Forty-four years ago, Evel Knievel famously failed to leap the Snake River Canyon outside of Twin Falls, Idaho.
In the annals of overhyped disappointments, the canyon fizzle holds a unique place. It had been touted for weeks in the newspapers, on television, on radio, in magazines. Knievel sold the event as a celebrity-filled extravaganza. He had hired a legitimate space scientist to design a steam-powered rocket, the X-2 Skycycle.
He had leased land on the canyon rim, and then went around telling the lie that he’d bought the land. He had staged a check-passing with a promoter in New York City where he accepted a huge, fake $6 million check. (He was actually paid $250,000, though the higher figure was repeated continually in news accounts.)
“I will outdraw the Pro Bowl and the Super Bowl put together,” he told UPI in a typically hyperbolic comment, “and I’ll make more money than any heavyweight fighter in history.”
On jump day, though, the celebrities were a no-show, national interest was weak and a technical problem undermined the jump. The “drogue parachute” deployed on takeoff, popping from the rear of the SkyCycle even as it was blasting from the ramp. The chute stalled the Skycycle in midair, and Knievel drifted to the bottom of the Snake River Canyon, unhurt.
Had the chute not deployed, I believe Knievel would have landed the jump. (How injurious the landing would have been is another question.) The trajectory of the rocket was promising before the chute took over. Also, a stuntman reproduced the jump in 2016 – in a replica cycle designed and built by the son of the man who built the first one – and landed it.
Hype aside, it was a simple matter of physics: mass, energy, velocity, distance.
What if the chute hadn’t popped early? What if Knievel had landed that jump?
Would he really have quit?
Doubtful. Knievel quit and unquit the daredevil’s life more than once. Crashes were as much a part of his celebrity as landings, if not more so. The failure of the canyon jump didn’t mark some immediate drop in fortune for Knievel. He went on to make more jumps, to crash more bone-breakingly.
But things did begin to change after the jump. Before the canyon, he’d cleared eight straight motorcycle jumps. As the curtain fell away after the canyon jump hype, Knievel’s already widespread reputation as a slippery, untrustworthy character grew. His boastful braggadocio before the event turned off many.
Jack Perkins, an NBC reporter. famously said before the jump, “It’s Evel Knievel versus the Snake River Canyon, with the Snake River Canyon the sentimental favorite.”
He and his entourage made a lot of enemies in the Twin Falls area, swanking around and acting like big shots and pinching waitresses and leaving behind a bunch of unpaid bills.
Whatever Knievel’s status was as an American “idol,” it began to take on more stain after the canyon jump. The subsequent years simply added more tarnish: Knievel began to appear in the news for bar fights and lawsuits, for assault convictions and jail sentences and unpaid taxes. He spent plenty of time hanging around and partying in Spokane, and once became entangled in a lawsuit over a fistfight at a hotel.
What if he’d landed that canyon jump and quit? What if he’d turned his efforts to other fields and interests?
What if he’d turned his bravado and blowhardiness toward, say, making America great again?
Here is one wild guess – or more of an insane, Knievelesque fantasy – about what might have happened: He would have turned to politics. He would have built a coalition of supporters who loved him for his loud mouth, his conspicuous displays of wealth, his continual peddling of falsehoods about himself, his proud crudity and sexism.
Knievel – a man who once assaulted a writer with a baseball bat – would campaign against the media. He would continually overstate how much money he’d earned. He would disparage his enemies in high political office as jerks. His bigotry and racism would slip through into his public comments. His supporters would love it.
He would display the absolute self-confidence of one who is selling an image of himself as the sole human being on earth with the qualities needed to solve the nation’s problems.
In this alternative universe, Knievel lands the jump to great fanfare. TV cameras and well-wishers surround him on the north bank of the canyon – across from the crowds of bikers and partiers and rubberneckers on the other side. Knievel would squint into the cameras, hair swept back, bedazzled in his red-white-and-blue suit, and announce that he was done for good.
He might have said something similar to the words he used – back in the real world – after crashing his motorcycle at Wembly Stadium in 1975: “Ladies and gentlemen of this wonderful country,” he said into the microphone, suffering badly from injuries sustained in a massive crash, “I have to tell you that you are the last people in the world who will see me jump. Because I will never, ever, ever jump again. I’m through.”
Knievel would retire to his home in Butte, and take up painting. While squiring around the West, on golf courses and taverns, at county fairs and livestock auctions, Knievel would hear from people again and again that the country needed him, needed his message of patriotism and bedrock American values (the values to which Knievel always paid extensive lip service, while living the values of the Roman emperor Caligula).
In 1976, Knievel ran for a seat in the House of Representatives on a platform of flags and apple pie and returning prayer to the schools. He beat Bill Diehl in the Republican primary for Montana’s House District 1, then moved on to face Democrat Max Baucus, a political newcomer and Stanford-educated lawyer from Missoula.
Knievel rode into rallies on his Honda XR-750, the same model he’d used to jump cars and trucks and automobiles and snakes – his first jump, after all, was over a pit of snakes outside Moses Lake. He passed out toys with his image emblazoned on them to the children, from lunchboxes to wind-up racers. He demonstrated no grasp of policy, and scoffed at “so-called experts.”
He ridiculed Baucus as an elite, and deployed his opponent’s Stanford education as a sign that he was out of touch with real Montanans. He squeaked past Baucus in the general election.
In Washington, D.C., Knievel quickly earned a reputation for missing important votes and supplying incendiary quotes.
He was criticized for being in the newspapers more than on the House floor. He would return home and hold rallies around Montana, riding onto the stage on his motorcycle and riling everyone up with a lot of talk about how awful the D.C. swamp was, and how he needed all the good, regular, normal, patriotic, real people of Montana to support him in his battle against it.
In 1993, he decided to run for the Senate seat held by Republican Conrad Burns. Burns was a folksy, popular former livestock auctioneer, who’d drawn national attention for taking a spittoon onto the Senate floor during his first term. He was well-liked in Montana – but Knievel was loved, at least among a large number of ardent supporters who turned out to send Knievel to a stunning primary upset over Burns in 1994. The general election was a cakewalk.
Never one to rest on the last crash or landing, Knievel quickly decided to run for president, entering the GOP presidential race in 1995. On the campaign trail, in interviews and in debates, Knievel deployed a patronizing attitude toward Bob Dole, the longtime senator and front-runner, making continual veiled comments about Dole’s age and infirmity.
At one news conference, he seemed to mock Dole’s war injury, holding a pen in a hand much the way Dole often did and pantomiming a frail and confused demeanor – then noting that “Montanans deserve someone with the strength and energy to do their business back in that hellhole.” He bashed Dole – a three-decade pro-lifer – as pro-abortion, and narrowly won the party nomination, riding a strong wave of support from the religious right.
Knievel drafted Pat Buchanan as his running mate, then campaigned against President Clinton’s failed health care initiative, saying that the president “wants to turn this great country into Russia.” He needled the president about rumors of his infidelity – ironically, perhaps, for a man who once boasted of sleeping with eight women in one day, while being married to a ninth. He criticized the First Lady as a communist harpy. He promised to put a stop to Mexican immigration, and refused his campaign advisers’ efforts to get him to stop using the word “wetback.”
He called global warming “so fake a baby could see through it.” He railed against the media, and said – to the delight of his fans – that he wished he could take a baseball bat to reporters.
He flooded the airwaves with advertisements replaying his 1974 canyon jump.
When Knievel heard that Ross Perot might be entering the race again, as he had four years earlier, Knievel reached out to the Texas billionaire and persuaded him to stay on the sidelines in exchange for a Cabinet position. Years later, it would emerge that Knievel also paid for TV ads supporting Ralph Nader’s Green Party candidacy, hoping to draw away Clinton voters.
In November, he won with 51 percent of the vote. For two years, he battled with Congress, disparaged world leaders, insulted war veterans, raised contradictory policy proposals and then changed his mind, and railed about the lying media, who rushed to publish every outlandish word that fell from his mouth.
By the 1998 midterms, Knievel’s approval ratings were at rock bottom, but his hard-core supporters – about 35 percent of voters – loved him passionately. Washington insiders worried about the damage he was doing to political norms and government ethics. Some feared he was undermining the very foundations of democracy.
Notably, a scandal erupted over Knievel’s secret acceptance of a $50,000 payment to make an appearance at a Russian festival alongside President Boris Yeltsin and his prime minister – and preordained successor – Vladimir Putin. News of the payment had leaked to the Washington Post, and then dripped out steadily for a year.
Not long after a blue-wave midterm, articles of impeachment were drafted. They alleged that Knievel had violated a constitutional prohibition against a president accepting gifts or favors from a foreign country.
It’s called the emoluments clause.
Knievel was convicted and left the White House saying he’d never been so glad to get out of a place in his life.
Buchanan took over and immediately announced a new plan: Building a wall on the southern border.