John Fund reports that the brief surge of former Republican U.S. senator Larry Pressler, running as an independent in his Senate comeback attempt in South Dakota, might soon fade, as Pressler’s strange and significant shift to the political left becomes more widely known. Good. The man has always been an oddball. In 1980, with just five years in Congress under his belt — rather undistinguished years, at that — Pressler briefly ran for the Republican nomination for president against a field of far better qualified heavyweights including Phil Crane, Bob Dole, Howard Baker, John Connally, George H. W. Bush, and some guy named Reagan. His presidential fling demonstrated ambition shorn of all practicality.
But that wasn’t the strangest move Pressler made, even as a young senator. Pressler was one of the many politicos who fell under the considerable spell of Kathy Kemper, then Georgetown University’s women’s tennis coach. That’s understandable: As a GU student, I was enthralled with her, too. She was remarkably glamorous, and her teams won a lot more matches than anybody had expected, and her players seemed to revere her. (She also was controversial, for a number of reasons, but that’s another story.) But what was strange was the degree of what appeared, at the very least, to be a crush that Pressler had on Kemper. On at least one occasion, it took him away from his work in the Senate (not that he had a reputation for particularly hard work, mind you).
I’ll never forget it. It was 1983 or ’84; I was writing sports (and news, and opinion, and features) for the HOYA, the main campus paper, and I was down near the McDonough Gymnasium, working on a couple of stories at once, including a check-in on a women’s tennis match then occurring on the hot, hard courts. As I remember it, it was a Wednesday afternoon, about 3 o’clock, on a bright, sunny, warm day. There were no bleachers at the courts; to watch, you had to peer through a fence and a screen hanging thereon. It was not a set-up conducive for cheering. And there, peering through the fence and screen, fingers clasped around some of the links, occasionally emitting an occasional exhortation of “Good shot!,” was Senator Pressler. Now this was odd. Wednesday afternoons are traditionally among the very busiest times each week for Senate work. The Senate was then in session. (I remember checking on this.) There may even have been votes. And here was Larry Pressler, in his business suit, across town at Georgetown’s campus, rooting for the college girls. I recognized him and spoke to him, and he was as friendly as could be. But he never offered an explanation — and I didn’t ask — for why he was cheering on some Georgetown girls when the Senate was at work. But when Kemper — who was pacing back and forth along the fence line from court to court, trying to keep up with all the matches at once — stopped and talked to the two of us, giving us an update on the scores, Pressler seemed enraptured with her. It was just, well, odd.
It all could have been an innocent friendship. Pressler did, after all, take tennis lessons from Kemper. That wasn’t what interested me. What bothered me was that Pressler was there, at that time, as the Senate was conducting business. I had interned on the Hill. I knew Congress’s basic schedule. I thought it was great that the Georgetown women’s tennis team was supported by numerous people who were rich, famous, and powerful; I certainly thought that was something beneficial that Kemper brought to a sport that otherwise struggles for attention on college campuses. But there’s a time and place for such support, and I wanted every possible conservative (as Pressler then was, before he migrated left) up there on the Hill, fighting for President Reagan’s agenda, at least during business hours.
Anyway, ’nuff said. It was one incident, not to be overblown. But it was the sort of thing that makes an impression on a college kid. The impression it made was that Senator Pressler wasn’t a serious man, or at least that he was a man easily distracted. Now, as John Fund has reported, he has been distracted from conservative principle, with a six-year record of being an open Obamite. Indeed, he endorsed Obama both times Obama ran for president. That’s quite a double-fault.