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The Honorable Steve Largent

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Issue: "Steve Largent," Feb. 13, 1998

When Sonny Bono died recently in a skiing accident, pundits were quick to point out what the loss would mean to the Republican Party. Mr. Bono, they said, was a common-sense politician who brought an outside-the-beltway viewpoint to the inbred Washington political scene. Besides, he was fresh and funny, a man whose goodwill was evident even to those who disagreed with him. In a party often accused of being bitter and mean, who could replace the former hippie who always seemed more amused than awed by the Washington power trip?

Appearing on TV's McLaughlin Group, commentator Fred Barnes of The Weekly Standard had a ready answer: Steve Largent. Steve Largent, the conservative sophomore representative from Oklahoma? The former professional football player?

The outspoken believer and ardent abortion foe?

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The ex-jock may seem an unlikely replacement for the ex-crooner at first glance, but no one on the panel laughed that night. Indeed, Mr. Largent has quickly silenced the critics who initially laughed him off as a political lightweight. He may be very different from Mr. Bono in many ways, but both men managed to win grudging respect in just a short time on Capitol Hill. "He's someone that people like even if they disagree with him," Mr. Barnes told WORLD, explaining his comparison of the two lawmakers. "He fills in a number of holes for the Republican Party: First, he's a smiling face. They need one. He's also a leading social conservative in the House, and he's a guy of enormous political courage."

That courage was on display last year when Mr. Largent went public with his criticism of Newt Gingrich. One of the so-called back-benchers who led the charge to de-throne the speaker, Mr. Largent says he was fed up with the kind of politicking that has always made the wheels of Washington turn smoothly. "It has to do with basic principles of honesty and integrity, more than policy or more than not getting my way," he says by way of explanation. "It has to do with expecting leadership that is honest with you, that is principled and willing to fight for those principles."

A political neophyte taking on the leader of his party-it was all but unheard of in the good-old-boy environment of Capitol Hill. But Mr. Largent was surprised to find that he wasn't alone in refusing to play by the traditional political rules. He says his most pleasant surprise upon coming to Washington was to find "so many members from around the country who came here with very principled and courageous beliefs and who were willing to fight for those. I saw that this was going to be a battle in which I had lots of comrades-in-arms. That has been a real source of encouragement."

Like everyone else in Washington, Mr. Largent has a bigger agenda than just the legislation currently under debate. Unlike most of his colleagues, however, the Oklahoman's agenda revolves around his character, not his career. "I think I have a very fundamental responsibility to be a leader of integrity to my community that I represent. I always say that the most important responsibility that I have is to live up to the nametag that I get when I go to various places that says 'The Honorable Steve Largent.' The legislation that I introduce or support, I think is secondary to that. If I conduct myself publicly and privately in a way that is honorable, not just to the people of the district that I represent but to God, then I will feel like I have been successful."

The self-effacing spirituality is no act, according to Mr. Barnes. "Any ego gratification he needed, he's already gotten" through his years in professional football. "He's not one looking to enhance his own career or to make deals, but to do the right thing. He's a level up from most of [his colleagues in the House], and it comes through."

When Steve Largent says he doesn't decide his positions by watching the polls, it's easy to believe him; he doesn't even watch C-SPAN. The congressional cable channel is as unavoidable on Capitol Hill as Muzak in a dentist's waiting room, and Mr. Largent's office is no exception. But unlike most of his colleagues, Mr. Largent doesn't keep an eye on the television monitor while conducting interviews. Instead, he focuses his wide blue eyes on his listener and hardly ever looks away. He hardly even blinks. His open, unswerving gaze communicates honesty-even guilelessness-the way Mr. Bono's wide-eyed wonderment suggested that political intrigue was beyond his grasp.

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