Don Young: The man, the myth, the malapropisms

Rep. Don Young greeted supporters at a Republican rally in 2018. (Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media)

Alaska Congressman Don Young was famous for rough edges and coarse language. His malapropisms — like “bladder-dash” and “Pribilof’s dogs” — were legendary.

He was also regularly named one of the most effective members of Congress.

Young, the longest serving Republican member of Congress in history, died Friday after 49 years in office. He was on an Alaska Airlines flight from L.A. Friday, sitting next to his wife, Anne Young, when he lost consciousness on final descent into Seattle. His spokesman, Zack Brown, who was on the flight, says paramedics were waiting at the gate but were unable to revive him.

Sunday, the airline flew Young’s remains to Washington, D.C. He will lie in state at the U.S. Capitol March 29.

Lobbyist and longtime Young aide C.J. Zane went to Reagan National Airport in northern Virginia on Sunday to witness Young’s casket being taken away by motorcade, and to offer comfort to his widow.

“There was a lot of love there in that relationship. And I think she’s in a lot of pain,” said Zane. “But she also knows what an incredible run he had, what an incredible life he had.”

Zane, who represents Alaska Native corporations and other Alaska interests, said Young had a big heart but very human flaws.

“He could say the wrong thing at the wrong time, and then apologize for it later. Or sometimes sort of gruffly refuse to apologize,” Zane said. “But if you only see that part of him, you don’t understand the whole person.”

Young was bombastic, but also bipartisan — an increasingly rare quality in the U.S. House. He seemed to be naturally rough-hewn, though he claimed he cultivated his image. He said his fearsomeness ensured that his colleagues didn’t step on Alaska. He even claimed he liked it when people underestimated his intelligence.

“It is something I’ve used all my life, that I try not to appear — and it’s not hard to do — very bright,” Young said in a 2015 interview. “It throws people a little bit off.”

The litany of Young’s brash episodes were recounted with every new one he committed, so it may have appeared his career was an unbroken string of uncouth behavior. There was more to it.

Everyone remembers the time Young brandished an oosik — the penis bone of a walrus — at a congressional hearing. He made that crude gesture in 1994 to undermine the testimony of Mollie Beattie, the first woman to lead U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

But when Beattie died of cancer two years later, it was Young who sponsored a House bill to name 8 million acres in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as the “Mollie Beattie Wilderness Area.”

Young said back then that he was impressed with her ability to present her views “without being arrogant and without being abrasive and always being honest,” he said, “and to me that meant a great deal.”

Not that Young had much use for designated wilderness areas. He was a fan of resource extraction. In fact, even as he spoke of honoring Beattie with a zone that would be preserved in its natural state in perpetuity, Young made it clear he didn’t share her dedication to preservation.

“I’m very, very acquainted with the area,” he said on the House floor. “I myself have travelled the area, trapped the area, hunted the area, mined in the area.”

Young was also a die-hard advocate of gun rights and served for decades on the NRA board. He voted twice against impeaching Donald Trump but was among the first Republican members of Congress to acknowledge Joe Biden’s victory over Trump in the 2020 election.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland got to know Young when she was a freshman House Democrat. 

“As Dean of the House, Mr. Young taught all of us how to love the people and the states that we represent,” Haaland said in a tribute on Twitter.

Alaskans will vote four times this year to fill Young’s U.S. House seat. A special primary followed by a special general election will fill the remainder of Young’s term. Alaskans will also vote in a regular primary and regular general to fill the two year term that starts in January. The same candidates can run in both.

This story was updated to include the news that Rep. Young will lie in state at the U.S. Capitol.

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Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent at Alaska Public Media. Reach her at Read more about Liz here.

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