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?
"By no means do I think I am finished politically," he says.
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).
But if Cook's intentions are genuine, friends wonder if his efforts are worth the sacrifice. Camille worries about the money her husband has spent on politics. Cook himself estimates he was once worth about $10 million; these days he says he might be worth $1 million, which includes the value of the heavy equipment owned by Cook Associates.
"Sometimes I tell him no more, but he doesn't listen," Camille said last fall in the midst of her husband's failed run for county mayor. "The stress is awful and the money it costs to run we won't have anything left. But he just can't stay away. He loves it."
Camille, who like her husband is 58, teaches singing lessons in her spare time. Two years ago she took a part-time job as a secretary.
"We're not in very good financial shape," she says. "That's one reason I work."
Says Cook, "I have sacrificed a lot. People look at it in terms of what I spent on campaigns, but that's just a small part of the sacrifice. But I wouldn't change a thing. I loved what I was doing (in Congress) and have never been happier in my work."
A 'bookish kid'
Cook got hooked on politics at the age of 10 while watching the election returns during the 1956 presidential election on TV. He was fascinated by the unfolding drama of the vote count and the maps that showed how the states were voting. He was only 14 years old when he began holding mock debates with friends and neighbors, an election ritual he continued well into his 30s. Even while serving a mission for his church in Great Britain, Cook would spend part of his weekly day off thumbing through news magazines to get his fix of politics.
Life revolved around politics when Cook raised his own family. The yard was littered with political signs during campaign season, and the back patio was stained with paint and glue from making political signs and this was long before Cook began running for office. When Cook got into politics himself, his children knocked on doors, passed out fliers and attended parades in every small town in the state.
Other dads talked about baseball scores with their children; Cook talked about Clinton's health plan.
"He would ask us questions at dinner about what we were doing in school," says David, Cook's son. "He was looking for a hook, and then he'd see a connection with some issue and ask us about it. You wanted to be very careful how you answered because he wanted to start discussion and you better be able to back it up."
Cook ran for his first political office in seventh grade and was elected president. He ran for president again at Roosevelt Junior High and finished second. He didn't run for office at East High "because I didn't think I could win," he says but the Roosevelt defeat was the start of a long losing streak that would resume decades later in middle age.
He was a straight-A student at East. A self-described "bookish kid," he says, "I wasn't the cool guy on campus, but I wasn't a total nerd." Then almost in the next sentence he says he and his friends held competitions to see who got the highest score on math tests.
He graduated from the University of Utah in 1971 with a degree in economics and later graduated near the top of his class from Harvard with an MBA. He was immediately hired by the prestigious management-consulting firm, Arthur D. Little, in Boston. In 1977, he joined his father, Melvin, in the explosives business.
Hat in the ring
Melvin Cook was one of those genius types. He was a professor of metallurgy at the University of Utah and founded a research group that did consulting work for the Department of Defense and mining companies. He created an explosive device that enabled bazooka shells to pierce the previously impenetrable armor of German tanks during World War II. Later, he developed what came to be known as the "Blue 82" or "Daisycutter," the largest non-nuclear bomb in the Army's arsenal. It could flatten up to a half-mile radius of jungle in Vietnam, which allowed helicopters to land and then some. In 2002, the bomb was used to demolish terrorist hideouts in the mountains of Afghanistan.
Melvin and Merrill made a fortune selling explosives to the mining industry. The business thrived, doing $5 million to $10 million in annual sales. In 1998, while Cook was in Congress, he received a call from a competitor wanting to buy the company, promising that negotiations would start at $5 million. Cook turned him down. It was a decision he would regret.
While pulling in millions, Cook decided to indulge his passion for politics at the behest of friends who had listened to him talk politics over dinner for years. So began the campaigning. And the defeats.
1984: Lost close vote in a school board election.
1985: Lost bid for Salt Lake mayor.
1986: Lost another close one for county commissioner.
1988: Lost bid for governor as an independent.
1992: Lost a close race for the GOP gubernatorial nomination to Mike Leavitt.
"Do you run just to run?" a miffed Jon Huntsman Sr. asked Cook after trying to dissuade him from entering the '88 Republican race against him and Norm Bangerter (shortly before tearfully withdrawing from his brief bid for the governor's office).
In 1996, Cook finally broke through, beating Democrat Rocky Anderson in a run for Congress. In 1998, he was re-elected. It appeared to be the start of a long run, but really it was the start of trouble.
An independent road
Actually, Cook believes his problems might have begun years earlier. In 1986, he beat Lloyd Frandsen in the Republican primary, and some Frandsen loyalists threw support to Democrat David Watson for county commissioner. Gov. Bangerter never endorsed Cook, even though they were both Republicans.
Two years later, Cook opposed a tax hike proposal by Bangerter. He made an impassioned speech in front of the Republican Central Committee, and the committee voted overwhelmingly to oppose the tax hike. A couple of weeks later, the Central Committee held another unscheduled, hastily convened meeting, and the vote was reversed.
"They had been taken to the woodshed," says Cook. "I thought, this isn't right. It was loyalty to the person and the party rather than principles. After that, I became an independent."
He spent nearly $2 million of his own money on independent bids for governor in 1988 and 1992. He ran for Congress in 1994 and wound up losing a controversial decision, finishing second to Enid Greene, who eventually admitted to illegally funneling $1.8 million of her father's money into her campaign.
Greene was fined by the Federal Election Commission, but that didn't help Cook; the race was already lost.
"I remember we were leading her by 17 points two months before the election, and then 10 days later we were notified that she bought $600,000 worth of TV ads," recalls Cook. "We wondered where she got the money because she hadn't raised much before that."
Invited to return to the Republican Party by Leavitt, Cook ran for Congress again in 1996 as a Republican and this time claimed his first election victory.
"There was a lot of sympathy among party leaders for what happened in '94," says Cook. "I think people felt I had been cheated out of that race." Cook was re-elected in 1998, and then things began to unravel almost immediately.
Out of control?
Shortly after winning the election, he fired his chief of staff, Janet Jenson, and his congressional district leader, Rob Jeppsen or they resigned in protest, depending on who you believe. Thus began a war of words. Jenson wrote several e-mails to staffers disparaging Cook that wound up in the media she said Cook had "taken up permanent residence in wacko land," and "If he asks you to fax his underwear to the speaker's office, please just do it." She painted a picture of a man out of control. He said it was the work of a disgruntled, scorned employee.
Cook certainly didn't help matters when a blowup at Republican Party headquarters weeks earlier suddenly came to light after all the mud started to fly. Cook had contributed $25,000 from his own campaign to the Republicans for their get-out-to-vote campaign, which consisted of calling voters throughout the state urging them to vote for a specified list of Republican candidates. Cook's name wasn't on the list, and when he found out about it he went to party headquarters and threw a fit, unleashing a couple of F-bombs in the process.
"It's not a word I ever use, but I did say those things and somehow it all came out later," he says. "But I wasn't as out of control as they said. I turned and left calmly."
Suddenly, there were regular newspaper stories, sourced from staff members, describing tantrums that made Cook look like a kook. The mere printing of stories that raised questions about such things, true or not, was damaging and planted a seed in the minds of the public. The Deseret News ran a story under the headline: "Cook needs to show people he's really not insane." It was not atypical of newspapers at the time.
"The overriding reason was the press, namely (former Tribune managing editor) Jay Shelledy of the Tribune," says Cook. The Tribune "made me look completely crazy. It became a feeding frenzy."
It became stuff suitable for a TV mini-series. There were reports that Cook was employing a phantom employee, Shari Holweg, who, word had it, did little work but was on the payroll because she was blackmailing Cook over taped conversations between them. Holweg, who calls the whole story ridiculous, says she and her husband, Tim, maintain a close friendship with Merrill and Camille, which is curious behavior for a blackmailer.
"We do things socially," she says. "My son takes singing lessons from Camille. We have dinner or see a movie with them. Camille is one of my best friends in the world."
The pile-on continued. Ron T. Nielsen, a former campaign consultant, had filed a lawsuit against Cook in 1997, claiming he was owed money for services rendered. After several postponements by Nielsen's attorneys, the trial took place between the 2000 convention and the primary while Cook was trying to regain the Republican nomination.
In the end, Cook was ordered to pay for Nielsen's services as well as attorney fees for both sides. It wound up costing him more than $500,000, eating up his entire congressional salary and forcing him to liquidate his stock portfolio.
Out of favor
None of this helped Cook's standing with the Republican Party, which was shaky to begin with. Not only had he left the party previously and opposed party agenda, while in Washington he had hired Democrats for his
staff and continued to vote against the party line. In Washington, Cook says he was frequently taken to the so-called Cloak Room, an area in the Capitol where frequent arm twisting takes place to win votes for certain bills.
"I never felt I owed a thing to a party hierarchy or to a large contributor," he says. "I felt I owed a lot to the people who elected me. They spent hours on me in that Cloak Room. When they found they could not do anything to change my mind, they gave up on me."
Cook says party power brokers really turned up the heat on him when he indicated he would vote against a bill granting China most-favored-nation trade status. Because he refused to capitulate, Cook says he lost more than $250,000 in campaign contributions from BIPAC the Business Industry Political Action Committee, which is comprised of blue-chip corporations (which had previously endorsed him).
Cook didn't win the Republican nomination for 2000.
"He is so passionate about what he believes in, and it was his undoing," says Reed. "He stood his ground on China. There was a lot of arm twisting. He didn't care. There were people telling him, 'We'll make sure you win; we'll put up money for you.' But he refused, even at the cost of losing."
In the years that followed, which included two lost political races (for Congress and county mayor), Cook has been dogged by the lunatic brand. Reed, among other Cook associates, was approached frequently by people asking her, "Is he crazy?"
"It happened all the time," she says. "It was out there so strongly and wrongly. It was difficult to see it hurt him and his family. I didn't think he was a tough boss. I saw other staffers who adored him and still do. Staffers who had worked on other staffs said they had never worked for a politician who was so warm and willing to give you time. He was that way with everyone."
Says David, "I've worked for my dad on campaigns. He's a tough boss. He demands a lot. He wants things well researched, for instance, so he can make a good decision. It's not for everybody. But in terms of the press he's had, it's unfortunate. It doesn't represent who he is. He's so good-humored and has real deep concerns about issues. He also takes things personally and can get his feelings hurt."
Cook remembers vividly one day, at the height of the 18 months of controversy, when he was driving home after a vacation with his family. They picked up a newspaper in Monticello, and as they resumed driving, Camille began reading a story in the newspaper about her husband and sobbed.
"She didn't stop crying the rest of the way home, six hours," says Cook. "I mean, crying bitterly, out loud. This story had me as the craziest nut case ever."
Cook believes he would still be a congressman today if he had just kept his mouth shut and toed the Republican Party line. "There's no question in my mind that if I had been a party guy, combined with the effort I put into politics, I'd still be there," he says. "They made it clear that if I didn't conflict with the party, I could be a senator or governor. My independence cost me a lot."
In the end, Cook left Washington soundly beaten on all fronts. Even his business suffered. House ethics rules forbade him from holding a position in a company or talking to customers, even if he owned the company outright. Somehow he didn't learn this until after he was elected to office.
By the time Cook left Congress in 2000, his business had lost most of its major customers and was in decline. The company's former customers said they took their business elsewhere because they couldn't deal with Cook, who not only was the company's owner but its salesman as well. To make matters worse, the mining industry was in a tailspin, thanks partly to foreign competition. Cook lost millions of dollars in business, which he has yet to recover.
"It takes time to rebuild," he says. "Those contracts they sign with other companies are for several years."
Cook is trying to resuscitate his business and plot his next political move, but first he must get Camille's support. She says that after they left Washington, "I was sick of the whole thing. I decided politics was never going to be in our lives again after seeing what someone will do when they're just out to get you."
The family's passions
Camille is an opera singer of some renown. In the 1980s, she performed lead roles for the Utah and Salt Lake opera companies in productions of "Don Giovanni" and "Madame Butterfly." She still performs occasionally on Temple Square. Her children recall waking up to the sound of their mother practicing opera in the bathroom. She converted the entire family to opera aficionados to such an extent that the kids would actually fight over opera tickets if there weren't enough to go around. They made annual trips to an opera festival in Albuquerque, and Merrill and Camille have traveled the world to see performances in the best opera houses.
The Cooks have lived modestly but spent money lavishly on their three passions opera, education and politics. Brian, who went to college at 16 and earned a degree at 19, did graduate work at Yale and Cal Tech and now works for NASA. Allison graduated from Pepperdine and owns a public-relations agency. Barbara took a degree in literature at St. John's and teaches Sanskrit and ayurvedic medicine in New Zealand. David took a history degree from Yale and an MBA from Northwestern and will soon take a job with a Wall Street law firm. Michelle studies Spanish and art history at Vanderbilt and is currently studying in Madrid.
Cook, who has shed 100 pounds since leaving Congress, is still a bookworm. He reads thick volumes about astronomy, sciences, biographies, history and economics. After seeing the movie "Alexander," he read books on the history of Greece and Rome. He underlines with a pen as he reads not to remember, but because it helps him concentrate. By the time he is finished with a book, nearly every sentence is underlined.
"He's the most fascinating man I've ever known," says Camille. "He has so many interests. He's always reading, and he can remember what he read."
His memory and innate intelligence are so keen that when his kids asked for help with their homework, he could remember algebraic equations he had learned in high school.
His memory served him well in politics. "He knows about people in Congress the way other dads know stats for baseball players," says David. "It was fun to walk around with him on Capitol Hill. He could point to anyone and tell you his voting record, what district he was from, what the demographics of that district were. When we went to small towns in Utah, he remembered names of people and things about them even if he hadn't seen them in years."
The future is unclear for Cook. He is trying to revive his explosives business, but as always politics are in the back of his mind. "Nothing gets my juices flowing like the political stuff," he says. "But I have to consider Camille's feelings. And we did have a wonderful life when I was just doing the business. She didn't have to read how crazy her husband was in the newspaper. I won't do it without her support."After a pause, Cook says, "I want to add something. I'm not bitter. I don't want people to think that. I'm a very happy person. Few people have had the opportunities I've had. It's been great."
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