They say greatness is seldom recognized in its own time. They also say that the voters of Montana bitch and moan about Washington, D.C., but send the same people back there every election. The second aphorism we owe to Dennis Rehberg, who last week coincidentally was not sent back to Washington for the first time in 12 years, having lost his Senate bid to Jon Tester. How that bears on our ability to recognize greatness is a matter in dispute.
To hear Rehberg tell it, our instruments are not finely tuned. He explained his position to Aaron Flint on the "Voices of Montana" radio show Jan. 3, the first day of our bold new Congress.
"Look, the people of Montana actually had an opportunity to change the Senate and didn't, and the people of America had a chance to change the presidency, and they didn't," he said. "So they bitch and whine and moan about all the things that are going wrong in Washington, and then they just send back exactly the same thing: same House, same Senate and same president."
A less charitable Flint might have pointed out that they didn't send back exactly the same thing, but Rehberg should be forgiven his hyperbole. He was upset. I'm disappointed, too. As a person who makes remarks, I hoped to see Rehberg raised to as high an office as we could elevate him. It would not offend the former representative to say that he was easy to write about.
He conducted his political career with belligerent élan. His last act as a member of Congress was to vote "yea" on the Congressional Pay Freeze and Fiscal Responsibility Act. During his 2010 campaign, he sued the City of Billings. Last June, he issued a press release demanding that the Environmental Protection Agency stop flying unmanned drones over Montana farms to enforce the Clean Water Act, a practice he read about on Infowars.com.
The EPA responded, politely, that they were not doing that. Corrected but not chastened, Rehberg voted two weeks later to let U.S. Customs and Border Protection fly unmanned drones over Montana farms to enforce border control. It was a bold move, and Rehberg made it confidently.
It's not that he didn't care what voters thought. Clearly he cared, scrupulously referring to his unstocked land in Billings as a ranch and regularly appearing in a cowboy hat that made him look like a character on the "Tim and Eric Awesome Show." But Rehberg knew that what he did was less important than who he was, and who he was was a type.
As our representative, his job was to play Denny Rehberg, Montanan. So he lambasted the EPA for doing what he told Customs to do. He allegedly got drunk on a 2004 diplomatic excursion to Kazakhstan, called the locals "coneheads" and fell off a horse. Such behavior scandalized journalists and infuriated Democrats, but it embodied a certain way that our state loves to think of itself. Rehberg obscured his policies with as much rooting and tooting as he could muster, and through it all he stuck to one principle: Fade the public.
He bet that we had short memories and shorter attention spans. He bet that how he represented Montana in Congress was less important than how he represented Montanans on TV. For 12 years, he was right. Then we pulled the rug out from under him.
Can you blame him for blaming us? Rehberg cannot have lost because of something he did, because he kept doing the same thing. It cannot have been his relentlessly lobbyist-friendly policies, because policy was never the point. He gave the people what they wanted, and what we wanted was a drunken farm boy who loved Montana and hated Washington.
Then we didn't want that anymore. The only explanation was that we didn't know what we wanted. It was the logical conclusion for a man who based his career on lowballing the intelligence of Montana voters. When your bedrock assumption is that people have to be tricked into voting for the right man, how can you take them seriously when they choose someone else?
Rehberg's great gift as a politician was his sense of image, his ability to become a caricature of his own constituents. In the end, that turned out to be his great flaw. Like all scoundrels, he knew that we were less smart than him, but at some point he lost track of how much.
He lost track way before Jan. 3; that was just the day he broadcast it on the radio. When I heard him, I resented Rehberg for assuming I was stupid, but I liked him for thinking that about everyone else. Maybe that was the Rehberg magic all along. He was a genius surrounded by fools, and yet he kept doing such foolish things himself. How can you not love that man? How can you not embrace him as someone just like you?
Dan Brooks writes about politics, consumer culture and lying at combatblog.net.