About the series: With a sour economy and an increasingly anxious American public, the workings of Washington are inextricably linked to electoral politics headed into this year’s midterms. NBC’s Ken Strickland sat down with nine lawmakers who will depart from the Senate after this year. Together, they represent 158 years of Senate service and offer unique insights into how the Senate works and how it has changed. Read more about the series here.
Q: What things do you think are most misunderstood by the public about being a senator or how Congress works?
A: Well, the most misunderstood issue I think was probably the TARP. Even though it was so recent, it was still the most misunderstood.
But [for] how the Senate works and what it’s like to be a senator, I suppose the impeachment of Clinton, because it was such a high visibility political issue, but in reality it was a very personal exercise within the Senate — very intense, but it was much more personal than people could see, because it was all done behind closed doors.
It was being played out in the tabloids at a level that was, you know, Monica Lewinsky and all that. But within the Senate it was being played out much more on a really intense discussion of what actually the power and the purposes of the presidency are, vis-à-vis the power and the right of the Senate in the impeachment situation. From the standpoint of how we dealt with it as senators, it was a much more, I thought, substantive, thoughtful, in-depth exercise in trying to analyze what the correct constitutional decisions were.
It was a partisan vote in the end and I think it was locked in place as a partisan vote even before the trial — remember the trial was done in the Senate by representatives of the House and the President’s attorneys.
But even though most people knew the way they were going to end up voting, everybody still had a very conscious effort to try to understand what the constitutional situation was and what the implications for the future were in the Constitutional crisis at that point.
Most people get their politics, obviously, from TV shows about senators or movies about them or ... all the day-to-day press and the talk shows. People perceive the Senate in a much more glamorous way. I mean, it’s a working class place in the sense that you go to work every day and you do issues all day long and you meet with people all day long and you deal with constituents all day long. Every day is chopped into five-minute segments handling different issues. And there are maybe a few senators around here who live a lifestyle that's very tabloid-issue, high-visibility. But they’re the exception, not the rule. Most senators are just going to work and trying to do a job.
Q: What do you find to be the hardest part of working in the Senate?
The hardest part has always been dealing with the intensity of the job’s demands, vis-à-vis your family; I mean, there’s no question about it. Especially if you have young children, it’s just very hard to balance the two, first because you’re physically in the wrong place a lot of the times — you’re either in your district if your children are in Washington, or you’re in Washington if your children are in the district. And then the time demands — you don’t control your calendar, the Majority Leader does. If he decides to keep you here through a baseball game, then you’re here voting through the baseball game or a recital or something.
[But] I made a decision early on in my career — which I've carried throughout my career — that if the choice was between being here and being with something that was important to my family, I’d be with my family. Maybe my children feel differently, but I don’t think I missed anything that was really critical in their upbringing.
For example, I was a starter on the swim team in their high school. So for eight years I started every swim team race. I never missed one. I missed some votes because of that, but I never missed a start — starting a race. So that was just a decision I made. But it is very difficult, it is really a difficult situation for the family and for the member of Congress.
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Q: What piece of legislation did you work on that made you the most proud?
A I've done a fair number of things that I think have been good. But I would divide them into two categories. One would be things that impacted New Hampshire directly. Since I've been in the Senate we’ve been able to protect almost 300,000 acres of land in New Hampshire and basically keep them from being developed, to maintain our culture and our way of life, which is defined by the land. New Hampshire is defined by a beautiful landscape. And that's been a big success.
And I've done a great deal to build up the University of New Hampshire’s science capabilities, so it’s now a premier university in the world — [in] marine biology, for example.
So I'm very proud of those things. But that’s one section.
On the actual legislative area, well, I suppose the two most significant, that will have the largest impact, [are] No Child Left Behind and TARP. But there have been a lot of other things. When I was chairman of the Appropriations Committee subcommittee that had jurisdiction over homeland security, it got reorganized. And then I was chairman also of the one that had jurisdiction of the FBI and Commerce and State. I did a lot of things which I think brought those agencies up in their abilities.
Q: Who are the senators from the other side of the aisle with whom you enjoy working the most? Who do you consider a "worthy opponent" in debate?
Well, the senators I've enjoyed working with the most would be Ted Kennedy and Kent Conrad, because they were both either chairman or ranking member of the committee I was chairman or ranking member of. And in both instances they were just great people to work with.
We disagreed philosophically, Ted and I, to the core of our existence, but we did a lot. When I was chairman every bill we passed was unanimously approved. We did some controversial stuff. We did the reauthorization of some pretty controversial stuff.
Ted didn’t give up his principles, but we both understood that we weren’t going to get anything done — there wasn’t any point in being here if you didn’t get something done — unless you reached accommodation. So I don’t think any of us ever gave up our basic principles, but we were able to find places to reach agreement on some of these issues, which weren’t really partisan, in my opinion; they just had to be done in a way that both sides felt they were getting their basic goals. He was very easy to work with.
But Ted just understood that even though he had strong beliefs – and he never gave up on any of those beliefs — but he understood you couldn't get there if you didn't agree; he understood you had to legislate to accomplish things. There was no point in just standing off in the corner shouting. Plus he had a great sense of humor — very easy-going, he laughed about everything.
I want to mention Kent Conrad. Because we come from different philosophies in a lot of areas, but we both are totally committed to trying to do something about this pending crisis for our nation, which is our debt situation. And we have never surprised each other; we’ve been ranking or chairman now for 10 years, I think. And we’ve always been forthright. I've never voted for his budget, he’s never voted for my budget, but we’ve always had a good relationship, If you watch the budget on the floor it’s one of the most complicated exercises this place goes through. But when Kent and I have been handling it, it has always gone reasonably smoothly considering the complications that are involved. And I think the other members appreciate that, too.
Q: During your time as a senator, who do you consider to be the most effective or politically savvy legislator?
During my time? Well, I would put Bob Dole, Ted Kennedy, George Mitchell, Trent Lott — Bob Byrd in a different category — but I would put those four people as being the best senators. [On] the totality of the ability to be a senator, I would say that those folks really stood out. I mean, there are a lot of good people, but those folks stood out.
They all had an intuitive understanding of the legislative process and people. They’re very, very good with people. It’s sort of like they used to say about [hockey player] Bobby Orr: he knew where the puck was going to be before the person passed it. That's they way they are. They know what’s coming legislatively, they know what’s coming politically, before the event occurs — before anybody else even knows it’s occurring.
Q: You have one day of your Senate life to live over again and change a professional choice that you made, maybe a vote. Which one is it and why?
There is, but I don’t want to talk about it. (Laughter.) Only one time do I think that I cast the wrong vote that it was a big — a substantive vote.
What I took away from it was that I should have done what I thought what my gut told me, rather than what my logic told me at the time. You're always better off to go with your gut if it’s disagreeing with what the analytical situation is.
Q: What is the state of your political party?
I think it’s reviving. I think it’s coming back from a period of disorientation. Clearly, when we controlled the government we didn't do a good job on core issues to us — fiscal responsibility being number one. And as a result we sort of lost our way and there was a lot of loss sense of what we stood for, what our purposes are.
But I think we’re coming back together. Being in the minority tends to focus your view, and I think that's what’s happening.
Q: Pundits, experts, and even some members of Congress say this period is the most partisan they've ever seen. Do you agree?
When I first was elected in 1980, Ronald Reagan had just been elected President, and Tip O’Neill was the Speaker of the House — I mean, that was partisan. Tip O’Neill played hardball politics. And the antipathy towards Reagan was everywhere –- in the national media, in the liberal elite of the northeast, there was just a hatred. He’s now taken on a father figure [image.]
But at the time, the intensity was much higher, much more visceral than what we have now.
I was in the House then, which is different. The Senate is always less contentious and less partisan. But ... every day Tip O’Neill would just try to beat our brains out. The way I described was he backed up a truck of manure every morning to your office door and unloaded it. And he was surrounded by people who took no prisoners. They were tough, tough people — Tony Coello and Jim Wright, they were tough.
Q: You were approached about working as Commerce Secretary for the Obama administration. What would you say to your colleagues who might consider working for an administration of the opposite party?
You've got to determine whether or not the administration was really ideological. I think I could have worked for the Clinton administration. But if I had worked for this administration I would have been totally out of sync very quickly, because this administration has a very ideological purpose. And, you know, I respect that; it’s their view. But I could never be comfortable with it and agree with it.
Whereas I think Bill Clinton was a centrist and basically approached most politics as a centrist. This administration is not centrist; it’s very much got an ideological purpose, which I describe as trying to move us to a Western European social democratic model. But other people would be more kind in their description.
But in any event I think you have to choose who it is. Also the jobs –- I mean, there are certain jobs [in] which it doesn’t matter what your ideological issues are. Most of the foreign policy issues are not. You could put a real hard-core conservative — as this President has, theoretically, in Petraeus and Gates — in positions that have nothing to do with politics, which are national defense or international issues.
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