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OPINION: Time to remember Pressler’s track record of integrity

By Michael Doan

In the movie, “American Hustle,” up for numerous Academy Awards on Sunday, there’s no mention of the South Dakota senator who wouldn’t be bought. While the 2013 film portrays politician after politician accepting bribes in an FBI sting, it omits Sen. Larry Pressler, R-S.D., who refused an offer of $50,000.

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“We want to invest in your state, and we want to make you wealthy,” said an agent posing as a Middle East investor in 1978. “We don’t want to do it in your name but you would get the money.”

“Wait a minute,” Pressler said. “What you are suggesting may be illegal. It would not be proper for me to do anything in return for a campaign contribution, so I would not make any promise.”

And with that, he stormed out of the meeting.

Pressler was the lone exception in the scandal that eventually led to convictions of seven members of Congress and five local officials. Pressler continued to serve in the Senate as a Republican until 1997, and is running again this year as an independent.

After the bribery case was exposed, CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite referred to Pressler as a hero. The Washington Post ran a front-page story about the “special moment in which Sen. Larry Pressler (R-S.D.) tells the undercover agent, in effect, to take their sting and stick it.”

The FBI director called to congratulate him for performing “beautifully on the tapes.” Professor Alan Derschowitz used him as an exemplar of civic virtue in his Harvard Law School class. Judge George C. Pratt, who reviewed the cases when they came up for appeal, declared that Pressler “showed a clear awareness of the line between proper and improper conduct.”

A letter from the Senate Select Committee on Ethics said the senator’s rejection of the scheme “was immediate, forthright and unequivocal … in this test of integrity, your action upheld the honor of the United States Senate.”

Cartoonist Jim Berry drew a caricature of Pressler being greeted by the Greek philosopher Diogenes, who was looking for an honest man. “Senator Pressler, I am Diogenes. I’ve been looking for you,” the caption said.

Lauded by the Congressional Quarterly, Pressler commented, “Where have we come to if that’s considered heroic?” In South Dakota, he said, “your neighbors expect you to do the right thing and they don’t pat you on the back for just being a decent guy.”

In advance of his new political campaign, Pressler declared, “I’ve become profoundly troubled by the decline in our country’s moral standards, its work ethic and the erosion of its public integrity.”

Pressler is back on the campaign trail, seeking enough signatures by April to get on the November ballot.

As an independent, he is hoping to gain support from South Dakotans who are disaffected by both parties. As the political atmosphere becomes more dominated by money and dirty politics, he is hoping that voters remember the senator who couldn’t be bought.

-Michael Doan, of Arlington, Va., is a retired journalist and a volunteer in Larry Pressler’s campaign as an independent candidate for the U.S. Senate.