Trivia answer: Wayne Owens, the likeable liberal

There was enough interesting response to last Monday’s trivia question that I decided to write a little article about it.

Here’s the question: “What Utah politician, who was seemingly couldn’t resist running for higher office, said, ‘Whenever someone whispers in my ear I hear the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing the Hallelujah Chorus’?”

Numerous readers got the answer right — Wayne Owens — once I provided a couple of hints. Quite a few readers guessed Merrill Cook, who ran for office even more frequently than Owens. But Cook didn’t utter the clever quote.

Originally from Panguitch, Owens got involved in politics at a young age and worked as a staffer for three U.S. senators: Frank Moss of Utah, Robert F. Kennedy of New York, and Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts.

Owens was young and charismatic when he won his own seat in Congress in 1972. Lots of people thought he was a Utah version of John F. Kennedy. A strong conservationist, Owens walked across the expansive district to meet voters and he defeated incumbent Republican Sherman Lloyd.  Owens was a liberal, but a very likeable liberal. He was funny and self-deprecating. In his first term he served on the Judiciary Committee that voted to impeach Pres. Richard Nixon, before Nixon resigned.

Owens’ fatal flaw was that he could never resist the siren song calling him to run for higher office. After just a term in the House, he went for the U.S. Senate, losing to Republican Jake Garn. He was then called to Montreal, Canada, as a mission president for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In 1984, Owens ran for governor, losing to Norman Bangerter. But he kept running and was re-elected to the U.S. House in 1986. He served three terms and then again ran for the Senate in 1992, losing to Bob Bennett. Owens could likely have served in the House for many years, rising in seniority.

One reader responding to the trivia question was Connie White, who had a distinguished career in Utah as a utility regulator. She said: “Here’s one of my Wayne memories: my younger brother died while attending law school at the U. One of Wayne’s sons (it was Stephen Owens) spoke at a eulogy organized by the school. My oldest brother is a rural, redneck, fire-breathing, far-right conservative. After hearing the eulogy, he said, ‘I never agreed with one word that came out of Wayne Owens’ mouth. But anyone who raised a young man like that is obviously a first-rate human being.'”

Stephen Owens also responded to the trivia question, saying his father “was 4 for 4 in his Congressional District, but he longed to be in the Senate.”

As for the Owens quote, I heard Owens utter it himself and I’ve mentioned it in articles a number of times over the years. Jon Cox noted the quote in his book, “Utah Politics: Principles, Theories & Rules of the Game,” on P7.