In 1979, America was a chastened nation on foreign policy. Congress had chosen to lose South Vietnam in 1975 and they were giving away the Panama Canal. Worse yet, Iranian students had stormed the American embassy in Tehran, taking its personnel hostage. Who aside from President Carter is to step up in such dreary times? Congressman George Hansen of Idaho.
First elected to Idaho’s 2nd Congressional District in 1964 as one of the few Republicans to topple a Democratic incumbent that year, George Hansen (1930-2014) quickly became a voice for limited government conservatism. An imposing figure at 6’6″, he opposed the Great Society through and through and was one of a handful of Northern Republicans to oppose the Voting Rights Act.
Although temporarily out of the legislative branch after a failed Senate bid in 1968, he returned in the 1974 election after defeating moderate Republican incumbent Orval Hansen in the primary and Democrat Max Hanson in the general election. This time around, he gained much greater attention as a staunch critic of the IRS, writing a book titled To Harass Our People: The I.R.S. and Government Abuse of Power, in which he compared the agency to the Gestapo. Hansen also was a critic of environmental policies especially as they pertained to western lands and of the Panama Canal Treaty. He also gained notoriety for his legal troubles over financial disclosure (which would lead to his defeat in the 1984 election) and for a 1992 conviction for swindling two Idaho banks and 200 people out of $30 million in an investment scheme. His most notable act, however, would come in response to the Iran Hostage Crisis.
Hansen took it upon himself to fly to Tehran to conduct his own negotiations without consulting US officials or Congressional leaders. This wasn’t his first time at this sort of adventure: in 1977 he had flown to Bolivia in an unsuccessful attempt to secure the release of 40 Americans arrested on drug charges, and in the summer of 1979 he flew to Nicaragua to provide supplies for the soon to be ousted dictator Anastasio Somoza. Although President Carter thought nothing good of the effort, he managed to secure several meetings, which US officials had at that point been unable to do. Hansen also was permitted to meet with the hostages. The reaction to this trip by many political observers and particularly Democratic politicians was negative, regarding it to be grandstanding and potentially dangerous. However, he had some supporters, like Rep. Bob Dornan (R-Calif.), who regarded him as a “hero” for his efforts (Ryan, 1979). Hansen even tried to negotiate an end to the crisis himself, making a first offer for a Congressional investigation into the alleged crimes of the Shah in exchange for release of the hostages, terms that were rejected by the Ayatollah himself. His second offer was practically a joke: exchange leading Shah backers David Rockefeller and Henry Kissinger for the hostages. Hansen also gained some criticism for some of his public statements in regards to the Iranian perspective and dismissed the militant statements of the Ayatollah towards the US as mere “rhetoric” (Ryan, 1979). History tells us of course that Hansen did not succeed in releasing the hostages, as they were freed at the end of Carter’s term after the signing of the Algiers Accords.
All in all, Hansen’s effort was a quixotic yet ultimately harmless bid to free the American hostages, as it neither aided nor damaged US efforts to this end. Perhaps his effort’s best effect was in its symbolism: a lone hero seeking to save the townsfolk from formidable foes. The truth is, of course, that international politics are substantially more complex.
Ryan, M. (10 December 1979). “Idaho Rep. George Hansen’s One Man Mission to Iran Leaves Official Washington Fuming”. People.
Vitello, P. (20 August 2014). “George Hansen, Congressman and Convicted Swindler, Dies at 83”. The New York Times.