James Inhofe, former senator and leading US conservative, dies at 89

Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington

By Will Dunham

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Oklahoma Republican James Inhofe, a mainstay of the ideological right in the U.S. Congress and champion of American military strength who derided as a hoax the notion that human activities drove climate change, died on Tuesday at age 89.

The former Oklahoma U.S. senator suffered a stroke over the July 4th holiday and passed away early on Tuesday morning, his family said in a statement.

"He passed peacefully, surrounded by his wife Kay, and his three surviving children, Molly, Jimmy and Katy," the statement said.

Inhofe was an avid pilot who in 1991 flew around the world tracing the route taken six decades earlier by aviation pioneer Wiley Post.

A former mayor of Tulsa, Oklahoma's second-largest city, he spent eight years in the U.S. House of Representatives before being elected to the Senate in 1994. He became the longest-serving and oldest U.S. senator from Oklahoma, retiring in 2023 at age 88, saying he was experiencing long-term effects of COVID-19.

Inhofe earned a reputation as one of the most conservative U.S. senators and was known for aiming caustic barbs at political and ideological adversaries.

During his time as chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, he was a foremost Republican on climate change matters.

"You say something over and over and over and over again, and people will believe it and that's their strategy," he said of environmentalists, scientists and public officials who argued that manmade emissions had altered the planet's climate.

That strategy, Inhofe (pronounced IN-hoff) told the Tulsa World in 2006, reminded him of "the Third Reich, the big lie."

Inhofe called the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency a "Gestapo bureaucracy," fought Democratic efforts to cap greenhouse gas emissions, calling it "hysteria," and sought tax incentives for domestic oil and gas production.

In 2015, Inhofe tossed a snowball on the Senate floor to demonstrate that the planet was not warming. Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse then spoke on the Senate floor, referring to scientific evidence of global climate change obtained by the U.S. space agency and others.

"You can believe NASA and you can believe what their satellites measure on the planet, or you can believe the senator with the snowball," Whitehouse said.

In the 1990s, Inhofe battled the implementation of new clean air standards under Democratic President Bill Clinton.

In a radio interview to promote his 2012 book, "The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future," Inhofe, a conservative Christian, explained his views on climate change in religious terms.

"My point is, God's still up there," Inhofe said. "The arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He is doing in the climate is, to me, outrageous."

'OUTRAGED AT THE OUTRAGE'

Inhofe, who also served as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, was a vocal supporter of American military presence on the world stage and robust defense spending, even defying a president of his own party, Donald Trump, in passing the annual defense policy bill in 2020.

During the Iraq war, the United States faced global condemnation after pictures surfaced in 2004 revealing the abuse of prisoners by American forces at the Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad. The photos showed U.S. troops smiling, laughing and giving thumbs up as prisoners were forced into humiliating positions including a naked human pyramid and simulated sex.

Inhofe made headlines when he said he was "more outraged at the outrage" than he was about the actual treatment of the prisoners.

"I am also outraged that we have so many humanitarian do-gooders crawling over these prisons looking for human rights violations while our troops - our heroes - are fighting and dying," Inhofe told a Senate hearing.

In 2006, the Senate passed legislation proposed by Inhofe to designate English as the national language of the United States. The measure, which did not become law, came amid rising immigration from Spanish-speaking Latin America.

Inhofe said making English the national language was needed for "preserving our culture and heritage." Democrats described it as "a step backward" for America.

Inhofe also was considered one of the most steadfast allies of Africa in Washington, visiting the continent dozens of times and helping mediate disputes in Ethiopia and Kenya.

James Mountain Inhofe was born on Nov. 17, 1934, and was raised in Tulsa. He served briefly in the U.S. Army and then worked in the real estate and insurance businesses. He had four children with his wife, Kay.

His political career spanned nearly six decades. Inhofe was elected at age 31 to the Oklahoma House of Representatives in 1966, then to the state Senate three years later. He mounted failed bids for governor and the U.S. House before serving as mayor of Tulsa from 1978 to 1984.

(Reporting and writing by Will Dunham; additional reporting by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Bill Trott and Leslie Adler)