Former U.S. Representative Helen Chenoweth-Hage of Idaho, widow of a Nevada rancher, died near Tonopah last week. She was killed in a car wreck while riding as a passenger with her daughter and grandchild.
Chenoweth-Hage, then Chenoweth, was elected to the House after a campaign in which she held an “endangered salmon bake.” She served from 1995 to 2001, leaving under a self-imposed term limit.
She was best known for giving wide publicity to the notion that there are sinister black helicopters filled with shadowy federal agents.
Chenoweth was allied with U.S. Rep. James Gibbons of Nevada in supporting critics of the U.S. Forest Service in a dispute over the rebuilding of a road near Jarbidge that became a right-wing cause celebre for a time. Chenoweth-Hage and Gibbons held a hearing in Elko County on the dispute in November 1999, shortly after she married rancher Wayne Hage.
Soon after arriving in Washington in 1995, Chenoweth distributed to other House members a copy of a Playboy article faulting FBI conduct in the Ruby Ridge case. “The age-old cliche for the people who purchase magazines like Playboy is that they buy them for the articles,” she wrote in an accompanying note. “Well, I always thought that was a ‘little white lie’ until a constituent of mine sent in the attached article from this month’s Playboy issue.”
Chenoweth openly praised private militia groups and allied herself with the “wise use” and “county supremacy” movements that challenged federal management of public lands. During a spate of bombings of Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service offices in the West—including four bombings in Nevada—she proposed legislation requiring that federal investigators get permission from local sheriffs for arrests and searches. Floria Flora of Nevada, a national forest official, resigned in protest against what she considered “anti-federal fervor” encouraged by politicians.
Chenoweth often went after programs not by attacking them directly but by going after their funding.
On July 19, 1995, the day that highly charged congressional hearings into the handling of the Branch Davidian standoff in Waco began, Chenoweth unsuccessfully sponsored an amendment to cut funding for merit pay increases for U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms agents, a measure rejected by a majority of her fellow Republicans. ATF agents had been involved in the Waco incident.
In 1996, she joined with two other Republican women to successfully block funding to move a long-overlooked sculpture of suffrage leaders from the Capitol basement to the rotunda, distressing the Federation of Republican Women.
In 1997, she sponsored legislation to delete funding for a federal law that aids local communities in restoring watersheds and rivers.
In October 1995, she was one of two members of the House who voted against federal penalties for use of “date rape” drugs because she believed that crime should principally be a state and local matter.
Chenoweth proposed calling Latinos and blacks “the warm climate community.” That comment was an expression of her complaints about minorities being hired by the Forest Service in her home state. She objected to being called “congresswoman” instead of “congressman.”
“I resent being judged on the basis that I am a woman, and I bristle when people say, ‘What are your women’s issues?’ “
But that did not prevent her from thinking of others in stereotypes. She once attacked fellow Republican House member Sherwood Boehlert, an outspoken environmentalist, as a representative of a “district paved over with concrete and immune to floods,” apparently because Boehlert was a New Yorker. His district is actually agricultural and rural.
In 1998, Chenoweth criticized President Clinton over the Lewinsky matter and then was forced to admit to having an affair with her married business partner. Her home district newspaper, which ignored rumors of the affair when she campaigned for office on family values issues, tracked down information on it after she cut a television commercial in which she said of Clinton, “I believe that personal conduct and integrity does matter.” After admitting to the affair, she said, “I’ve asked for God’s forgiveness, and I’ve received it.”
Chenoweth was one of several conservative Republicans outed on sexual conduct issues, and liberal columnist Ellen Goodman wrote that such Puritanism was out of line: “But do we actually need to know that 14 years ago, Chenoweth had a six-year affair with a married man?”
Chenoweth edited testimony before a House committee into a book, Funding of Environmental Initiatives and Their Influence on Federal Public Lands.
But it was her claim about black helicopters for which she was best known. The threatening iconic image captivated fringe political figures, who seized on it and cranked out books like Black Helicopters over America by Jim Keith and Secret Black Projects Of The New World Order by Tim Swartz. The icon entered popular culture, as in the comic Drew Barrymore film Home Fries, which dealt in part with the home life of two pilots of a black helicopter.
Chenoweth didn’t originate the claim about the helicopters—it was a tale bandied about in fringe political circles before she emerged on the national stage, but she gave them their greatest publicity when she claimed they had been seen in the eastern portion of her district and carried environmental officials.
“I have never seen them,” Chenoweth told the New York Times. “But enough people in my district have become concerned that I can’t just ignore it. We do have some proof.”
Chenoweth-Hage’s short public career was aided immeasurably by the Democratic Party, which was unable to exploit at least two opportunities to defeat her—one after she upset the favored GOP candidate, a former Idaho attorney general, in her first primary election, and another when she faced reelection after accusations of financial improprieties.