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The Exit Interviews: Sen. Bob Bennett

A partial transcript of the Utah Republican's conversation with NBC News.
Image: Bob Bennett
Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, has served in the U.S. Senate since 1992.Steve C Wilson / AP
/ Source: NBC News

Q:   What things do you think are most misunderstood by the public about being a senator or how Congress works?

A: They have no understanding of what we do.  They expect that we spend most of our time on the Senate floor debating.  The image of Webster and Calhoun and Clay changing the course of the Republic with a brilliant speech is still in their minds.

Particularly since the advent of television in the chamber, Senate speeches are more and more irrelevant.  We are talking to the television camera, we are talking to MSNBC, we’re creating snippets to show up in the nightly news that we hope will change the attitude of the people.  But we don’t make any impact whatsoever on our colleagues.

One of the the supporters of the opponent who beat me in the convention and is now the Republican nominee said, “in my mind’s eye I can see Mike Lee standing on the floor like an ancient prophet, changing everybody’s mind about the Constitution.” 

And you're laughing. Because he’s going to spend his time sitting in that chair listening to lobbyists and constituents and staffers telling him the details of legislation, much of which he doesn’t care about, but that he’s going to have to –- at least when constituents are around –- demonstrate some kind of interest in, rather than standing on the floor like an ancient prophet declaring the beauties of the Constitution and discovering that he had influenced nobody.

People think of the Senate as a place of great oratory and changing people’s minds, and the work of the Senate is done in committee and in your own office.

Q:   What do you find to be the hardest part of working in the Senate?

Building a consensus.  My father said –- and I've quoted this almost every day –- “We legislate at the highest level at which we can obtain a majority.”  And [that's by] obtaining a majority in the committee, which is in substantive terms the toughest place to do it, because by the time you get to the floor, substance is pretty well out of the equation and they’re now playing politics.

Obtaining a majority in committee, and then when you do get to the floor, hanging on to that majority and that depends on a whole series of factors, most of which, again, like your first question, the public doesn’t understand.

Without giving you any details, a piece of legislation in which I had a very, very strong interest got through because I picked up the phone and called a member of the House whom I did not know well and apologized to him on behalf of the behavior of another senator.  I had no standing whatsoever to do that, but there was a long pause on the end of the phone and then he said, “Senator, apology accepted.”  And at that point I was then able to talk to him about the substance of the bill.

If I had just called him and said, “This is an important bill” — still smarting from the fact that one of my other colleagues had insulted him — [if I had] yelled at him, “You idiot, you don’t understand how." No, instead I called and apologized. And it took a year or more in a separate Congress for this particular House member, who was a very powerful chairman of an important committee, to clear the path for that piece of legislation on the House side.

It got done.  There were no headlines, there were no stories written about it, but it was one of the most important things I did for constituents in Utah.

Building a consensus, building relationships where people will trust you and do things for you is the hardest work of the Senate.  And when it comes to fruition, like this, it’s also the most rewarding work in the Senate.

Q:   What piece of legislation did you work on that made you the most proud?

Well, for Utah — and ironically this is the reason that I got defeated was my work as an appropriator.  Early on, I was a supporter of light rail, the mass transit system for Salt Lake City.  And fortunately that was far enough away from an election that I didn't pay the price at the polls, because at the time among a certain percentage of the Republican base in Utah that was wildly unpopular.

Mass transit requires federal funding.  And I went to bat for that and, as I say, the initial political reaction was not good.  Fortunately, I had political cover in that every single mayor of every single city or town along the corridor was in favor of it. 

And [now] as I leave the Senate, the one piece of unfinished business that I'm going to try to work on for Salt Lake County is finishing [a new rail line] that will go to those people who earlier said, “We hate it, we hate it, we hate it."  [Those people] are now saying, “Please, please, please, don’t leave without getting this funded.”

One more, in Washington County — which for a while was the fastest-growing country in the country, not just the state.  It also has the most spectacular wilderness scenery in the country.  And the wilderness issue has been the most contentious issue in the state of Utah for 30 years.  The environmentalists and the county commissions, the local folks, have been screaming at each other – fighting, yelling, so on and so forth. 

Over a period of four and a half years we created the Washington County Land Use Bill. The county commissioners [are] thrilled with what finally is settled.  And the more sensible people in the environmental community are thrilled because they’ve finally got the wilderness issue settled.  And ironically, the more extremist people in the environmental community, who fought me up to 24 hours before that bill was passed, [are] now writing op-eds taking credit for having written it.

[I've got] a pen from Barack Obama on my wall, having signed that bill.

To have passed that bill by regular order in a Democratic Congress and have it signed by a Democratic President, while I'm in the minority, in the atmosphere of the environmentalists saying “We’re going to shut down all Republican activities” –- it’s not as big a deal in the state as light rail, but it’s very, very satisfying.

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?

A: The two that instantly come to mind, with whom I have the warmest of friendships, are Ron Wyden and Chris Dodd.  Wyden because, even though he’s a very liberal Democrat, he has an appreciation for the importance of free markets.

My position is, when asked what’s the difference between the two parties, I say, “The Democrats are the party of government; the Republicans are the party of free markets.”  And Ron is a very reliable Democrat, but he understands that free markets have a role to play, and therefore we can work together.

Same is true of Chris.  On a personal basis, Dodd married a Utah girl and we worked together on the Banking Committee, we worked together on Y2K seamlessly.  We put our two staffs together as if they were only one.  So on that basis we’ve formed a friendship.

One senator with whom I had a very close, personal relationship — no committee assignments together and, therefore, no legislative work together — was Joe Biden.  Joe has an interest in history; so do I.  We’ve spent a lot of time sitting around talking religion; Joe is a Catholic, I’m a Mormon; we compare notes.

Joe knew my father well, and the thing started, I think, because Joe told me how close he felt to my father when Joe was a brand new senator and my father was one of the old bulls.  They got together on the occasion of the death of Joe’s first wife, and my father called him in, sat him down — as kind of an uncle figure; couldn’t be a father figure, because Joe had his own father –- “let’s work through this, I’ll try to help you.”

Dick Durbin is a worthy opponent.  And I'm fond of Dick on a personal basis. He’s very quick -- I think he’s wrong almost all the time, but he’s very quick.

It was fun clashing with Paul Wellstone, because Paul was a committed Marxist.  Now, very clearly he’s not Stalin-type or Lenin-type Marxist, he wasn’t a totalitarian.  But Marx was an economist, and I'm a committed Adam Smith guy, and the fight between Adam Smith and Karl Marx [could] go on forever.

And most people dealt with Paul by ignoring him.  He gave a college lecture on Marxist economics every day, so he was easy to ignore.  But every once in a while I’d be on the floor and I’d challenge him.  And he would rise to the occasion. We had a lot of fun.  Neither one convincing the other at all, but we developed good respect.

The most interesting intellect on the other side of the aisle –- whom the Senate misses enormously –- was Pat Moynihan.  And Pat and I used to have some very rewarding conversations. 

Pat was much more classical and much more open.  When I first met Pat — he did not remember it, but I very much did — we were both in the Nixon administration, because Pat was a figure of great fear.  When he showed up from the White House to look down your throat and see what you were doing, you’d better have everything just right, because Pat could go back and write a memo that could shred anybody.

So I relished the opportunity to get to know Pat. And when we formed the Y2K committee, with me as the chairman and Chris Dodd as the vice chairman, Pat surprised me by requesting to become a member.  And then I found out that he had an interest in the issue, a background on the issue and he was overly lavish in his praise of me for having paid attention to the issue –- he said, “Nobody else recognizes how important this is.” 

I remember one delightful comment, we were up in 407, the secret room where secret people tell you secret things, getting a briefing from the CIA on what the impact of Y2K was going the be around the world, and it was very, very superficial.  They weren’t telling us anything we didn't already know better than they did.  And we’re sitting there, I’m trying to be polite and finally Chris said, “Let me ask you, why is any of this classified?” 

And Pat said, “Because if it weren’t they wouldn’t print it on the front page of the New York Times.” 

Q:   During your time as a senator, who do you consider to be the most effective or politically savvy legislator?

In his day — and the Senate is very different now — you didn't get any better than Bob Dole.  Dole was a leader who understood his Senate extremely well, both sides of the aisle, all of the players, where the weaknesses were.  He didn't seem to work up a sweat, but he was always on top of the issue.  Dole was very effective.

Trent Lott, filling those very big shoes, was a very, very effective leader and political strategist.

For today’s Senate I don’t think anybody approaches Mitch McConnell.  Mitch understands exactly what has happened to the Senate, the changes that have occurred from Dole to McConnell.  And his political instincts are absolutely unerring. 

Rand Paul, canceling his appearance on Meet the Press, [for example.] Everybody goes to McConnell [for his reaction.]  And he says, “I pointed out to Dr. Paul that no one on Meet the Press votes in Kentucky.” 

His answers are completely spherical, there’s no handle on them that you can grab to beat him over the head with.  And very, very to the point and very short – “The Obama plan spends too much, taxes too much and borrows too much.”  That's it.  The guy is really very, very good.

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?

I had given my commitment to Senator A. Senator B, who was chairman of the committee, comes to me and urges me to change my commitment.  And his argument on the face of it [was] completely logical.  He said, “If Senator A’s amendment passes and your vote is the determining vote, the bill goes down.”  So what you want to achieve through the amendment doesn’t happen because the amendment dies; if the bill goes down, the amendment dies.

“On the other hand, if the amendment is defeated, the bill passes, I commit to you as the chairman I will fix the problem for you in conference and you will get what you want.”

So here I am, a new senator, thinking it through in logical fashion.

So I say to the chairman, “Yes.” 

“But,” I say, “I have to call Senator A and tell him” — he can’t find out when I vote, you know, I've got to give him a heads up.  So I call Senator A — whom I don’t know that well, because I'm new — and start through the very logical explanation. 

I don’t get one sentence out of my mouth before he says, “You're not running on me, are you? ... you gave me your word.” 

“Senator, you do whatever you feel you have to do," [he added,] "but understand we have long memories around here.”  At which point the light goes on that Senator A is the chairman of this appropriations subcommittee where I have a huge request. And I'm almost physically ill thinking what in the world have I done?

And I pick up the phone and I call Trent, who’s the Majority Leader, and I say, “I got a problem.”  

So I lay it out and Trent says, “You do have a problem.” And he says, “Let me see if I can fix it for you.” 

And he does, and I end up voting with Senator A and Trent finds another vote so Senator B gets the bill passed.  And Senator A, when I call him and tell him, you know, he says, “You of all people — I couldn’t imagine ... you going back on your word."

I learned very, very firmly [then that] you don’t approach things around here the way you do other places.

The personal relationships of the egos in this place are such that you better be a whole lot more sensitive to them than I was on that occasion, or you pay a huge price.

Q:   What is the state of your political party?

A: I can divorce my own situation from my analysis completely because I am absolutely over what happened to me.  But I suppose that's not an accurate statement — you can never divorce your own attitudes and feelings from your analysis. 

What I said in my Washington Post op-ed piece and repeated to the Ripon Society in a little more direct form is still my basic fear for the party. 

Elections are won on slogans — or as Bob Woodward says, the symbols.  Governing is very different.  And governing goes forward on ideas.  The Republican Party is short on ideas.  They’re very long on slogans right now, but they’re short on ideas.

The other thing about politics is timing is everything. If Mike Lee had run against me in what you might consider a more normal circumstance, he wouldn’t have gotten 15 percent of the vote in the convention.  But in this year, his timing was perfect; his message is exactly right for this atmosphere.  And my message is wrong.

The Republican Party has very powerful slogans.  “Take back America,” is a very powerful slogan.  And that means getting rid of all of the incumbents, including our own, like me.  That's very powerful stuff.  They’re not listening to us in Washington.  That's a slogan.  People resonate with it.

One of the things I think is wrong down at the White House is that they don’t seem to understand how powerful those slogans are.  They think, “Oh, that's just Glen Beck.”  Well, yeah, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh and Marco Rubio. There’s a very powerful political movement forming up and if the polls are right, I think it’s going to win back the House and could easily win back the Senate.

The tolerance of the American people for a timeframe for solving problems has gotten shorter and shorter and shorter.  The Democrats could run against Herbert Hoover for 30 years, they were still running against Herbert Hoover in the ‘60s.  The Republicans were only able to run against Jimmy Carter for one election. And then Obama can run against George W. Bush for one election.  They’re clinging to that as a hope, rather than a real, live political solution to the problems we’ve got.

So I think the party is on the threshold of what everybody in the press will call a historic victory and we’re on the threshold of real problems if we don’t have a governing philosophy.

Q:   Pundits, experts, and even some members of Congress say this period is the most partisan they've ever seen. Do you agree?

No.  Because I’m old enough to remember Vietnam.  I'm old enough to remember the bitterness.  Well, the bitterness of Watergate. 

I was a lobbyist.  I was in the office of a House Democrat, who gets a phone call –- he doesn’t excuse himself to take the call; I'm there lobbying –- he gets a phone call inviting him to the White House, and saying, “No, I am not interested.”  This is a Democratic congressman with Lyndon Johnson as the President, and he’s from Texas.  He’s the Democratic congressman from Texas, feels so bitter about his President he will not attend a social function at the White House and he won’t get on the phone himself, just tells his staff, “Tell him no.” 

I remember Watergate.  I remember Vietnam.  Maybe the partisanship wasn’t that strictly along Republican/Democrat lines, because the Republican/Democrat lines have been redrawn.  All of the southern Democrats from the south are now Republicans. 

But it was along conservative/liberal lines and the bitterness against the Vietnam War among the anti-war people was every bit as acid and toxic as the bitterness you have now. 

Fortunately the bitterness over Watergate dissipated with the presidency of Gerry Ford.  History should be a lot kinder to Gerry Ford than some people do now, because Gerry Ford, when he pardoned Richard Nixon — and thereby guaranteed his own defeat; handed the election to Jimmy Carter at that moment — he pulled the plug on the bile and drained it, it all went out.

Now the fight is over spending, the direction of the country and so on.  But the battle over Iraq wasn’t anything like the battle over Vietnam.  The argument over Afghanistan, it’s not as bitter as the feelings about Carter and Iran and the hostages.  It’s more toxic than I would like, and the voices particularly on the right now are more shrill than I would like.  But look at the voices on the left towards George W. Bush — and those folks — they were not models of restraint when they had Bush to kick around. 

So the blogs are paying them back. Ann Coulter hasn’t said anything any worse than Al Franken said on the other side.  [But] Al has calmed down now. Put a toga around his shoulders and it has a calming influence. 

Q: What does that say and what would your message be to members, election year or not, about working in a bipartisan fashion?

It’s easy to say this now that I’ve come to terms with the fact that I'm not going to be coming back, so I hope I believe it. I hope if I hadn’t made that adjustment I would still believe it.

It’s more important that you do the right thing for your own conscience than it is that you get re-elected.  And I tell this story — told it in the campaign.

There was an issue — again, the issue doesn’t matter — where Orrin [Hatch] and I were on opposite sides. And Orrin gave me all of the reasons and I remain unconvinced.

And finally Orrin said to me, “Bob, give it the driving home test.”  And I said, “What’s the driving home test?”  And he said, “Well, after this is all over” — it was a late-night vote, he says, “after this is all over and you're driving home thinking back over the day, are you going to feel good or are you going to feel bad about how you voted?” 

And I voted against Orrin and I felt great while I was driving home. 

When you're driving home from your career are you going to look back and say, “Gee, I wish I hadn’t voted that way, but I did it in order to get re-elected so it was okay.”  And I’ve cast some votes in this period of time, when I had my eye on the convention, that I probably wouldn’t have cast and salved my conscience of saying, “It really doesn’t matter; the outcome is not in doubt, my vote doesn’t matter.  I won’t have to explain it to all of those delegates, I’ll just vote with them.”   And I don’t necessarily regret those, [because] none of them was a big vote.  None of them was a crucial vote.

Working with Wyden on the health care [bill], working to solve the Mexican peso crisis. A lot of people said, “No, you shouldn’t do that, you're cooperating with the other side.”  Well, it was the right thing to do.

Now that my career is effectively over I can look back on all of those things driving home, if you will, feeling very good about them.  So I would say to somebody, don’t compromise your principles.  Minor things, maybe, yeah –- a minor vote here or there to make the constituents feel okay, fine.  But you're here to legislate.  You don’t make a difference if all you do is stand on the sideline with the crowd cheering slogans.  Make the difference, cast the vote and if you lose your seat you’ve kept your conscience.