Boat Crash Becomes Political Fodder

By Beacon Staff

In a blog I wrote about two weeks ago I wondered out loud how long it would take before the Aug. 27 boat crash into the rocks of Wayfarer’s State Park became fodder in Denny Rehberg’s 2010 reelection bid. And the answer is … not very long at all!

Democratic challenger for Rehberg’s seat, Dennis McDonald, has been issuing press releases almost daily blasting Rehberg for how he handled the accident and its aftermath, saying his drinking was irresponsible and asserting that Rehberg bears some responsibility for the injuries suffered by his younger staff members for allowing them to get on the boat driven by Kalispell Republican state Sen. Greg Barkus – who had been drinking that night, though it remains unknown how much.

Let’s be clear: McDonald is not making subtle allusions. He is coming out guns blazing and calling Rehberg’s handling of the crash a “cover-up.” From McDonald’s Monday release:

Here is why Mr. Rehberg owes Montana an apology.

First, alcohol seems to have a way of causing Mr. Rehberg to publicly embarrass himself. We know of several incidents in the press over the last few years: getting so drunk that he fell off a horse in Kazakhstan; getting into a bar fight with his staff in Missoula at the Iron Horse; passing out on a cot at a bar in DC; and now getting into a drunken wreck up on Flathead Lake that almost caused (sic) the life of a young man.

In a pattern we’re likely to see repeated ad nauseum over the next year, McDonald’s attacks then allow Republicans to bring up McDonald’s “mob ties” – a charge due to McDonald’s representation of a government witness in a case against La Cosa Nostra in California in the 1970s.

“If I’m criticized for making this political, so be it,” McDonald is quoted as saying by Lee’s Jennifer McKee. “But, again, the lesson that needs to be learned here is that adults in leadership positions need to make good decisions.”

Yet McDonald’s attack-dog posture doesn’t seem to be earning him much support in Montana’s left-leaning blogosphere. Flathead Memo’s James Conner called McDonald’s demand of an apology by Rehberg “foolish and petty.” Over at Left in the West, Matt Singer wrote that he was planning on coming to McDonald’s defense until he read the above paragraph that contains a number of rumors about Rehberg easily disproved. From LiTW:

As far as I can recall, Denny didn’t get into a fight at the Iron Horse. One of his staff people threw a punch at a guy who was out-of-control. And he didn’t pass out on a cot at a bar in DC. His operation made a hilarious mistake on a compliance form.

I suppose the lies might as well fly both ways.

So, as the late William Safire warned political writers against doing, we must ask, Qui Bono? The answer may be the other Democratic challenger in the U.S. House race, Tyler Gernant of Missoula, who is distancing himself from the brouhaha by referring to McDonald and Rehberg derisively as “Dennis and Dennis.” From Gernant’s release Monday:

“One Dennis is demanding an apology from the other Dennis for having a couple of drinks. The other Dennis turns around and releases his attack dogs on Dennis for being a mob lawyer from California. This kind of petty political posturing does nothing to help the 158,000 Montanans currently without health insurance,” said Gernant. “The Dennises can call each other names until the cows come home, I’m going to focus on addressing the problems in our health care system. I may be young, but I’m mature enough to know that Montanans want a Congressman who spends his time coming up with solutions, not insults,” Gernant concluded.

Though it’s certainly interesting to see some sparks fly, hopefully the political press-release war will add pressure to, and not distract from, the fact that Flathead County authorities are moving slowly in any decision of whether to file charges against Barkus, an issue that would seem to hinge on the release of his Blood Alcohol Content levels from the night of the crash. The importance of that information far overshadows the potential for political hay-making from this accident in the run-up to the 2010 election.