Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson became the eighth member of George W. Bush’s cabinet to resign on Friday afternoon. As governor of Wisconsin for 14 years, Thompson gained a reputation as a no-nonsense welfare reformer. In Washington, he initially chafed at working in a huge bureaucracy. But then he navigated terror threats—he built a high-tech HHS war room outside his office—and controversies like stem-cell research. He spoke with NEWSWEEK’s Debra Rosenberg shortly after he announced his plans to leave the administration.
NEWSWEEK: You made the big announcement about your resignation earlier today.
Tommy Thompson: It was a very traumatic day for me but it started out very nicely.
Why was it traumatic?
Just the fact that I’m leaving public service after 38 years … It’s time for me to go back to the private sector.
What was your biggest accomplishment as HHS secretary?
I can’t limit it just to one. We’ve modernized Medicare. We’ve really awakened America to the need to make personally good health decisions, as far as obesity and diabetes and tobacco. We have tried to transform the practice of medicine with more technology. We’ve changed the HIPAA [medical privacy] law and were able to make it workable. We’ve done things nationally and internationally on HIV/AIDS. Plus we’ve made America safer from terror and bioterror. We’ve got smallpox vaccine and anthrax vaccine.
What was your toughest moment?
The toughest moments of course would have to be 9/11 and getting America prepared for a terrorist attack.
What do you think will be hardest for your successor?
There are three main issues that still have to be addressed. One, of course, is pandemic flu. We never know when we may get hit with a pandemic flu. The second is getting prepared to transform the way we produce vaccines. The third is getting more protection for foods we import into this country.
You’ve been very involved with stem-cell research. What do you think will happen next?
You have to realize that we have to first find enough scientists to go into the field of looking at stem-cell research. Number two, we have to teach those scientists who are in stem-cell research how to grow the embryonic stem-cell lines to do the research necessary. You may have to look in the future to find more lines available. But I don’t think it’s necessary in this term. We have 3,500 cells that are packaged that we can use and that haven’t been used yet. There’s plenty of cells that are packaged and ready for research. We don’t have the researchers to do it.
What’s next for you?
Rules and regulations don’t allow me to interview for a job right now. I’ve hired a couple lawyers to vet all the inquiries that are coming in. My residency is Wisconsin, so I’ll continue that. I’ll probably keep an office in Washington, too.
Did President Bush say anything after he received your resignation letter?
He sent a very nice letter back, but I haven’t had a chance to talk to him.