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Remembering Cliff Hansen

From NBC's Pete Williams
Cliff Hansen, the oldest living former U.S. senator, who died today at age 97, served his last of two terms in a suite of rooms in Washington's Dirksen Senate Office building. His desk was at one end, and his most junior staff member worked at the other.

Every evening when he was in town, Hansen would turn out his own light and walk through the string of offices, saying goodnight to members of his staff. When he got to the desk of that junior staffer, he'd ask, "May I borrow your phone?"

"Senator," the staffer would say, "this is your phone. Of course you can use it."

Hansen would pick up the receiver, dial a number and say, "Honey, I'm on my way home." And with that, he would be off to his apartment and his devoted wife, Martha.

I know these details, because I was that junior staffer.

Clifford P. Hansen was the last of a breed, a true Wyoming rancher, who rose from county commissioner, to president of the state stock growers association, to governor, and finally U.S. senator, serving from 1967 to 1978. Though he was friends with Washington's powerful, he avoided the cocktail party and dinner circuit. His idea of a stiff drink was half a capful of Cutty Sark in a tall glass of water.

With his warm Western smile and utter lack of pretense, he was a favorite of his Senate colleagues and congressional employees alike. If the cafeteria workers found out you worked for Cliff Hansen, you got special treatment.

Though he kept his eye on Western and public lands issues, he was no lockstep conservative. He broke with the Nixon administration and opposed Defense Secretary Melvin Laird's controversial plan to deploy the ABM, the anti-ballistic missile. 

And as Nixon's second term began to sink under the weight of the Watergate scandal, Hansen quietly urged his friend, Barry Goldwater, to lead a group of Republican House and Senate members to the White House to tell Nixon that impeachment was a virtual certainty and that he should resign. 

He grew up on a cattle ranch, but Hansen never tasted beef until he was in college at the University of Wyoming. "Beef is what we produced. We ate deer and elk," he later recalled.

I learned first-hand what a promoter of the beef industry he was. When I first joined his staff in 1975, he took pity on a newcomer in the big city and invited me to dinner -- at the Howard Johnson's on Virginia avenue, which would later figure in the Watergate scandal. After studying the menu, I told the waitress I'd have the trout.

My new boss put his hand on my arm. "This young man will have the steak," he announced. 

He was an honest man, of rock solid integrity, who loved his wife, his children, and his state. And when his service to his nation was over, he went back to Wyoming, where he died, not far from the log house where he was born.