In some ways, Larry Pressler was a natural politician.
A tall, lean, handsome man, he was also a Vietnam veteran, the first one elected to Congress, with a glittering education that included being a Rhodes scholar and earning a degree from Harvard Law School. His modest demeanor and skill at retail politics were evident from the start.
So the fact that he served two terms in the U.S. House and three terms in the U.S. Senate doesn't seem that strange.
But Pressler said Tuesday that when he announced he was running for the U.S. House in 1974, people who knew him since childhood were stunned. He was the last person they expected to enter politics, he recalled.
Pressler was known for avoiding confrontation or argument, he said, an unlikely description for someone about to enter the political fray. He had stuttered as a child and worked hard to overcome that problem while also dealing with mild dyslexia that made it a challenge for him to read.
"The people I went to high school with couldn't believe it," he said.
South Dakota Republican Party officials were equally surprised. When Pressler announced his first bid for office in 1974, he was just 32, with little money and few political contacts in the state. He had been working for the U.S. State Department before he quit his post and returned to South Dakota to campaign.
"I was an unknown," he said.
But he won a three-way fight for the Republican nomination and took on Rep. Frank Denholm, of Brookings, a two-term Democrat with a long list of political accomplishments.
Pressler was a Republican running in the shadow of the Watergate scandal, when President Richard Nixon, a Republican, was forced to resign. Democrats swept to victory across the country.
But Pressler, a moderate Republican who relied on contacts made in 4-H, at the University of South Dakota and in his travels across the state in a $700 car he bought for the race, was elected.
"I was a Teddy Roosevelt Republican," Pressler said, reflecting on that first campaign. "I thought I was going to save the world."
He said "everything fell into place" for him to win. Any number of things could have happened to derail him, but he caught breaks and won the election.
It was the start of a career in Congress that lasted until he was defeated by Tim Johnson in 1996. Pressler was bidding for his fourth term in the Senate when he lost a close, contentious race.
Considering book projects
Since that time, Pressler has taught at numerous universities, served on boards and worked as a lawyer. Now, he's considering writing an autobiography, or perhaps two books, one on how America can get back in what he calls the right direction, and another on his life.
He said he wants to make the case for political reform and reductions on the impact of money in campaigns.
Pressler said he wonders if his life story -- farm boy from Humboldt goes to the University of South Dakota, attends Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar, then on to the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and finally Harvard Law School before serving in Congress -- would have an audience.
"I'm not of national stature," Pressler said of his reputation.
He said he has written 20 chapters of his book and was tempted to discard them.
"I realized it was such drivel, I decided no one was going to be interested in raising pigs in South Dakota in the 1950s," Pressler said.
But he said others have told him his rise to the U.S. Senate, his observations on the passing political scene and his experience with Abscam, an undercover FBI effort to see if members of Congress were selling their influence, has value as a story.
In 1979, FBI agents posing as Arab sheiks launched the Abscam effort and targeted 31 public officials. Eventually, one senator, five members of the House and several other public officials were arrested and forced to resign from office.
Pressler turned down the money offered to him and told the agents in Arab garb that he thought what they were offering him was illegal.
His actions drew praise, which Pressler deflected.
"I do not consider myself a hero," he said at the time. "What have we come to if turning down a bribe is heroic?"
Pressler said one reason he would tell that story again in his new book would be to point out that politicians need not be for sale to the highest bidder.
"You can say no," he said.
During his time in Congress, Pressler's most noted accomplishment was being the author and driving force behind the Telecommunications Act of 1996.
The act was the first legislative effort dealing with the future of telecommunications, including the Internet. President Bill Clinton termed it the most important bill he signed.
While it was designed to deregulate the industry and allow more firms to compete in telecommunications, some critics said it allowed large companies to obtain greater control of the media.
Pressler said he still feels the bill was a major success.
"We wouldn't have the Internet as we know it without it," he said. "It laid the groundwork for the Internet."
Pressler was the chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee from 1995 to 1997.
'Modest' net worth
Since leaving the Senate, his work has centered on a telecommunications law practice, a small amount of lobbying and serving on corporate and advisory boards of several U.S., British and Indian companies.
Pressler noted that former senator Tom Daschle has made millions since he left the Senate.
That's not the case for Pressler, he admitted.
"People would be surprised how modest my net worth is," he said. "I did not cash my chips in, so to speak."
Pressler, 69, came to Mitchell on Tuesday to do some research for his writing. He stopped by the Mitchell Public Library to examine bound editions of The Daily Republic from the 1970s, reading the stories written about his first campaign and coverage of his opening days in the Senate in 1979.
It was clear his high school classmates' interpretation of his character is still correct. Pressler didn't engage in the rough-and-tumble style of politics that many other candidates did, and sharp words directed at him more than 30 years ago still inflict wounds.
A Page 1 story in The Daily Republic in January 1979 termed Pressler a poor senator who was "despised" by the congressmen he had served with. It quoted former South Dakota senator James Abourezk as saying he considered the seat he had vacated and Pressler had won in 1978 as "empty."
Reading those words more than 32 years later, Pressler was clearly hurt.
"Why would he say that?" he said.
Pressler said the reason Abourezk retired from politics was that polls gave Pressler a large lead in a head-to-head race in 1978. Rather than take him on, Abourezk walked away, Pressler said.
He said while he chose not to engage in pointed battles with other politicians, some took him on. He wonders if he should have fought back harder.
He acknowledged the poor relationship he had with Bill Janklow, the former attorney general, four-term governor and, briefly, congressman.
"That didn't come from my side," Pressler said. "That is true. He did dislike me sharply."
Pressler said he often tells students in his classes that the bitterest political rivalries often are among members of the same party.
"They compete for the same constituency," he said. "They're very jealous of each other."
Pressler said he has always had a good relationship with Democrats such as former Sen. George McGovern and Daschle.
However, that changed in the mid-1990s as it became clear that Johnson was planning to leave the House and run against Pressler for the Senate seat.
Daschle wanted another vote in his bid to become the Democratic leader of the Senate, Pressler said, so he stepped up efforts to remove Pressler.
That led to the hard-fought 1996 election, a precursor of the 2002 race between Johnson and John Thune and the 2004 contest between Daschle and Thune.
All three were close, expensive and bitter.
While he was disappointed to lose, Pressler said he later came to view the defeat as a blessing that allowed him to embark on new careers as a teacher and a lawyer.
"I've let it go," he said. "I'm not mad at anybody."
But he was stung by rumors about his sexuality that were floated around the state.
Pressler said Democrats insinuated that he was gay and some said his marriage to his wife, Harriet, 30 years ago was a fraud intended to cover his true private life.
"There was no basis for it. It was not true," he said. "I should have fought back harder."
The couple has one daughter, Laura, and four grandchildren.
Pressler said a book titled "Washington Babylon" claimed he only married "amid speculation he was gay." The book also described him as "mentally frail" and "morally inert."
During the Pressler-Johnson campaign, the book's co-author, Alexander Cockburn, toured South Dakota with the assistance of Abourezk. Pressler denounced the whispering campaign during a campaign debate.
In 1998, Pressler settled a lawsuit he had filed in England, where the book was published and laws more readily allow public figures to seek legal recourse when they feel they have been wrongfully attacked in print.
Under the settlement, Pressler's legal bills were paid, he received an apology and the book was withdrawn from sale by the publishers, although copies of it are still available online.
In 1998, The Daily Republic wrote an editorial on the fact that justice had finally been served. Pressler said this week that "it touched my heart."
He said he knew of the nicknames that some in the media and his political enemies had for him because of the numerous statements his office issued.
He was dubbed "Larry Press Release" and "Press Release Pressler," he acknowledged.
"I don't think I did any more than anyone else," Pressler said, his face showing the pain those old phrases caused.
No more campaigns
In 2002, Pressler made a bid to return to public life. He entered the 2002 Republican contest for the House seat that Thune was vacating.
Although he said Janklow had told him he wasn't planning to run, Janklow did enter the primary and defeated Pressler 54-27 percent in June, with three other candidates garnering the remaining votes. Janklow then went on to defeat Stephanie Herseth Sandlin in November.
Pressler said he will never run for office again.
"I'm still very much a Republican," Pressler said. "But I'm frustrated by the Republicans."
He voted for Johnson in 2008 and also supported Barack Obama in that campaign. Pressler said he is still an admirer of Sen. John Thune and other members of the GOP.
But he said he feels his party has left him and many other moderates, focusing on conservative social issues and other divisive areas of public discourse.
After Johnson suffered a stroke-like medical problem in 2006, Pressler and his wife visited Johnson in the hospital.
Pressler said he had a severe stammer when he was a boy and still struggles with it at times. That allowed him to empathize with Johnson's labored efforts to speak.
Pressler's health is still good, although he walks slower and grasps rails when climbing stairs. But when he was home in South Dakota for the July Fourth weekend, he stayed at a family farm in Humboldt that he has a financial interest in.
Pressler spent time this week working with bees and establishing a pair of colonies. It's an interest he's had since he was in 4-H in the 1950s.
Bush, Clinton connections
While he voted for Obama and said he had high hopes for him, Pressler said he has been disappointed by some of the president's decisions, including leaving American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He said like President George W. Bush, Obama has relied too heavily on the advice of generals.
"I'm for civilian control of everything," Pressler said.
He said Obama, like other politicians who didn't serve in the military, may be prone to following the counsel of military leaders to show his support for the armed forces.
He said during his 1996 campaign against Johnson, staffers wanted to run TV ads touting his tours of duty in Vietnam. It was something Pressler had always played down, much like McGovern, who rarely mentioned his military service during his campaigns for office.
"I told them, 'No, that crosses the line,' " Pressler said.
He said he doesn't draw a distinction between people who served in the military and those who didn't.
"I respect everybody's opinion on Vietnam and the military," Pressler said. "The whole thing is a ball of wax."
That includes former President Bill Clinton, who has been criticized for avoiding military service during the Vietnam War. On his website, Pressler writes that he has been friends with "Bill" for more than 30 years. Both Rhodes scholars, they met in the early 1970s.
Clinton took Pressler, by then a former senator, with him for a trip to India in 2000. Pressler, who has been a strong advocate for India for decades, said he was flattered to be included in the trip and impressed by how well Clinton dealt with issues and people.
During his years in Congress, Pressler pushed for normalization with Vietnam, and he has visited Vietnam numerous times over the years. He was the chairman of an Asian subcommittee and was the author of the "Pressler Amendment," designed to reduce nuclear tension between India and Pakistan by withholding aid to Pakistan if it was determined to have nuclear weapons.
Pressler said he remains well known in India. He has often visited there to promote grain sales with South Dakota.
He has lectured at the Dalat University Business School in Vietnam and is on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Education Center Advisory Council.
He received numerous medals and awards for his service in Vietnam, including the Bronze Star Medal and the Army Commendation Medal, the Vietnam Service Medal with four Bronze Service Stars and the Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross with Palm Unit Citation Badge. He said he suffered from nightmares for years after his service.
'A contract professor'
Looking at the old newspapers stirred memories for Pressler.
"I was reminded of how influential what a paper covers and what it omits is," he said.
He said while he received a great deal of positive press around the country, the South Dakota media and especially the Argus Leader either ignored positive stories on him or published stories putting him in a bad light.
"The Argus really only reported the negatives on my presidential candidacy -- and totally omitted my Vietnam veteran experience (which was the basis of my candidacy)," he wrote in an e-mail to The Daily Republic.
"I first raised on a national level via my presidential campaign the issue of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which was not even recognized at that time. I was greeted warmly by Vietnam veteran groups in Florida, California and New York -- remember we had a totally different climate toward veterans at that time. We were frequently accused of being partners in crime, etc. And Vietnam veterans felt badly treated and really welcomed my candidacy -- but they were poorly organized and had little money."
During his brief presidential campaign in 1979-1980, Pressler said his youth should be seen as an advantage. It was compared with the GOP frontrunner at the time, Ronald Reagan, who was 69 in 1980.
Pressler said his comments on his age "actually came from a press conference I gave on getting Vietnam veterans involved for the first time and giving us a chance to be recognized as legitimate veterans -- I did say we were a new generation."
He said he and Reagan became "good friends" and he enjoyed a good relationship with the Reagan administration.
That wasn't the case during the last GOP administration. Pressler said his moderate views made him unwelcome to President George W. Bush.
He was part of the official U.S. observation team for the Ukrainian presidential elections in 2004 and 2005 and twice went to Kiev and Odessa, Ukraine.
He received a letter from then-Vice President Dick Cheney thanking him for his efforts. The letter is posted on Pressler's website, www.larrypressler.com.
Pressler, while working in New York City and Washington, D.C., has kept his hand in politics in a very small way.
In 2009, he was appointed by President Obama as a commissioner for the United States Commission for the Preservation of America's Heritage Abroad.
"In my retirement, I have basically been a teacher," Pressler said. "I'm a contract professor."
Pressler has taught or lectured at numerous universities, including The Harvard Law School, Harvard Kennedy School of Government, Oxford University in England, The Oglala Sioux Sinte Gleska University and the University of South Dakota.
He has also taught and lectured at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
He has lectured at numerous schools and universities in other nations, including the St. John's Graduate School of Business, Pontifical Oratorio in Rome, Fudan University in China, and at the University of Sarajevo in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where he lectured on the U.S. presidential elections.
Pressler said he plans to continue to teach and work as a lawyer while he decides whether or not he will complete a book or books on his life.