Sen. Saxby Chambliss got the call from the White House on a Friday: The president wants to play golf with you on Monday. Can you make it?
At the time, he was touring a horse barn at the Kentucky Derby, and his wife initially urged him to decline. But “when the president calls you to play, you play golf,” said Chambliss (R-Ga.). “George Bush called, I played with him. This president called, I played with him.”
Chambliss, 71, came to Congress as part of the 1994 Republican sweep, a wave election that helped fellow Georgian Newt Gingrich become House speaker. Unlike Gingrich, Chambliss is hardly a combative partisan. He once spent hours behind closed doors with Democratic senators trying to find ways to slash the national debt. As the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, he had sharp differences with the chairman, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). But he used his formal farewell address last week to recall their long conversations — some fueled by red wine — that helped resolve disagreements.
Chambliss’s bipartisan resolve is part of the reason President Obama called. Also, Chambliss is an avid golfer. He may go down in history as the only senator to score a hole in one while playing against the president. He did it on that overcast May day last year on the 11th hole of the golf course at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland. Chambliss, teamed with Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), defeated Obama and his partner, Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.).
“We were four guys playing golf,” Chambliss said in a recent interview. “We weren’t four guys talking politics for four hours.”
Now that he’s leaving Congress, Chambliss is willing to dish a little more about Obama’s skills: “I know what he said his handicap is. He didn’t play his handicap.”
So what should Obama work on?
“Well, he plays left-handed,” Chambliss said. That day, “he just had a bad duck hook. Some days I have a bad slice — he had a bad duck hook. I empathize with him.”
On his way out, Chambliss would much rather talk about golf, his close friendship with House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) or the fact that he’s leaving Washington, exactly as he promised. But his last few days were dominated by the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s long-awaited, multimillion-dollar report on the CIA’s interrogation program. The 6,300-page report includes new disclosures about secret detention facilities, or “black sites,” that Obama ordered shut in 2009.
Chambliss is the only member of the intelligence panel who voted against launching the report several years ago, but he voted this year to release it. Feinstein led tedious negotiations with the White House and the CIA over redacting parts of the report — which Chambliss said was “a long, complex process.”
“I felt it was a bad mistake to regurgitate this,” he said in an interview before the report’s release. “It’s a chapter that nobody is particularly proud of, except that you’ve got to remember that this program has been in place since right after 9/11. We were brutally and savagely attacked on our homeland, and the CIA was charged with developing an interrogation program. And that’s not their line of work. It wasn’t something that they’re used to doing, but they did it under legal authorities they were given.”
Appearing Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Chambliss again defended the CIA’s tactics, saying that in the years after 9/11, “Americans were scared to death. They were frustrated. And they were in mourning. And they were scared to death that something else like this might happen again. And that’s when this program was initiated.”
Before joining the Senate, Chambliss served on the House intelligence panel, so he has been in the loop on some of the nation’s deepest secrets since before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. These days, he said, he’s most concerned about the rise of “homegrown terrorists,” such as the brothers who set off backpack bombs at the Boston Marathon in 2013.
“There is no stereotype for a homegrown terrorist,” he said, using the Islamic State as an example. The extremist group is inviting would-be members to travel to the Middle East, but Chambliss said it’s also encouraging supporters to stay in the United States to attack from within. “If we’re not able to go out and pick up on these people through tips or some other means, then the potential for them to do that and slip through the cracks is pretty good,” he said.
When Chambliss came to Congress, he grew close with Boehner, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) — another former House lawmaker — and Rep. Tom Latham (R-Iowa), who is also retiring. Compatible politically, they became close socially, are frequently spotted together at Capitol Hill restaurants and have vacationed together with their spouses.
Boehner in a statement recalled meeting Chambliss when they served together on the House Agriculture Committee. “We’ve been buddies ever since,” he said. “He’s a great friend, and — more importantly — he always, always does what he thinks is the best interest of our country.”
Chambliss has been known to urge Boehner to quit smoking — in part because it’s unhealthy but also because he said the smell of cigarette smoke bothers him.
“John likes being speaker. He’s good at it. I don’t think there’s any other member of the House of Representatives that could have been speaker and be as effective as John has been in the last couple sessions of Congress,” Chambliss said. “Going forward, I think he’s going to have more juice because of the experiences he’s had over the last couple of sessions. He’s been through some very tough times. I think it bodes well for the next two years, but it’s not going to be easy as long as you’ve got the administration to deal with.”
Chambliss is stepping down, as he promised voters he would back in 1994, after a few terms in the House and no more than two terms in the Senate.
“Folks should know when it’s time to go — that doesn’t always happen — but everybody’s here with a good heart and the right intentions,” he said.