Jim Leach: An Iowa Republican carves a life in public service


Jim Leach is the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. (Powers and Crewe Photography)
December 15, 2011

Jim Leach has been chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities since August 2009. Prior to being nominated by President Obama for the post, Leach served 30 years as a member of Congress from Iowa, and subsequently as a professor at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University and as interim director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard.This interview was conducted by Tom Fox, who writes the Washington Post’s Federal Coach blog.

Is Congress a different place today compared to your early years of service?

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.

Based on your experience as a former congressman, what leadership lessons do you bring to your role as chairman for the National Endowment for the Humanities?

In terms of leadership, I’ve always been impressed with understated, thoughtful approaches, contrasted with the higher decibel levels associated with excessive partisanship. The challenge is to get everyone to work together, whether in a congressional setting or the more academic National Endowment. Sports analogies are almost always relevant. Everybody plays a different role whether on a football, wrestling or rugby team. You have to respect your teammates, understand their weaknesses but play to their strengths. It’s the same way in any social organization.

How do you go about hiring the right people?

We take great care to look at the backgrounds of applicants and assess their ability to work within a unit. When a position opens up, I follow a policy of having staff in the area of a vacancy meet with applicants first before hiring decisions are made. After all, they will have to work together.

What do you consider to be your greatest successes?

Measurements of success or failure to me are less important than focusing on doing things the right way. I am an internationalist and while in Congress strongly supported efforts to strengthen the U.N. and affiliated entities like UNESCO, the World Bank and IMF. I strove to make an impact supporting environmentalism, arms control, debt relief and AIDS assistance to the poorest countries in the world. I voted for the first Gulf War in 1991 but against the authorization to use force against Iraq in 2002.   

Domestically, I strongly supported the Federal Reserve System but objected strenuously to the regulatory regime established for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. A decade and half ago, I introduced comprehensive legislation to establish a regulatory regime for derivatives and contain leveraging in the financial industry. Outside of Congress I was chairman of two moderate Republican organizations, president of the largest international association of legislators and, briefly, Common Cause. While some of these initiatives proved successful, some came up short and some have in part come to pass in recent years.   

What I am proudest about in public life is that I was able to represent a wonderful constituency in Congress without ever relying on large contributions, PAC or out-of-state fundraising. 

Government leaders, nominate your outstanding federal employees for the 11th annual Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal (Sammies). Considered the “Oscars of Washington,” the Sammies are the most prestigious awards honoring our nation’s public servants. Nominations are accepted at servicetoamericamedals.org through January 6, 2012.

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