the single best chairman of the House Appropriations Committee ever (and the only one to actually cut actual dollars from domestic discretionary spending: $50 billion worth in just two years).

It is also very much to Treen's credit that he took strong, unshakeable moral stands against the meteoric political rise of neo-Nazi David Duke in the late 1980s and early 1990s. When other leaders cowered, Treen stood tall. It may seem in retrospect to have been an easy thing to do, but anybody who was there at the time knows just how effectively Duke had pulled a sheet over the eyes of much of the public and convinced people that he had shed the worst of his KKK/neo-Nazi past and was a new, Yuppified version of Ronald Reagan. The truth, of course, was quite the contrary, as Duke secretly maintained many KKK and neo-Nazi ties -- but it took somebody with Treen's reputation for conservatism and probity to make enough people look beyond Duke's carefully crafted TV persona and acknowledge the frightening facts.

At the age of 70, Treen tried to make a comeback in a special election for Congress in 1999, helping to dispatch Duke in the open "jungle" primary in the process. Treen was expected to win the runoff against David "D.C. Madam" Vitter, but was distracted in the final week when his grandson went missing on a Western hiking trip. Treen suspended his campaign and used every bit of his fame to rally a huge search for his grandson -- a search that was successful when one of the TV helicopters attracted by the story found the teenage grandson, safe but scared, in a remote area. Treen returned to Louisiana just a day or two before the election, only to find that Vitter had run an underhanded and dishonest campaign against him. Flyers went out in black neighborhoods, for instance, claiming ludicrously that Treen was an ally of Duke (despite Treen's strong record against Duke, his strong record as governor of appointing blacks to government offices, and Vitter's almost total silence against Duke in the races when it really counted). Buoyed by huge margins in Vitter's favor among the small slice of the district's electorate that was black, Vitter squeaked out a narrow victory, 61,661 votes to 59,849 for Treen. That race effectively ended Treen's career as a political candidate. But it cannot erase the services he performed for the conservative cause.

A good and decent public servant, Treen lives today in Mandeville, LA. Happy Birthday, Governor!

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