Partisanship has always been a part of Congress, but what has changed dramatically over the past generation are the levels of individual comity. To illustrate, I had a rule never to ask favors of anybody, but to my astonishment at the end of my second term I received a phone call from my party’s leader in the House telling me that Speaker Tip O’Neill had done me an unsolicited favor.
At the time, I had been blocked from serving on the International Relations Committee, but in an unprecedented gesture Tip informed my party’s leadership that the Democrats would give the Republicans one more seat on the committee, but only if they gave it to me. I have no idea why he made this gesture, but I always felt that, as partisan as he was, Tip symbolized fairness and decency in his stewardship of Congress. Ronald Reagan and he were quite far apart on policy questions, but it is no accident that they liked and deeply respected each other.
Was there an event that was instrumental in setting you on a path to public service leadership?
Careers are all about preparation and serendipity. The event that stands out for me is an example of failed rather than successful leadership. In 1973, when President Nixon chose to fire his attorney general for refusing to dismiss the Watergate prosecutor, I felt that he was putting the presidency above the law. Accordingly, that afternoon I wrote a telegram to the Secretary of State resigning my commission in the Foreign Service.
That sudden decision was a particularly hard one for me because I had aspired to join the Foreign Service from the eighth grade. Returning to my home state of Iowa to join a family business, I assumed that I would never return to public life. Surprisingly, I was given an opportunity to run for Congress the next year. I was defeated by a popular incumbent in a landslide Democratic year. In a slightly better setting, I ran a second time and, newly married, with my wife at my elbow, was able to prevail.
What do you think are the biggest obstacles to attracting a new generation into public service?
Four years ago, there was a real upsurge of idealism in America. Today, there is a growth in cynicism related in part to the scarcity of jobs, especially for young people. A number of opportunities for federal employment will occur over the next decade as the workforce ages. The challenge will be to attract the most qualified. That will require an open and competitive process within a framework of respect for public service.