Meet the Wisecracker

Come January 2007, Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) may be driving his green pickup truck with his household goods and Senate desk back to Big Sky Country. At least that’s what Montana Democrats are hoping and saying, for they believe the 70-year-old Burns will decide not to run for a fourth term in 2006.

Their speculation is that he will step down at the last minute and give his former aide Rep. Dennis Rehberg (R) a clear shot at the seat.

But Burns dismisses such talk as empty.

After pledging to serve only one term, Burns broke his promise and ran for a second term, saying that would be his last. With a 64 percent approval rating — his highest ever — Burns ran for a third term in 2000 and won again. He shrugs off his term limits pledges, saying there’s more he has to do for Montana.

“He’s running,” says Burns’s communications director, J.P. Pendleton. “What it boils down to is, seniority means everything, especially in the Senate, and it would not do Montana any good to have a freshman senator in the next Congress.”

Noting that Burns is the second most senior Republican on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and in line to succeed Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) as chairman, Pendleton adds, “We’re seeing clout with our delegation that we haven’t seen since [Majority Leader] Mike Mansfield [D].”

But there’s a catch: Stevens has only just started as Commerce chairman and has six years to go before he must give it up.

Among the Democrats who could challenge Burns — or Rehberg — are former NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw, who owns a ranch in Montana; Phil Jackson, former coach of the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers, who also lives in Montana; state Auditor John Morrison; state Senate President John Tester; and former state House Speaker Dan Kemmis.

Another factor Democrats say threatens Burns’s reelection campaign: colon cancer. The senator had surgery in April 2001, and his doctors assure him the cancer is gone. Still, Democrats insist the cancer could harm his reelection chances, as could his support of President Bush’s stances on Social Security and prescription drugs.

Burns, a former auctioneer with a penchant for politically incorrect humor, has a charm all his own. He speaks in a ruffian manner that many Montanans have come to adore. In 1999, he referred to Arabs as “ragheads,” but later apologized, and once, during a meeting with a newspaper editorial board, caused a ruckus by quoting a farmer using the “N” word.

Burns’s rough-hewn candor, which is rare among Washington politicians, sometimes lands him in trouble. He detests the term “politically correct” and refuses to follow any unspoken rules. There’s nothing Washingtonian about him, which is precisely what he wants you to know.

Asked about a reporter who once wrote that he picked his teeth with a pocketknife, Burns says, “It is stuff that don’t mean nothin’. I ain’t talked to that reporter since.”

Back in Montana, he ridicules Washington, using the same line that the Capitol is “three square miles of logic-free environment.”

Keely Burns, his daughter who is a family physician in Angier, N.C., explains, “He dislikes the climate in Washington because of the nature of the way politics is played. He’s a guy who is used to taking people at their word, and often that isn’t the case in D.C.”

Even fellow senators get the Burns treatment. They are “terribly boring people to be around,” he says, even though some are fond of him.

Sen. Craig Thomas (R-Wyo.) and Burns have traveled together with their wives — once to Montana’s Glacier Park. “He’s a Westerner, and kind of a cowboy, so that makes us able to relate to one another pretty well,” Thomas says. “He’s just a good guy to be around. He has a great capacity to lighten up things a bit.

“In the midst of a discussion he’ll come up with some damn thing he remembers from 50 years ago. It may have been a little shocking in the beginning, but not anymore. I expect him to come up with something different from what the conversation has generally been. He just starts with ‘I’ll tell you what ...’ and then tells us what.”

Burns’s party loyalty has earned him an affectionate nickname from President Bush, who calls him “Burnsy.” Although he speaks up in policy meetings, he has learned how to play the game.

The senator enters his first-floor Dirksen private suite on a recent Wednesday, looking as though a gust of wind just blew him indoors. Dressed in a red plaid tie that clashes with his pinstriped shirt and gray suit, it doesn’t appear he gave his clothing much thought this morning.

His face is the texture of leather left out in the sun too long. His blue eyes are tiny and transform into cartoon-character slits when he smiles. His ears are nearly perfect triangles.

Brash in demeanor, he plops into an armchair as if to say, “Here I am, take me or leave me, Makes no difference to me.”

That doesn’t mean Burns isn’t engaging or warm. He is, and he puts his guests at ease by making them laugh, telling them tales about how he’s so cheap that all his cars are pickup trucks he bought at garage sales back in Montana. Or about how his dad bought the country school he attended as a boy and moved it. Or about the sheepskin-covered chairs in his office. Or about how he got C’s and D’s at the University of Montana before dropping out after two years to join the Marines because he didn’t know what to do with his life.

“I’ll be right honest with you,” he says. “I didn’t know.”

But it’s clear he has no interest in impressing anyone or attempting a fake personality. If there is an exciting aspect to Burns, it is that you don’t know what he will say next.

“I got terrible personal habits,” he says jokingly. “I turn off the telephones and your gooseberries [translation, BlackBerrys]. I’m changing how you do business.”

Throughout the hour-long interview, his body language fluctuates between two distinct types: the first upright with arms crossed, the second sprawled out and slouching. When asked anything remotely personal, his arms whip around his body like a seatbelt. When asked more general questions, his arms flail wide apart, followed by the slouch (to his left side).

His English is neither textbook nor Ivy League, but it’s anything but sloppy. When he says, midyawn, “I am who I are. I’m too old to change now,” it’s not just happenstance but part of his outsider, non-Washington shtick.
Throughout the interview, Burns switches between good grammar and conventional syntax one moment and down-home hotchpotch the next.
He admits that his greatest regret is never earning a college diploma. “I’m the un-Washington, the uneducated here,” he says. “Some days it hampers you; some days it doesn’t.”
Later, he adds, “No one leads a perfect life.”

Those who know Burns well insist his plain talk is no act.

“He knows [grammar], but he probably doesn’t care that much,” says Taylor Brown, president of the radio network, Northern Broadcasting System, that Burns created. “If you were to sit down and do a test, yeah, he knows.”

Those who want him to lose in 2006 don’t doubt Burns’s charm. What they cast doubt on is his ability to represent the state.

“Senator Burns has been missing on key issues that matter deeply to Montanans,” says Brad Martin, executive director of the Montana Democratic Party. “Conrad knows how to work a crowd with the best of them. In the end, the next election is about delivering on issues.”

Chuck Denowh, executive director of the Montana Republican Party, sees things differently: “I don’t think there are many people in Montana who think Burns is unqualified because he hasn’t had a formal education. The fact that he got most of his education from his life experiences means more to people.”

John Rabenberg, the state’s Republican Party chairman, says Burns’s verbal gaffes are actually positives. Asked about Burns’s use of the term “ragheads,” Rabenberg says, “There is no one I know who is upset about that. You have to understand, at that time, ‘raghead’ wasn’t an uncommon statement. It certainly doesn’t hurt him out there. It’s probably a plus for him. I don’t tell him that. I tell him to straighten up a little bit.”

Former Montana Gov. Judy Martz, also a Republican, bridles at Democrats’ suggestions that Burns is unintelligent. “That makes me almost mad,” says Martz, who worked as a field representative for Burns. “The media makes up their own perception. Conrad is very bright. He is well-traveled. He is well-versed. He knows history. He can write on it. He can vote on it intelligently.”

Burns was born in northwest Montana and grew up there “poor as hell,” the son of a rancher and a homemaker. The family lived on a small farm and had no electricity.

After the Marines and working for two airlines, he turned to livestock and auctioneering and moved to Billings, where he became a broadcast journalist with his own radio and TV segments. He created the Northern Ag Network in 1975, which grew from four radio stations to 29 radio and six TV stations in 1988. Burns eventually sold the network, which still exists, for about $200,000.

Burns says he did not seek politics; it sought him. In 1986, he was angry at a local politician, so he ran for Yellowstone County commissioner and won. (In Burns’s words: “This guy ran his mouth off, so I ran against him.”)

Two years later, he did the unthinkable and beat Democratic Sen. John Melcher 52-48 percent and came to the Senate with virtually no political experience. Asked if he was nervous upon arrival, he says, “Yeah I was. I said, ‘My God, I’m in way over my ears. I better get somebody around me who knows something.’”

In 1994, Burns had apparently learned what he needed to because he won by an even larger margin — 62-38 percent — as he became the first GOP senator the state ever reelected.

In 2000, Montana began trending Democratic and Burns’s victory margin shrank to four percentage points. His Democratic opponent, Brian Schweitzer, is now the state’s governor.

Burns prides himself on driving across the country once a year. “You don’t feel this country at 30,000 feet,” he says. “You feel this country at ground level.”

He speaks of the time he spends with his constituents back home compared to the politicians he serves with in Congress. “They got a lot of dirt under their nails and a lot of wisdom,” he says. “Here we have a lot of intelligence and very little wisdom.”