For the first time in 36 years, Jim Inhofe does not have “Congressman” or “Senator” in front of his name. Nor do any of the appellations — “mayor,” “state senator,” “state representative,” “candidate” — by which he has been known for most of the past 57 years still apply.

The man whose political career spanned nearly six decades has indeed retired, at least from elected office. At 88, Inhofe says he intends to remain involved in politics but admits to still suffering the long-term effects of COVID-19. It is the reason, he said, he left the Senate.

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“Five or six others have (long COVID), but I’m the only one who admits it,” Inhofe said during a recent interview.

Inhofe spends a good deal of his time these days at the Riverside Airport hangar he’s occupied for 40 years, sorting through mementos and refurbishing an office that looks out over the runway.

One of those mementos, leaning against a wall, is a large framed photograph, an aerial image of Tulsa in the 1930s: downtown skyline in the foreground, refineries billowing behind.

“When I was chairman of Environment and Public Works, I always hung this picture in the committee room behind Barbara Boxer so when the camera went to her you could see it in the background,” Inhofe said, a note of mischief in his voice. “She hated it.”

Perhaps nothing encapsulates Inhofe’s years in Congress as concisely as that photograph and Inhofe’s relationship with Boxer, the liberal California Democrat with whom he traded gavels over the years as chairs of one of the U.S. Senate’s most powerful committees.

Inhofe and Boxer disagreed on just about everything that came before them — especially the environment. Boxer worried about pollution and the carbon emissions warming the planet. Inhofe dismissed climate change warnings (and still does) as overblown at best and a hoax at worst.

“It’s become a religion,” he said.

For Inhofe, policy is largely about business and industry — “this engine we call America,” in Inhofe’s words — as exemplified by that photograph of a Tulsa running at full throttle.

Boxer, who retired in 2017, took pollution more seriously and was less trusting of business. She and Inhofe fussed incessantly. They teased. And still they managed to legislate.

“We were known as the committee that got things done,” Inhofe has often said.

For all of his fulminating about the other party (“We’re right; they’re wrong”), his bulldog tenacity and blunt plainspokenness, Inhofe got along with political opponents well enough to churn out major defense and infrastructure legislation year after year.

“Real friendship exists in the Senate, but nobody hears about it,” Inhofe said in his November farewell speech on the chamber floor.

After 35 years in Congress, Oklahoma’s high-ranking and longest-serving member is retiring effective Jan. 3.

That said, Inhofe’s 57 years in public life have not been all sunshine and lollipops. From throwing a snowball on the U.S. Senate floor, to charges of dirty pool by vanquished opponents, to his “God, guns and gays” ideolology, Inhofe consistently attracted controversy and raised blood pressures.

Even in Oklahoma, his approval numbers have generally lagged those of other statewide elected officials.

But while Inhofe has never been the state’s most popular politician, he has been its most enduring — and arguably its most influential. His career arc traces the ascendency of the Republican Party in Oklahoma from minority party backbencher in the state House of Representatives to one of the most powerful figures in state history.

Fred Davis, Inhofe’s nephew and longtime political advertising consultant, explains Inhofe’s longevity thusly: “How many (elected officials) is it that what you see is what you get?”

With other politicians, Davis said: “Most of it is bulls—-. Most of it is ego. Most of it is they’ll tell this group one thing and another group another.”

Inhofe, said Davis, is different.

“Jim is just tough as nails. ‘Man, that guy can be a little difficult to deal with,’” Davis said one prominent Oklahoma Republican once told him, “’but he’s got a moral compass that doesn’t waver.’

“You know he’s conservative. You know he isn’t going to change. You know if he votes for the giant spending bill … there’s a reason. He’s going to have a good answer for you,” said Davis.

Critics may not have liked his policies or even his personality, but Inhofe positioned himself to make material differences in Oklahoma. In that regard, he followed in the tradition of some of his Democratic predecessors such as Sen. Robert S. Kerr and U.S. Speaker of the House Carl Albert, albeit with a narrower scope.

“I really wanted to make a difference, and I did,” Inhofe said, then added: “It always seemed to be unexpected.”

The number of bridges built and miles paved because of Inhofe is incalculable. For decades, when an Oklahoma town needed a water or sewer system fixed or a bureaucratic snafu untangled, they turned to Jim Inhofe.

When the Pentagon or Congress or the White House thought about closing or de-emphasizing Air Force bases in Enid or Altus or Midwest City, or the sprawling military complex at Fort Sill, or the ammunition plant at McAlester, Inhofe defended them like a terrier.

Oklahomans may associate Inhofe with military and transportation matters, but in other quarters he is known as one of Africa’s most steadfast Washington allies. He visited the continent dozens of times during his 28 years in the Senate and became good friends with several African leaders, especially Rwandan President Paul Kagame.

Inhofe helped mediate disputes in Ethiopia and Kenya, navigated alligators on the Congo River and got a little closer than he would have liked to a gorilla. He frequently feuded with the U.S. State Department.

“The State Department wants to make every country like the United States,” Inhofe said. “Africa is not the United States.”

Inhofe entered elected politics inauspiciously, through a 1966 special election for the Oklahoma House of Representatives. At the time, he was one of 22 Republicans in a 99-member state House. Two years later he moved to the state Senate.

“Some people say they kicked me out of the House,” said Inhofe. “Technically, I don’t agree with that, but I was not popular. I was going to mess things up that had been going on for a long period of time.”

From 1966 through 2022, Inhofe went before the voters 31 times — likely a record of some sort. Always, it seemed, there were people who thought they could beat him. Of the 57 who tried, only three succeeded.

The first was David Boren.

According to Inhofe, he and Boren became friends in the state House.

“We were the two reformers,” Inhofe said. “Everyone acknowledged that. There was — in my opinion and his opinion — corruption, and we were going to clean up all the messes.”

According to Inhofe, in 1974 they worked out plan a whereby he would become governor.

Inhofe did his part by winning the GOP primary against state Sen. Denzil Garrison of Bartlesville. Boren was to attack embattled incumbent David Hall on the Democrat side. But Inhofe expected Boren to only weaken Hall, not actually win the election.

Instead, Boren’s “Broom Brigade” swept away Hall in the primary, favorite Clem McSpadden in the runoff and Inhofe in the general.

“I figured it would be Clem, or anybody except David Boren, because at that time the Democrats were not a reform party,” said Inhofe.

Boren went on to the U.S. Senate in 1978. Inhofe served another four years in the state Senate, won three two-year terms as mayor of Tulsa, and lost a 1976 race for U.S. representative.

In 1984, Inhofe lost for the third and last time, to Democrat Terry Young, in a bid for a fourth term as mayor. Immediately after, Inhofe said he was probably finished with politics, but two years later he won the first of four terms as 1st District congressman.

If Oklahoma was not quite ready for Jim Inhofe in 1974, 20 years later it would be.

Inhofe entered the 1994 race to replace Boren in the U.S. Senate as a decided underdog. The favorite was polished 4th District Congressman Dave McCurdy, a moderate-to-conservative ally of then-President Bill Clinton.

Davis says he agreed to handle his uncle’s television campaign on the condition that Inhofe “didn’t have any say on what went on the air.”

The result was a series of innovative ads that included burly convicts in tutus and a dull-eyed family staring at a bug-zapper. Davis said Inhofe originally hated the ads and even accused his nephew of trying to sabotage the campaign, but they helped propel Inhofe to victory and Davis to stardom in the world of Republican TV consultants.

In what became a pivotal year in Oklahoma politics, Inhofe and the state GOP hit Democrats hard on social and fiscal issues, setting the pattern for decades to come. The Republicans won back the governor’s mansion and, for the first time ever, captured every Oklahoma congressional spot. J.C. Watts, Steve Largent, Tom Coburn and Frank Lucas were all elected for the first time.

Nearly 30 years later, the Republican Party has a hammerlock on every statewide office, huge legislative majorities and all seven congressional seats.

Inhofe isn’t solely responsible for that, but he was part of it.

Ironically, the man who was too conservative for Oklahoma in 1974 is now considered too liberal — or at least not enough of what’s defined as “conservative” by his own party these days. His refusal to go along with a scheme to throw the 2020 presidential election and his positions on Ukraine and earmarks are dimly viewed in some Republican quarters.

Inhofe said he knows some of his positions “are not really considered to be all that conservative” by some of the people who decide such things. But his belief in his own judgment seems unshaken.

“I can’t figure out why people don’t do things that to me are obvious,” he said.

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