Politics & Policy

The Strangest Congressman

Think of his career as being like a rock band that was big in Sweden for a while.

It always seemed that the oddness of Thaddeus McCotter’s political career had already maxed out. From referring to himself in the third person as a state senator to quoting Led Zeppelin on the House floor to running for president, he always managed to outdo himself. His career kept growing weirder until it reached its climax in one of the strangest political collapses in recent memory. McCotter went from briefly being one of the highest-ranked Republicans in the House of Representatives to its most surreal flameout, serving as a cautionary tale for no one in particular, since one would be hard-pressed to duplicate all the mistakes he managed to make.

McCotter’s is both a classic Washington story of political downfall and a This Is Spinal Tap–esque implosion. In their primary, the Republicans of Michigan’s eleventh district have just elected his replacement, Kerry Bentivolio, as their party’s nominee for Congress. Bentivolio is a reindeer farmer, but still not remotely bizarre enough to fill Thaddeus McCotter’s shoes. McCotter left not with a whimper but a bang.

The story starts in Detroit, where Thaddeus McCotter was born. His father was an alcoholic who died when the future congressman was 13. Young Thad went to Catholic high school and played football. One source tells National Review Online that McCotter “had a hard time adjusting” and was a little overweight. He loved to play guitar. As he grew up, some of that changed. The football-playing fell off, and so did every shred of extra weight. His mom became the city clerk of Livonia, Mich. And he picked up a B.A. and a J.D. from the University of Detroit.

Eight years later, he won a seat in the state senate, representing a district where his mother had substantial influence. His career path broke from convention early on. The Hill reported that in Lansing he sometimes “spoke as his poetry-composing alter ego, Powell B. Knighton, and quoted himself on the floor of the legislature under the pseudonym.” He accepted the undesirable job of chairing the special committee that investigated Republican state senator David Jaye, who was convicted for drunk driving three times and spent a night in jail after allegedly assaulting his fiancée. In 2001, Jaye became the first state senator expelled in Michigan. In 2002, McCotter was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. It’s up for debate, but some argue that state party leadership drew him up a winnable congressional district as a quid pro quo for his work on the special committee — which would help explain how Knighton’s creator made it to Washington.

Congress has its fair share of oddballs, but he still stood out. He challenged a Politico gossip columnist to a crossword puzzle, joked on camera about popping a zit, quoted Camus and Yeats at conference meetings, and played with fellow congressmen in a band called The Second Amendments. He also sent out unorthodox “Dear Colleague” letters, as Roll Call reported; in one, he told members that if they didn’t support his bid for the chairmanship of the Republican Policy Committee, “It’s cool.” Another featured picturesof John Lennon and John Wayne.

“He was quirky as hell,” says Nolan Finley, the editorial-page editor of the Detroit News and a longtime acquaintance of the former congressman. “I always called him the John Malkovich of politics.”

Finley continues to describe him thus: “He’s like one of these guys you might see playing video games in their mother’s basement at 30 years old. He’s that nerdy male — you know the type, they get hung up in Spiderman movies and video games and the latest garage-band music. He’s very much that sort of type.”

But McCotter’s reputation was more complicated than that. He inspired admiration, disdain, and confusion — sometimes all at once. Some saw him as one of the smartest members, while to others he just seemed like an awkward kid with a thesaurus. “If I’ve interviewed a candidate who was less communicative, more arrogant and more difficult to like, I can’t think of one,” Stuart Rothenberg wrote in Roll Call. “And I’ve tried.” Andrew “Rocky” Raczkowski, a former rival who was the state-senate majority leader during McCotter’s time there, says he thought McCotter’s apparent strengths — his introspection, nerdiness, and penchant for abstract ideas — ultimately contributed to his downfall.

Mark Corallo, a friend and informal adviser of McCotter’s, was one of his perennial fans.

“This is the kind of guy that can quote most of the founding documents, bits and pieces of philosophy at will, Edmund Burke to Russell Kirk to Descartes, and then dive into Dylan or Beatles lyrics at the drop of a hat,” he says.

The congressman chain-smoked and always had a guitar at arm’s reach in his D.C. office. And his wheels never stopped turning, regardless of other people’s schedules.

“He’d call at midnight, and say ‘Hey, you know, I was thinking—,’” says Corallo. “‘It’s midnight! I’m sleeping! What are you doing?’ ‘But I had this thought!’ And I couldn’t hang up on the guy, because I would say, ‘Wait, this is kind of interesting.’”

McCotter impressed enough of his congressional colleagues to win the chairmanship of the House Republican Policy Committee in 2006, making him the fifth-ranked Republican in the lower chamber. It should have been the perfect position for him, letting him marry practical policy goals with the challenging ideas he’d call his friends about at midnight. But the congressman’s personality got the best of him.

“It’s never quite as chummy and friendly as it seems at press conferences,” Corallo says of House Republican leadership. “Egos are big, people are always vying for the spotlight, rivalries develop, and, unfortunately, it can lead to roadblocks, particularly when you’re the number-five, not the number-one or -two person.”

McCotter didn’t have the aplomb to navigate the personality conflicts and petty rivalries that often have just as much impact on policymaking decisions as do concerns with conservative ideals. To do well in Washington, Corallo contends, you have to be fluent in small talk. McCotter wasn’t; he was at his best snarking at Greg Gutfeld on Fox’s Red Eye, not schmoozing with would-be supporters at cocktail parties and fundraisers. Plus, he had a bit of an ego himself.

“Where Thad always ran into problems was, he was all too willing to remind his colleagues that he was smarter than they were,” Corallo says.

According to one of his longtime friends, McCotter butted heads with other members of House leadership over funding and policymaking strategies, growing increasingly frustrated and detached over the course of his stint as the committee chair. Since he wasn’t able to accomplish his goals there, he decided not to run again for that spot when his term ended in 2011. Plus, he wanted to be president.

He announced his presidential intentions at that year’s Fourth of July festival outside Detroit and headed for the Ames Straw Poll, where he won 35 votes. The rest of his candidacy was predictably lackluster, and it baffled observers. But he had just enough encouragement to soldier on.

“He’d get these goofy ideas, and off he’d go, and people would go along with him,” one of his longtime friends says. “There was always somebody to encourage him along that path, one way or the other.”

Most sources agree that McCotter’s overconfidence in his staff was his Achilles’ heel. He had a weakness for people who appreciated his sense of humor, exchanged barbs with him, and were just as quirky as he was. “He liked people who got him,” says Corallo. And unfortunately for McCotter, those people weren’t always great at their jobs.

McCotter didn’t get invited to any of the GOP primary debates (a fact he often bemoaned) and dropped out of the presidential race before the end of September 2011. He later referred to the race as “the worst fifteen minutes of my life.” But things hadn’t even started to really go downhill yet.

In June of this year, the news broke that McCotter would have to run a write-in campaign in the August 7 GOP primary, since most of the 1,000 petition signatures he had produced to appear on the ballot were fraudulent. That kind of mistake — failing to meet a basic requirement that every other congressional office manages every election — left political observers floored.

“In the amount of time it took to gin up these fake petitions, they probably could have gone out and gotten the signatures legitimately,” Finley says.

In the course of failing to perform an ordinary task, some of his staff members potentially committed a felony. Michigan’s attorney general, Bill Schuette, a Republican, began an investigation to see if there was any criminal activity involved in the gathering — or non-gathering — of the signatures. He is currently pressing charges against four of McCotter’s staffers. McCotter cooperated willingly.

But things got weirder still: A script surfaced for a variety show he apparently wanted to host. It would be called “Bumper Sticker: Made in MoTown.” A staffer leaked it to the Detroit News, saying he wrote it “instead of attending to his congressional duties” in the aftermath of ending his presidential campaign. It would feature characters, named after his staffers and his brother, “spewing banter about drinking, sex, race, flatulence, puking and women’s anatomy.” He had S. E. Cupp slated as a guest star, and one of the supporting characters refers to her as “D. Cupp.” So that didn’t help.

And the next day, just over a year after he announced he’d run for president, the Michigander announced his resignation from Congress. He wouldn’t try to pull off a write-in campaign; instead, he’d call it quits and go back to Livonia for good. He quoted Bob Dylan in the statement explaining his decision. He cited the stress his family had faced during the previous month and a half.

That’s it. He’s stopped doing interviews and retreated to his family home in Livonia.

“It’s a tough story to pin down,” says a friend, “but if you can, think about it as a rock ’n’ roll song. That’s kind of the way he would view it too. Or the arc of a rock band that says, ‘Hey, we were big in Sweden.’ That’s where he is. He was big in Livonia, for a while.”

— Betsy Woodruff is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.


The Latest