The front door swung inward to reveal a giant of a man, naked above the waist.
He leaned a mammoth belly into the screen of the storm door and glared at the big-haired woman on his porch.
Helen Chenoweth never hesitated. A quick introduction, a slow smile, a slight push on the door and she was in, stuffing a campaign flier into the bewildered man’s hand.
“Look at it when you can,” she said softly, and retreated down the walk.
Nearing the end of her freshman term as one of the country’s most lampooned lawmakers, Rep. Chenoweth, R-Idaho, remains unflappable. She is a woman immutably framed by confidence, persistence and an unbending libertarian-conservative ideology.
Interviews with dozens of her friends, colleagues and family members suggest it’s a formula from which she rarely wavers, whether achieving victory or enduring grand failure.
Now 58, she’s been a musician, actress, model, skier, pilot, wife and grandmother. She’s been a GOP gunslinger who brought money and people back to a party smarting from Watergate.
She defeated Democrat Larry LaRocco in 1994 after a primary upset over two Republican moderates. Her congressional voting record has all but mirrored that of Idaho’s other House member, Republican Mike Crapo.
But she’s twice been fired from Republican campaigns. Her own campaign repeatedly misidentified thousands of dollars in loans and contributions. Her untamed tongue fueled Idaho’s notoriety as a reckless frontier and marked her for caricature. Outside magazine dubbed her “James Watt in a skirt.”
Campaigning last week through North Idaho’s Democratic stronghold - the tiny lunch-bucket mining burgs of Shoshone County - Chenoweth admitted some voters don’t know what to make of her.
“If all I knew about me was what I read in the papers and saw on the (television) ads, I wouldn’t like me very much,” Chenoweth told an audience of high school kids.
Four dozen bored seniors slouched in the Wallace High School auditorium, stuck listening to a politician.
Helen Chenoweth could relate.
She spoke of parents and relationships. She talked about college, careers. She railed against adults who wrongly fill teenage heads with doomsday myths.
Liberal myths. Started by bureaucrats needing money. Myths like global warming.
“But we find out when we really study the satellite data that’s gathering around the world that we don’t have global warming,” she said.
Two hours later she’s cornered by “NBC Nightly News” outside Barney’s Sooper Market in Pinehurst. Had she really called global warming a lie?
No! She told the camera she was talking about needlessly scaring kids! She waggled a finger at the reporter. “Don’t make me look silly!”
Supporters who see Chenoweth as an honorable modern-day pioneer struggle to reconcile her distortions.
“She’s not a liar, never has been,” said Bob Linville, the man who preceded her as head of Idaho’s Republican Party in the mid-1970s.
Chenoweth, it seems, never has much doubted being right.
“She really sees things the way Helen wants to see them - even if that’s not the way they are,” said her sister, Charlene Palmer Blake.
It’s this Chenoweth who once spoke of endangered “Anglo-Saxon males” and refused to condemn militias. This Chenoweth also spawned bumper stickers that read “Give ‘em Helen!”
Her oratory skills - and the accompanying complications - date to her childhood.
As a youngster she beguiled her younger sister with tales of fairies living under mushrooms. At the dinner table at their father’s urging, the pair would debate government and social issues, even picking topics from the Declaration of Independence.
Even then, Chenoweth was often on a different wavelength.
“She would say a double-entendre and people would laugh around her,” her sister said. “We (the family) would tease her and she couldn’t figure out why.”
Teasing didn’t bother this self-possessed kid.
Born Helen Palmer on a farm in the hills of eastern Kansas, she was the first baby among her parents’ social circle and never lacked attention.
She still was in diapers in 1939 when the family moved to Los Angeles. She took up ballet and was picked for radio acting spots. She doubled for child film star Margaret O’Brien.
By 12, her parents were sick of the city. They moved to a southern Oregon dairy farm. Helen drove a tractor and cleaned up after the hens.
She battled polio - she still limps sometimes - and cared for her sister.
“She didn’t always like me tagging around, but she wouldn’t let anybody pick on me,” her sister said. “She was protective of family.”
A string bass player, she entered Whitworth College on a music scholarship. She later switched to English. Musicians, she knew, studied alone.
“She didn’t want to be inside herself all the time,” her sister said.
Her freshman year, Helen Palmer met junior Nick Chenoweth, a cook in the cafeteria where she worked as a waitress. She asked him to a party.
The date ended at the lake. They listened to the Indianapolis 500 on the radio. They were in love.
Like Palmer, Nick Chenoweth was a risk-taker, likening his childhood in Orofino, Idaho, to that of Huckleberry Finn. He caught frogs and hopped trains, riding upriver and swimming home.
He also was a political junkie. His best friend’s father had taken the boys to Republican rallies. By 14, Chenoweth had shaken hands with senators.
The couple was “intellectually compatible,” Nick Chenoweth said. “She had a broad knowledge of things - from canning peaches to national policy.”
Inside a year, they were married.
He joined the Army. She cut her class load. He earned $92 a month. She modeled and worked in a bank. Two kids came, 10 months apart. She never finished school.
They opened a ski shop near Bald Mountain in Idaho’s Clearwater County. Nick Chenoweth gave ski lessons. Parents and children swam in the river and learned to scuba dive. Chenoweth, a pilot who later founded Empire Airlines of Coeur d’Alene, taught his wife to fly.
“I was always a white-knuckle passenger so it seemed good to learn,” Helen Chenoweth said.
In the quiet logging town, the couple “surrounded themselves with bright people,” Nick Chenoweth said.
They attended weekend retreats hosted by a New York-based libertarian foundation. Today the think tank offers a monthly journal called “The Freeman.”
The Chenoweths studied Ayn Rand and “The Law,” a 75-page treatise that cautions against socialism and excessive laws.
Once, when Caldwell businessman Ralph Smeed peddled a library of similar books, Helen Chenoweth bought the whole package - 120 volumes.
“By God, she even read quite a few of them,” Smeed said.
Chenoweth said she read them all. She still carries “The Law” in her briefcase.
By 1964, the year of The Wilderness Act, she was moved to action. She feared it would destroy logging in central Idaho.
She volunteered for Barry Goldwater. So did Steve Symms, a gregarious soon-to-be congressman with ardent free market ideas. They would remain close.
When the country entered its rebellious years, Helen Chenoweth was managing legal and medical offices, recruiting doctors and running the county GOP. Nick Chenoweth was in law school.
In 1972, Symms ran a long-shot campaign for Congress. Helen Chenoweth was a grass-roots organizer. He won.
Symms’ career took off. Chenoweth’s marriage took a dive.
The Chenoweths don’t talk much about their 1975 divorce. It was an amicable split, but not without bitterness. Helen Chenoweth hid contested silver flatware from her ex-husband for almost a decade.
“The divorce left deep scars on her,” said Bob Robson, a friend and one-time attorney general. But “she was a woman of great internal resources.”
At the urging of Symms and then-U.S. Sen. Jim McClure, she moved to Boise to run the state GOP.
It was hardly a blessing. The party was $16,000 in debt and feuding over her hiring. She had to raise money to pay her own salary.
“Those were tough days,” Linville said. “Most women didn’t care for the public exposure, but she kind of enjoyed it, being on center stage.”
Chenoweth dug in. To raise money, she hosted a wine and cheese party, inviting prominent U.S. senators to GOP fund-raisers.
“I said, ‘This is never going to work,”’ recalled Robson. “All you got was a wine glass with an elephant on it and a cheese board.”
They made $30,000 in one night.
But Chenoweth’s personal life suffered. She dated some - suitors endured teenage daughter Meg’s queries - and spent other evenings with Smeed. Nothing developed.
“Her marriage to Nick Chenoweth was her marriage,” daughter Meg Keenan said. “She wasn’t prepared to do it again.”
She eventually became Symms’ chief of staff. A day after his 1978 House victory, he fired her. She couldn’t embrace the moderate stance he’d need to defeat Sen. Frank Church in 1980.
Chenoweth joined with former legislator Vern Ravenscroft and started a natural resources and political consulting business.
They worked with farmers, ranchers and loggers, keeping near the center of the Sagebrush Rebellion crowd. They delighted in a growing reputation as “one of the best agency bashers in the business,” Ravenscroft said.
She ran a congressional campaign for Spokane physician John Sonneland. She started running David Leroy’s campaign for governor. He fired her.
“When we were 20 points down in the polls, she told me we were 20 points down,” he said. But she was unwilling - or unable - to compromise politically.
Chenoweth spent another nine years as a consultant, working with clients as far away as Michigan.
In 1993, urged by friends who thought only a woman could unseat LaRocco, she entered the congressional race. Like Symms had before her, she surprised even herself, thumping LaRocco in 1994.
Chenoweth was in office only months before coming under fire.
Her office hemorrhaged staff members. More questions arose about the financing of her 1994 campaign. Militia members attended her Boise hearing protesting federal use of excessive force - a month before the Oklahoma City bombing.
The oldest member of Idaho’s all-Republican delegation, the only woman and the only grandparent hasn’t left the limelight since.
She tried to increase penalties for tree spiking. She attempted to give citizens the right to sue if hurt by the Endangered Species Act. She crossed House Speaker Newt Gingrich on a budget vote, prompting him to delay an appearance at her Boise fund-raiser - for eight months.
At a recent debate, Democratic opponent Dan Williams accused Congress and Chenoweth of being a “rubber stamp for lobbyists.”
Chenoweth shot back, “I’m no rubber stamp. Anyone who thinks so can ask Newt Gingrich.”
The right side of the audience erupted in applause.
Williams countered, “It’s funny, using as a defense, being to the right of Newt Gingrich.”
The left side of the audience cheered.
With two weeks to go before the November election, Chenoweth is at a crossroads. Voters could dismiss her as an embarrassing crackpot. Or they could re-elect her as a conservative truth-sayer.
Either way Helen Chenoweth likely will remain unflappable.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo
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