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Congress is a clown fiesta on its best day. The famous Battle Royale between Northern and Southern Representatives in 1858. Strom Thurmond pissing in a bucket during his 24 hour filibuster against The Civil Rights Act. Even the recent 60’s style sit-in of Democratic congressmen against gun violence. We’re all torn between wanting our leaders to be better than the rest of us while knowing full well that the majority of them are far, far worse.
But one thing’s for sure: over the last 227 years, there have been some pretty wild people who have been elected. Some have been inspirations. Some have been eccentrics. A few have been outlandishly evil. Here are five of the strangest and most interesting people ever to serve in Congress.
If you want to see the visual summary of this list, check out our infographic at the end of this post.
Jeannette Rankin was a woman of first and only’s. She was the first female congresswoman ever, the only congresswoman from Montana, and the only Representative to vote against declaring war against Japan. More importantly than any of that, she’s the first person to appear on this list.
Born on a ranch in 1880, Jeannette spent her childhood working on the farm, repairing machinery, scaring off varmints, shooting at cattle rustlers, and circling the wagons (all my knowledge of the 19th century comes from Westerns.) She was destined for greater things, though, and soon became heavily involved in the suffrage movement. Along with the help of her brother Wellington (a higher-up in the Montana Republican Party and eventually the state attorney general) she won a seat of her own, becoming the first woman to ever serve as a congresswoman.
Of course, the woods of Montana isn’t exactly Tribeca, but still. Women couldn’t even vote in 1916— and Jeannette was young, politically untested, and had spent most of her adult life in California and New York. Her relentless campaigning, elegant speeches, and amazing hats won her the love of her constituents, though. She was the only woman to get a chance to vote for one of the versions of the eventual 19th Amendment. Not happy with being the first woman to ever serve in the 120 years since the House was created, Jeannette had to make a name for herself through another cause: pacifism.
In response to years of German aggression, the United States found itself pulled into the fustercluck that was World War I. Of the 432 members of the House, 373 voted for it and 9 abstained. 50 voted against it, one of them being Jeannette. “I felt the first time the first woman had a chance to say no to war, she should say it,” she would later explain, because that’s just the sort of lady Jeannette was.
Jeannette wouldn’t secure a second term, and instead casually spent 20 years campaigning for peace and against child labor. It was only some business in Europe around 1939 that you might have heard about if you’re really into obscure historical facts that brought her back to reclaim her seat.
So the US aids the Allies and cuts off exports to the Axis, Japan responds by bombing the crap out of Pearl Harbor, and the US is pulled out of a quarter century of isolationism to fight once more. The Japanese butchered helpless American sailors, launched invasions of US-held territories in the Pacific, and were just generally lacking in chill. War against them seemed like a fine idea to 470 of the 471 members of Congress. Guess who the 471st was?
As you might imagine, Jeannette wasn’t all that popular. Her own colleagues hissed and booed her, she had to spend several hours hiding from a literal angry mob that had formed, and her own brother told her that she had just committed political suicide— and he was right. Jeannette’s congressional career was through. When asked if she regretted it, she replied: “If you’re against war, you’re against war regardless of what happens. It’s a wrong method of trying to settle a dispute.”
I don’t care if you’re Attila the Hun, it’s impossible not to respect the stones of this woman. She blazed trails, broke records, and stood by her principles when the entire nation was against her. She spent her twilight years chilling with Gandhi, protesting Vietnam, and even planning a third House run at age 91 (only stopped by the illness that led to her death.) She might have been the most badass pacifist to ever hold office.
We now transfer from America’s most peaceful and principled Representative to our most bloodthirsty, corrupt, and hilarious one. Imagine if a Congressman murdered, like, Lisa Marie Presley, got away with it in an unprecedented legal defense, and then had the site of her murdered declared a historically significant location. That’s basically what Daniel Sickles did.
Sickles seemed like a promising young Democrat from New York when first elected— albeit known for openly cheating on his pregnant wife with a prostitute. But hey, it was the 1850’s. Every congressman needed a mistress to be seen as reputable (actually, I think this is still true.) Of course, when Sickles found out his wife was cheating on him, he got pretty pissed and proceeded to straight-up murder her lover in broad daylight.
Did I mention that this lover was Philip Key, son of Francis “Oh Say Can You See” Scott Key?
Despite having murdered the son of a national hero in front of hundreds of witnesses, Daniel Sickles avoided jail time by doing something so ballsy that I’d criticize it as unrealistic if it happened in a movie: he invented his own defense. He argued that he was driven to “temporary insanity” by his wife’s infidelity, and thus could not be held accountable for the murder. And it worked! Sickles became a media darling, Harpers Magazine proclaiming him a hero for saving “the women of Washington from the rogue named Key.”
Sickles clearly had a penchant for the outlandish, something he’d ably demonstrate a few years later, at the Battle of Gettysburg. This time it wouldn’t go so good for him: ignoring orders to hold his position, Sickles stretched the Union lines to their breaking point. This would cost him his entire company along with his leg (which he reacted to the amputation of by calmly smoking a cigar.) There’s controversy among historians over whether this was tactical gallantry or sheer pigheadedness, but one thing’s for sure: Daniel Sickles was simply born with no fucks to give.
Sickles would spend his post-war career trashing the reputation of his commanding officer, nearly starting a war with Spain for the fun of it, campaigning for the Medal of Honor (which he received after three and a half decades of asking for it,) and most importantly working to preserve Gettysburg as a national park and historical monument. Of all the senior generals at Gettysburg, Sickles is the only one without a statue of him. If that sounds uncharacteristically honorable and altruistic, then don’t worry: when asked about it, Sickles simply replied “The entire battlefield is a memorial to Dan Sickles.”
That pretty much says it all, doesn’t it?
Depending on how much NPR you watch, you’re either nodding and smiling or you’re wondering how in the world a modern congresswoman can hope to match the absurd willpower and flamboyance of people like Rankin and Sickles. If it’s the latter, then buckle up because you’re in for a wild ride.
I’ll just hit you with the big one right away: sitting congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema used to live in an abandoned gas station like a damned Fallout character. From third to fifth grade, Sinema had no access to running water or electricity, had a chalkboard for a bedroom wall, and probably had to hunt enough food for both her family and to pay appropriate tribute to Lord Humongous, king of the wasteland. If you know anything about her, you know that.
Not good enough for you? Sinema sees Jeannette Rankin’s list of firsts and raises her “first open bisexual to ever sit in Congress” and “first nontheist to ever sit in Congress”. Just being one of those would be gutsy, but Sinema does both and treats it like it ain’t no thang. In her time in office, she’s run an Ironman and summited Kilimanjaro. Oh, and she only just turned 40.
But all of that doesn’t mean anything if she isn’t also good at her job, right? Although her career is still young, Sinema’s shown herself to know how the game is played. Her first big success came when she masterminded the defeat of the anti-gay marriage Proposition 107 by framing the issue as harmful to unmarried heterosexual couples, winning over many socially conservative proponents of the Proposition in doing so.
That’s been Simona’s specialty: crossing party lines to make alliances with her natural enemies. She’s been called a socialist by the right and a Democrat-In-Name-Only by the left, but that’s probably a sign of her effectiveness more than anything else. In an era where the parties become less and less similar and more and more competitive, it takes brains and courage to keep both satisfied.
I guess all that time in the gas station gave her the fuel for such an impressive early career. Eh? Eh? Wait, don’t leave, there are still two entries left.
Okay, you may have seen this one coming.
Look, I get it. John Glenn isn’t exactly obscure. He’s one of the lyrics in “We Didn’t Start the Fire”. First American in orbit. Only astronaut to ever be a US congressman. Recipient of so many medals and accolades that he’s bulletproof from the front while wearing them all. But if we’re listing Most Interesting Congressmen, any article that doesn’t mention him is incomplete.
Glenn was born in Ohio in 1921, which made him the perfect age to serve in World War 2 and Korea. He flew 149 combat missions, earned six Flying Crosses (the award you get for flying a plane real good,) and eighteen clusters on his Air Medal (which essentially means it was awarded to him eighteen times.) He returned to the States and, swiftly bored by the lack of people trying to shoot him, decided to break a few records: namely, first supersonic transcontinental flight. Having conquered the skies, John Glenn presumably put his hands in his pockets, looked at the stars, and said in a gravelly John Wayne voice “you’re next.”
Five years later, John Glenn was in space aboard the Friendship 7 spacecraft. His mission was no big deal: be the first American to orbit the Earth. So obviously space is terrifying, especially aboard a rickety 1960’s spacecraft that was made by computers simpler than the one in your cell phone.
It gets a lot worse when your space craft actively starts to fall apart, which is almost what happened to John Glenn. It would later turn out that the craft was fine, but for the third orbit and the reentry John Glenn was positive that his heat shield had come loose— meaning that he was going to be the first man to die in space.
Fortunately, his ship was fine and Glenn was not reduced to a patriotic lump of charcoal. Now a national hero, Glenn spent some time chilling with the Kennedys and hitting his head on bath tubs before getting into politics. He’d become an Ohio senator in 1974, giving journalists a happy quarter century of space-related puns. His time in the Senate was probably best remembered for his authorship of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act of 1978, and also the time he went “yeah, I could go back to space.”
See, NASA wanted to conduct a study on the effects of space travel on geriatrics, so in 1999 a 77 year old Glenn put the helmet back on and flew right back up there. This makes him the oldest person to ever travel into space, because John Glenn is a robot made in a lab fueled by patriotic fervor and a desire to make the rest of us look bad.
Now retired, John Glenn has been enjoying his twilight years by guest-starring on Frasier, getting airports named after him, and collecting more awards (including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012.) But I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if he decides to cram in another record before his 100th birthday. Hell, I have a feeling that in 200 years John Glenn will still be kicking around and flying space missions and just being the most badass dude to ever live.
Okay, this is basically cheating.
Tammy Duckworth barely feels real. She sounds like the subject of a particularly unbelievable television movie. Even her name sounds vaguely unreal. But real she is.
Born in 1968 to an American father and a Chinese-Thai mother in Bangkok, Duckworth grew up traveling around South Asia before her family settled in Hawaii. As the American side of her family had been serving going back to the damned Revolution, she decided to enlist as well in 1996. Women didn’t have many options if they wanted to see combat, but they could pilot helicopters— better known as one of the most dangerous positions possible, since helicopters are slow-moving high-value targets.
Tammy Duckworth learned this the hard way. She was deployed to Iraq in 2004 to fly a Black Hawk helicopter. In November of that year, an RPG hit the undercarriage of the helicopter and blew off both of Duckworth’s legs and most of her right arm. They managed to save the arm, but Duckworth’s legs are now titanium.
Okay, so John Glenn did a lot of great stuff. Undisputed. But he also did it with all of his limbs attached. Most people would probably call it a day after losing their lower body in an explosion, but Tammy Duckworth started organizing a campaign for Congress within months of finishing her physical therapy. She lost in 2006, but came back in 2012 to win it. This makes her both the first disabled woman, the first Thai person, and the first woman who sustained combat injuries to be elected to Congress.
While there’s not too much to say about Duckworth’s terms in Congress thus far (other than her returning part of her salary in solidarity with the furloughed workers and her incredible verbal evisceration of Braulio Castillo, who had exploited the disabled-veteran system for his own gain,) she’s definitely a rising star for the Democratic Party. She’s running for Senate in 2016.
It’s pretty rare for someone to be made of less stern stuff after gaining titanium prosthetics than before.
Check out the infographic summary of this article, created with Visme.
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