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Cook's task: rebuild his life

Published: Sunday, March 13 2005 12:00 a.m. MST

Former Congressman Merrill Cook and his wife, Camille.

Scott G. Winterton, Deseret Morning News

Mention the name of Merrill Cook and people tend to roll their eyes. See, you're doing it now as you read this. Crazy Merrill. The public perception is that he's eccentric, wealthy and a bit of a nerd. That's not far off the mark, but it needs some updating.

For one thing, he's no longer wealthy. His obsession with politics took care of that. The public perception also tends to overlook a couple of other points: Cook is intelligent, sincere and passionate.

He is known of course as the eternal political candidate, always running for office, almost always losing, but still coming back for more and speaking his mind, seemingly always dogged by controversy and always keeping an eye out for the next political race to enter.

"He absolutely loves politics," says his wife, Camille. But politics hasn't always loved him back.

Here he is, his fortune is all but gone, having been sucked up by political campaigns, a couple of initiatives he funded, a lawsuit and U.S. House of Representatives ethics rules that forced him to neglect the explosives business that once made him wealthy.

And that's not the worst of it. His reputation was dragged through the mud, his sanity was debated in newspapers, he was dumped by Republicans after two terms as a congressman (and they haven't held the seat since then). Camille is weary of the nastiness of politics, not to mention the drain on the family money. Cook gained 100 pounds on a steady diet of politics and its soap-opera sideshow. He recently suffered his eighth political defeat in 10 tries.

So who needs any of this? He could channel his considerable energy into reviving his business, take in a few operas with his wife and ride off into the sunset, right?

Wrong.

"By no means do I think I am finished politically," he says.

Crazy Merrill.

The sacrifice

Cook's pronouncement won't surprise anyone. This is a man who loves politics the way most men love golf. He used to hold mock debates in the living room of his home during presidential elections — Cook as the Republican candidate versus a friend playing the part of the Democratic candidate. They were fierce debates that often left no one on speaking terms for a few days.

While serving as a two-term congressman, he sometimes spent hours sitting in the Jefferson or Lincoln memorials, simply contemplating issues of the day and trying to decide how he should vote.

"When he starts talking about something he believes in and what America is about, his eyes glaze over," says Debra Reed, a longtime friend and former executive assistant.

His heroes are Abraham Lincoln and Benjamin Disraeli, and it's easy to see why. Both men lost eight elections (sound familiar?) before they won a major office — Lincoln as president, Disraeli as British prime minister. Both were brilliant orators and both were a little at odds with strict party adherence. That's how Cook sees himself.

Cook has spent $3.5 million of his own money on his campaigns and another $500,000 to promote two initiatives he wrote — one for the removal of the sales tax on food in 1990 and the other for term limits on state and federal elected officials in 1994.

This is how impassioned he is by politics: With help from his wife and five children, Cook visited all 29 Utah counties to obtain the required 120,000 signatures for each initiative. He worked for two years on each initiative, standing outside stores and knocking on doors to get the signatures. In the end, both initiatives were placed on the ballot, but neither passed (the tax initiative was narrowly defeated).

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