Tom Tancredo is sitting in the cigar bar at the Brown Palace, puffing on a stogie. The congressman-elect from Colorado's Sixth Congressional District should be on top of the world: After besting five other Republicans to take the primary nomination in August, a month ago he beat Democrat Henry Strauss, collecting 55 percent of the vote--more than Bill Owens got in the same district.
Tancredo should be on top of the world, but he's talking about the lowest point in his life. Talking about it is embarrassing--but the alternative, to let a lie live on, is enough to make you crazy.
Which, Tancredo admits, he already is.
The Sixth Congressional campaign was the dirtiest of the election season, during which Colorado suffered no shortage of mud. And Tancredo, with his rabidly conservative past and well-documented opinions (many of them caught on Channel 12, where he and I agreed on exactly nothing during our weekly bouts on Colorado Inside Out), makes an easy target. But rather than stick with the issues, Strauss's campaign concocted a TV ad attacking Tancredo for talking before a "militia" group, which ended with him raising a "Heil Hitler" salute--in reality, waving at a Littleton parade. The ad was so egregiously inaccurate that it was handily debunked not only by Tancredo's campaign, but by media outlets ranging from the local dailies to the Wall Street Journal to TV's Washington Gang.
Tancredo was just one of the speakers addressing that get-out-the-vote group four years ago--a group headed by a Jewish man rather than Nazi sympathizers, which met at the Glendale firehouse, of all suspicious places. And while Tancredo was invited there by right-wing yakker Marty Nalitz, a guy who does the almost impossible by making Tancredo seem liberal, Nalitz has also enlisted Democratic Party chair Phil Perington to host his radio show. "I've spoken to kookier groups," Tancredo said of his appearance. "I've been on the same stage as Pat Schroeder."
Rather than withdraw the ad though. Strauss, who spent $300,000 of his own money on the most ill-advised campaign in Colorado history, updated it with the "kookier" group reference--omitting any mention of Schroeder.
Then came the real dirt. The week before the election, KRRF AM/1280 got a tip that Tancredo had dodged the draft by phonying up a psychiatrist's report. Military service had become a big issue after Bill Owens--whose campaign literature featured him standing combat-ready by a plane--conveniently forgot that he'd avoided the draft thanks to a student deferment. Tancredo had a student deferment, too--but that wasn't all.
On October 28, Ralph talk-show host Tom Jensen received a series of faxes from a Denver King Soopers, supposedly sent by Tancredo himself. "Tom: This looks like I tried to dodge the draft," reads the handwritten scrawl on the cover sheet. "But I swear, I didn't." What followed were several pages of Selective Service records regarding Thomas G. Tancredo, from the day in 1964 when he came of age for military service through his student deferments to his reclassification as 1-A in 1969--and then, in February 1970, a switch to 1-Y status that ranked him "qualified for service only in time of war or national emergency."
1-Y commonly refers to psychiatric conditions--and after offering up a live interview with a woman who claimed Tancredo had told her 28 years ago that he knew a psychiatrist who'd get him a fake deferment, Jensen and co-host Gus Mircos demanded that Tancredo explain himself. Strauss seconded that demand. On October 31, the Colorado Democratic Party held a demonstration chastising the "big media" for ignoring the story and repeating the call for an explanation.
Tancredo didn't give one then. But fresh from two weeks of congressional boot camp in Washington, D.C., and with absolutely nothing to gain, he's offering one now.
Those draft records are accurate--although Tancredo didn't send them to the radio station, much less scrawl a note to Jensen. (The Selective Service office confirms that they're Tancredo's and that they were requested by a third party through the Freedom of Information Act.) After his student deferments ran out, Tancredo did indeed receive a 1-Y designation--but it was legitimate. When he'd gone in for his physical, he'd checked the box asking if he'd ever been treated for mental illness. Because he had.
In the early Sixties, when Tancredo was sixteen, he suffered his first panic attack while sitting in a classroom at Holy Family in northwest Denver. "I know the nun; I know exactly where I was sitting," he remembers. What he didn't know at the time was what was happening to him. "The nun took one look at me and said, 'You can go home.'" He did, crying all the way, and his parents called his pediatrician. Tancredo was so frightened of it--whatever it was--happening again that he missed school for a few weeks. "I got so depressed," he says. "You just can't imagine how it was--there were no words for it." So he came up with his own word, the "shitbird." And there was never any way of knowing when it would drop in.
Tancredo finished high school and worked at Elitch Gardens through the summers as he completed his education--two years at Northeastern Junior College, then the University of Northern Colorado. He kept working at Elitch's even after he became a teacher in Jefferson County. He was doing fine on the outside, but inside he kept wondering when that shitbird would fly back into his life. And then came the draft, and his appeal, and an appointment with local psychiatrist Dr. Robert Hilton. Although an Army shrink ultimately classified him 1-Y, his meeting with Hilton proved truly "fortuitous," Tancredo says. Until then he'd been talking with family, with family doctors, with school counselors. But Hilton put him in therapy, which Tancredo continued for several years, growing to understand the family issues that had contributed to his attacks, to his clinical depression. "Knowing why--it was the most liberating thing in the world," he says.
And so, he adds, is talking about it now: "I don't want to be fighting this for the next two years."
In the early Seventies, back when Tancredo was designated 1-Y, a psychiatric history was enough to bump Thomas Eagleton off the Democratic ticket as George McGovern's vice-presidential candidate. So Tancredo didn't talk about it when he ran for the Colorado General Assembly--when he was lumped in with the "House Crazies," no one knew how accurate the term was--or when he was appointed as regional head of Ronald Reagan's education department, or when he was made director of the Independence Institute.
He'd started talking about it with friends, though, and after Ralph labeled him a draft dodger, he talked about it with supporters. And he talked about it with the Denver District Attorney's Office--which has investigated whether charges of criminal impersonation can be filed against the person who faxed the documents to the station. Tancredo has his suspects: They're losers.
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Yes, Tancredo can be kooky, and opinionated, and ornery. He's already declared his independence from Washington by skipping an invitation to visit the White House and meet Bill Clinton. Tancredo doesn't like him--he's said so--and so he didn't go. He and his wife went out to dinner instead. And he knows he'll take some knocks in his district, where his predecessor, Dan Shaefer, was not one to rock the boat. In fact, the federal renewable-energy facility in Golden just named a building after Shaefer, who made sure the program's funding wasn't cut. "They won't be naming any building after me," promises Tancredo.
He's heading back to Washington this week, where he'll continue to speak his mind. But first he wants to talk about his mind.
"That I can talk about it--it's incredible," Tancredo says. "But if I could have gone to Vietnam instead of suffering this depression, these attacks, I'd trade it in a heartbeat."
He's not blowing smoke. He swears.