WASHINGTON — There he was, sitting in the House of Representatives, grinning ear to ear, attending his first State of the Union speech since 1974.
It almost didn't happen. Laid low by the scandal of a federal criminal investigation and a near-pariah in his own Republican Party, Alaska's Rep. Don Young has in recent years struggled to stay relevant in a political era that's sidelined the kind of earmarking and horse-trading at which he excels.
Now, though, he's cleared of the investigation, and Republicans are back in charge of the House. The 77-year-old congressman who brags of never using a computer but always carrying a knife? He's back, and spoiling for another round.
Settling into his 20th term in office, Young has moved his hunting trophies into the biggest office in the House of Representatives. He's holding sway over a new panel on Indian affairs — and although it's a subcommittee, it returns to him the title "chairman" that he cherished for so much of his time in Congress. He's back as the Western representative on the House GOP policy committee that helps shape Republican initiatives. He's even taking calls from the White House about spending priorities in Indian Country.
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The renewed vigor comes following a stretch of challenges that his defense lawyer, John Dowd, said would be insurmountable for most people.
"Being under investigation is worse than having a gun pointed at you, particularly when you're a public official," Dowd said. "It's extremely difficult."
In August 2009, Young lost his wife of 46 years, Lu, his constant companion. If she hadn't persuaded him to file for re-election before her death, he might not have run this fall, Young said in an interview recently.
"And it was the best thing she did to me, because if I hadn't had the job, I would have been dead in a heartbeat," he said. "Now I've got more to focus on, so it keeps me going, and I thank her for that."
But he's also free of the federal investigation, which looked at whether he accepted illegal campaign contributions and gifts from a now-defunct Alaska-based oilfield service company, Veco, and its convicted chairman, Bill Allen. Young was also being investigated for an earmark in a transportation bill for a Florida interchange sought by a campaign donor.
In August, Young said, the Justice Department had told Dowd that it had dropped its investigations.
Young has never fully addressed the accusations, but he spent well over $1 million on legal fees from his campaign account in fending them off. Several of his aides were snared in them. One aide from Young's time on the Transportation Committee, Fraser Verrusio, is on trial now, accused of illegally accepting an expenses-paid trip to the 2003 World Series and lying about it on a financial disclosure form.
In granting a rare interview with McClatchy, Young would allow just one question about the federal probe. Asked whether he learned who his true friends were, it was the only time during the interview that he struggled to control his emotions.
"Let's put it this way. I learned who was not my friend," he said.
He continues to revel in his reputation for colorful metaphors, bluster and the possibility of fisticuffs. There's the transportation bill he admitted was "stuffed like a turkey" with earmarks. There's the legendary tale of him in 1994 brandishing an oosik — the penis bone of a walrus — at a female Fish and Wildlife Service chief. In 2007, he threatened on the House floor to bite a political opponent "like a mink."
He's also now counted among lawmakers who may or may not carry a gun — he's not saying for sure where or when he does. But following the shooting this month of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., Young said he wouldn't hesitate to use firepower, if necessary.
"I carry it wherever no one can see it," he said, although he says he does not have a concealed weapons permit. "I don't use it as a threat. My biggest fear is someone that's a nut that might try to make a statement, and I don't have a chance to retaliate, that's all."
He is, his friends say, little changed from the man who made his way to Fort Yukon to make his mark in Alaska's interior in its first year of statehood. You may catch him cleaning his fingernails with his Bowie knife, said Dan Kish, a former aide on the Natural Resources Committee, but don't be fooled.
"Despite the gruff exterior and the un-Washington ways, sometimes his intuitions and insights into things are extraordinary," said Kish, who acknowledges he's also "nearly come to blows arguing" with Young.
"But it's born out of respect," he said. "Washington is full of that crap, and Don's different. It's a different cut of cloth. He continues to have that bright-faced optimism."
Young said he has always worked well with Democrats. He points out that some of his signature achievements — including the Alaska pipeline — happened while Democrats controlled the House.
Yet there's no question of his Republican loyalty — Young wore a tie emblazoned with elephants to Tuesday's State of the Union address, where much was made of the first mixed-party seating at the annual event.
He also is a bit of a self-acknowledged loner. As one of the senior House members — the only Republican to have served longer is Rep. Bill Young of Florida — Young has outlived or out-survived many of his friends.
"I don't need a lot of friends," he added. "I never have."
Those House members closest to him include former Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., the former chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee who lost re-election this fall after 18 terms. Loner or not, Young takes "a very personal approach," Oberstar said.
"He knows members' first names, he talks to them one on one, he's very approachable," Oberstar said. "When you watch Don Young, when he smiles, the room lights up. And he's just very likeable, a delightful person."
Even Young's so-called "enemies," such as Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., have great affection for him. Both Young and Miller, who called their years of sparring "a rocky wild ride," served together on the House Natural Resources Committee.
For decades, they've been on opposite sides of epic congressional battles, including the one fight Young has been incapable of winning in his 38-year career: opening up the coastal plan of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil and gas development.
"He's a real legislator. You don't always get it your way, and he knows that that's true," Miller said. "He's more than willing to sit down and talk a deal. He may say, 'That's a deal I can't accept.' But he'll entertain those discussions. Some people today, it's only their way or the highway. He doesn't start out that way."
Although he has suggested recently that he might be on the lookout for a successor, Young said in the interview that he intends to run for office again, as long as he is physically able. He has asked his staff and his daughters to be honest with him, and let him know if he should retire.
"Will I be replaced someday? Yes." Young said. "God will either take care of me, or the devil, I don't know. I hope it's God, because I want to see Lu again."
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