Montana’s original hothead in Congress (Hint: It’s not Gianforte)

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Greg Gianforte has been excoriated by the national media, state media, Democrats and even some Republicans for “body-slamming” a reporter the day before being elected Montana’s sole congressman on May 25.

Some of those critics have gone so far as to recommend that Gianforte not be seated in the House of Representatives because of his actions, even though he has apologized to his constituents and to the reporter, and admitted the fault was entirely his own.

Admittedly, it’s not a stellar way to start your political career. Scratch that. It’s a horrible way to start your political career, but it’s not unprecedented for a member of Congress from Montana to be involved in a violent incident and yet remain in office.

Indeed Sen. Lee Metcalf didn’t merely survive a couple of violent incidents in his professional life; rather, he prevailed and remains one of the most beloved politicians ever to come out of our state. He was ranked 15th on a list of the 100 Most Influential Montanans of the Century in The Missoulian newspaper.

If you don’t recall Metcalf, you at least may know part of his legacy. The Democratic politician helped pass the 1964 Wilderness Act, and the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge north of Stevensville and the Lee Metcalf Wilderness near Big Sky were named in his honor. Metcalf served in the U.S. House from 1953 to 1961 and then in the Senate from 1961 until the time of his death in 1978. He also served with distinction in the U.S. Army during World War II, participating in the Invasion of Normandy, the Battle of the Bulge and more.

Nonetheless, Metcalf’s record was not without blemish. Maybe it was a carryover of his Montana farm boyhood or a hallmark of his military service, but Lee Metcalf did not suffer fools gladly, meaning if you got in his way — watch out!

In 1964, during his first term, Sen. Metcalf got in some kind of a shoving match with a 24-year-old law student serving as an elevator operator in the Senate office building.

The Inter Lake carried a colorful UPI report on the incident in its Feb. 18, 1964, edition:

“Sen. Lee Metcalf, D-Mont., thought the elevator operator in the Old Senate Office Building was awfully slow Monday and told him so… The operator, Bernard O’Neill, 24, a Georgetown University law student from South Bend, Ind., claims Metcalf, a big, brawny man of 53, took a swing at him. Metcalf vigorously denies it…

“If I had taken a punch, he wouldn’t have been there,” said Metcalf. “I can punch hard enough for most of these elevator operators.”

Substitute “reporters” for “elevator operators” and imagine the howls if Greg Gianforte had taken the same bragging approach to his attack on Ben Jacobs in Bozeman. Gianforte would rightly be lambasted, but Metcalf stood firm.

In a story the next day in the Billings Gazette, Metcalf admitted he “sort of pushed” O’Neill, but still denied O’Neill’s claim that he had been punched. Whatever did take place in that elevator, Metcalf clearly acted like a self-important boor who thought he deserved special treatment.

“Yesterday,” Metcalf told the Associated Press, “I was treated like anybody else — not like a senator — and I did not like it.”

Metcalf admitted he got mad because the elevator operator was reading a book and not attentive enough to the senator’s needs.

“I bawled him out,” Metcalf said. “We had an argument, and he told me, in effect, to get out and walk if I didn’t like the way he was running the elevator.”

O’Neill’s sponsor, Sen. Birch Bayh, D-Ind., said he told the elevator operator to apologize to Metcalf or lose his job. Metcalf, to his credit, said he was “not interested in getting the boy fired,” but there is evidence he did not learn anything about his own behavior as a result of the incident.

Seven years later, while attending a Vietnam War protest, Metcalf again had his sense of privilege on display. According to a UPI story, “Sen. Lee Metcalf, a robust 60 years old, punched a policeman in the chest Wednesday when he stopped him from crossing a police line during antiwar demonstrations at the Capitol.

“Metcalf shouted that he was a United States senator and couldn’t be prevented from going anywhere on the capitol grounds when [Officer M.J.] Van Fossen, wearing a riot helmet and holding a nightstick with both hands, told Metcalf he could not cross the line of policemen.

“Metcalf then jabbed out his right fist and hit Van Fossen in the left upper chest. The officer took the punch easily and did not swing back. But two other officers grabbed Metcalf’s arms and started leading him toward buses where demonstrators were being arrested.

“ ‘You assaulted an officer,’ they said to him. ‘I’m not going to stand…’ Metcalf said, his voice quivering. ‘I’m a United States senator.’ ”

The Capitol police chief came on the scene and ordered Metcalf to be released. At that point, “Metcalf, still enraged and face flushed, grabbed a UPI reporter by the arm to get his ear. ‘My name is Lee Metcalf. I’ve been stopped.’ ”

Ultimately, the “unfortunate incident,” as described by a Capitol police inspector, vanished without charges being filed and without further discussion. Maybe they were worried that Metcalf would go after them if they didn’t let it go.

If you talk to people who knew Metcalf back in the day, you’ll discover that he had a reputation for being a hothead — screaming and yelling at staffers, as well as apparently elevator operators and policemen. He was even demoted in World War II when he threw a staff sergeant down a staircase.

Compare that to the total of one (1) incident in which Greg Gianforte is known to have lost his temper. You would think that after he was charged with assault, we would have heard a bunch of complaints about him if he had ever punched or yelled at anyone before. Maybe he has, but so far as anyone can tell, he is no Lee Metcalf.

Frank Miele is the managing editor of the Daily Inter Lake in Kalispell, Montana. He can be reached at edit@dailyinterlake.com.

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