Remaining Accountable to the Powerless & the Vulnerable, Tom Daschle, former U.S. Senate Majority Leader

This is the one hundred and thirty-fifth episode of Public Interest Podcast with Tom Daschle, former U.S. Senator from South Dakota, former U.S. Senate Majority and Minority Leader, former Congressman, Chair of the Board of Directors at the Center for American Progress, co-founder of the Bipartisan Policy Center, and former Hill staffer, who speaks about good governance, perpetuating the 'curiosity candle', and keeping his promise to remain a servant to those unborn generations of Americans whose lives will be governed by the implications of his public policy decisions.

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Tom Daschle is a former U.S. Senator from South Dakota, the former U.S. Senate Majority and Minority Leader, a former congressman, the Chair of the Board of Directors at the Center for American Progress, the founder of the Daschle Group with Baker Donaldson, and the co-Founder of the Bipartisan Policy Center. He is a former Hill staffer which is significant since he later rose to the upper echelons in the U.S. Congress, a member of the Board of Trustees at UC Berkeley, the author of “Critical: What We Can Do About the Healthcare Crisis,” the Vice-Chair of the National Democratic Party Institute, and a former United States Air Force intelligence officer.

Daschle: I think my 26 years in public service is probably my [greatest contribution to the public interest] though I [continue to] believe strongly in public service today. I think that it's critical that we have the kind of infrastructure for good governance that is essential to the quality of life not only of people living within the United States but around the world [as well].

Cooper: What infrastructure for good governance mean to you?

Daschle: I think that it means that [governments are composed of] three branches [that check and balance each other]. It means political involvement, and it means giving back to your country whether in the military or in Congress or in a whole range of [other] opportunities. Community service [is at the core] of the infrastructure of good governance.

Cooper: There seem to be both formal, structural, governmental components [constituting good government] but it includes a whole range of non-governmental and private sector organizations as well.

Daschle: Absolutely. And so many other ways. [Good governance entails] work on public policy with the belief that you can actually improve the quality of life of people in your own country and around the world both in helping them with individual, personal problems and in dealing with larger scale issues with what you hope is good legislation.

Cooper: What constitutes good legislation? What criteria must a bill meet before it’s considered to be ‘good’? How is it that you were thrust right into the fire from the very beginning to be in a position to influence the crafting of national legislation? How did you get your sea legs in practicing good governance?

Daschle: Well I've had an interest in public service from a very early point in my life. I had teachers that impressed upon me that public service was the highest calling in a democratic society and I believed that and I still do actually. And I think that was where it all began. I had the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time in terms of the people I met who helped me along the way and [provided me with] the opportunity to run for Congress at a very early age when I was 27.

Cooper: It must have been hard to gather up the chutzpah to run at 27.

Daschle: Well I just wanted to do. I just wanted to give it a shot. I thought the odds were probably overwhelmingly against me and they probably were at the time so I thought, why not?

Cooper: You're the first person in your family to go to college. [Frequently] individuals who come from the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum and who are of ethnic and racial minorities are often met with low expectations for high achievement. Oftentimes these individuals lack a mentor; sometimes no one is pushing them to go on to higher, greater things. A lot of times these individuals don't expect to attend college and consequently these individuals are less likely to pursue a higher education. But you bucked the trend. Why did you go to college and how did you come to say to yourself, “well you know not only am I a college man but I also should be a congressman”?

Daschle: Well I think it goes back to something my first grade teacher said once; she said that her job as a first grade teacher was to light the curiosity candle in every student. And I've never forgotten that. My curiosity candle was lit and I think I'd been curious all my life. Part of fulfilling your aspirations with your curiosity is to be educated, to learn, and to acquire more knowledge and more experience. And so one thing led to another but it was really that curiosity and that belief in the working mission of the importance of education that led me to the first stages of my work in Congress.

Cooper: Your life has been heavily documented. You've swathed in the limelight of public service in the United States for so long. I wonder how you see yourself as having perpetuated the lighting of curiosity candles for American children and adults around the nation? How have you used your high-profile position in government to pass that light along to others as your first grade teacher passed it along to you?

Daschle: Well I think it's important to try to be as appreciative as possible of the roles that we have as [providing us with] inspiration to set an example for others in public service and to set a high bar for their own deportment in their own aspirations as they relate to the people around them. And I think that's a part of it but [public service is also about] engaging with young people; it's trying to do as many things as you can to affect their lives in a positive way. Part of that [responsibility entails enacting responsible] legislation [and] part of that is constituent service. So much of it is the way you speak and the way you write and the way you conduct yourself. All of that relates, I think, to how you impact those around you and the kind of the message you send to others.

So often in the life of a politician you have a great impact on the individuals you represent but that impact is [frequently] long-term [and] far removed [from the lives of your constituents]. Sometimes you're able to directly improve and impact the lives of your constituents [through constituent service in a more immediate fashion than you might ever achieve through legislation]. But it goes both ways. Oftentimes politicians find that they're greatly impacted by a story that their constituents bring to their office. [At those times politicians encounter] real American lives with real American problems [like having] trouble making ends meet. They have trouble paying for their kid's college debt.

Cooper: Are there any stories that really resonate with you throughout your many decades of public service where people came to you with stories of triumph or stories of sorrow where you were able to make a difference in their lives? And if you were able to positively impact their lives then perhaps you could enlighten us as to how you really had a positive impact on their lives.

Daschle: Well I got elected to Congress and one of the very first people that invited me to dinner to celebrate was an older man and his wife who lived on a farm outside of the home that I was living in and he asked if I could come to dinner. So I did and we had a lovely dinner and nice conversation. And during the conversation he said there's really two things I invited you to dinner to talk about tonight.

He pointed to his grandchildren and he said, you know I hope you really can appreciate that when you go to Washington that it's those people who are going to count on you. And it's those children who are going to rise or fall on the things that you do to affect their lives in education, healthcare, and the opportunities that they'll have as Americans. He said, “I hope that you'll always remember that it's important to give them hope and to give them cause for optimism. And then he said, “the second thing is I hope you'll always remember where you came from. I hope you'll come back and appreciate the fact that you are part of us and we will always be part of you. Remember where you came from.

I thought that was so profound. I came home and shared that with my wife. And I got a call during the middle of the night and I was told that he had a heart attack in the middle of the night and passed away. That. Same. Night. And that was the last I ever heard from this wonderful friend of mine who was such an inspiration to me. But those are the kinds of things you never forget.

Cooper: That is quite an emotional story; one that almost brings one to tears; to listen to how a man literally spent his last supper.

That was his parting gift to you as a reminder that you are a public servant. Often times it is confusing for Americans, whose only access to politicians is through the media, to perceive politicians as public servants. There are 300 million Americans and only you know thousands of elected officials. Most Americans only have indirect contact with their politicians through the news, which of course typically does not report on ‘boring’ and responsible politicians, instead focusing on outrageous stories of misconduct and scandal. But of course most politicians never hit the front page of national news.

They are our leaders. They're high up in society. They're esteemed. And as you said, they are pursuing the highest calling known to Man.

And yet this man called upon you to remain humble and to remember where you came from. How is it that you used that guidance? Could you provide a specific example, perhaps from healthcare, which came to be your bread and butter in Congress, and elaborate upon what you were trying to advance to figuratively serve his grandchildren?
How did his admonition, his hope, his moral imperative that he assigned to you with his last breath, how did that guide you and how did that check any actions that you might otherwise would have taken?

Daschle: Well he gave me a lot of reason to think about how I conducted myself when I was in Congress. It was largely through his admonition and advice that I made a decision every year to do something that I really relished and felt was very critical to keeping my promise to him, which would allow me to try to fulfill my obligation to do the two things that he asked me to do.

I would take two weeks every August and drive around the state all by myself and just show up [on people’s front stoops], just talking to people. I was up at schools if they were still in session or [I would show up to] summer school and I would speak to whatever groups were meeting at the time. That was really fascinating. They were surprised that I'd stop by; at least initially. [After a while], word spread that I was doing that. And I will never forget [one time when] a mayor [who approached me five minutes after I rolled into one town] who said “I heard you're in town”. So word spread sometimes but I thought it was such an extraordinary experience just to have fun spontaneity and that ability to really understand [the implications of policies from Washington on the lives of my constituents] from a person's point of view regardless of what circumstances they may be in. Sometimes I even went door to door and just said hello and I'd get invited in for coffee [as I stopped in] at farms and ranches. It was an extraordinary education.

Cooper: It sounds like August recesses were really rejuvenating times for you, perhaps even times when you got ideas for new legislation that you might introduce?

Daschle: [There’s] no question [that my constituents gave me ideas for new legislation]. I kept prodigious notes and I would write these trip reports and my staff would have all of the information [that I kept in] a journal. A lot of times people asked me for specific things that they needed help on and so I would take those notes and I would follow up [with them] once [I had acted upon their suggestion].

Cooper: So what is the relationship that you felt between the frequency of your visits back to your constituency all the way in South Dakota, which isn't an easy place to get to from Washington, and your ability to really feel like you were really representing them? Clearly if you're a U.S. Congressman you need to have some kind of abode in Washington D.C., which means that you're not actually seeing your constituents every single day. The more time you're traveling, the less time you're doing work in, gaining expertise, and building working political relationships with your colleagues on Capitol Hill. But yet the more time you're here, the less time you're with your constituents and therefore the less able you are to understand what they want and how to represent them. How did you strike that balance?

Daschle: Well actually, even back then, things have changed dramatically. Members of Congress today unfortunately, in my view, don't spend enough time in Washington. They usually leave on Thursdays come back on Tuesdays and we try to run the country on Wednesdays, [which] I don't think we can do effectively. And almost no one moves their family to Washington anymore.

But back then schedules were aligned in such a way that you generally had three or four weeks on and one week off. And so you had plenty of time [both in Washington and in your district]. But I did something else; I was just fortunate enough [to be] the first person to have a toll free line that people could use to call me, and I would have what I called “Talk to Town” nights where people could just call in and we would take their call and I would talk to them and that was yet another way to try to stay connected in our pre-web [world].

Cooper: Was that your idea?

Daschle: Well there were other toll free lines coming around at that time and I thought that if there were businesses that [had] toll free lines for different things [then my office could] have a toll free line [as well]. [This was] driven in part because my parents would never call long distance. They were always concerned about the costs involved. Obviously times have changed dramatically. Back then there were expenses involved in [making] long distance calls that were, in some cases, [cost prohibitive] for some people. So I thought this was just an opportunity to negate whatever costs there might be and it worked out well.

Cooper: So often when being an elected official you may come to a point where you really start to wonder what is actually right. At these times you may find yourself examining your moral compass and questioning what's in the public interest what's in your personal interest. [I’d like to ask about the times when] they're at odds. What if what was in the public interest was not what you were hearing from your constituents?

Did you ever worry that a small vocal minority was consuming the majority of your constituent correspondence and in fact you ought to do what you think is best, which was contrary to what you were hearing from your constituents? Did you ever think that you were elected by constituents who invested their trust in you and your conscience and that you ought to do what you think best? And then of course there are great arguments made by people who disagree with you and maybe you can second guess yourself and say gosh, you know, they do make a lot of sense; I hadn't thought of it that way. Maybe I'm not right.

What kind of struggles did you go through to determine what really constitutes the public interest?

Daschle: That's a real good question. It's one that every member of Congress grapples with almost every day. [There used to be a term indicating] that you ‘voted your mail’ which meant that there was a preponderance of a particular point of view that they felt was such an overwhelming factor in their decision making that they had to vote with what they viewed was their constituency’s preference. Unfortunately today there's so much orchestrated mail that it's pretty hard to use mail as a as an indication of what the real sentiment may be in your constituency.

There were four different factors [for determining your vote and] one is your [voting with your] constituency of course. The second is [voting with] the best advice that experts could offer, [which is] always a factor. The third is the extent to which your caucus has a position, [but the fourth and] by far the most important is your own personal judgment. What in your own mind, after listening to the members of your caucus, after listening to the experts, and after listening to your constituents did you think was the most appropriate course of action. And I think most members of Congress feel they owe it to their constituencies to use their best judgment and most often I think that happens. Unfortunately these days things are so much more polarized and politicized that I think the political caucuses have far more sway than they should have. They used to [influence members’ votes] but they've become even greater factors as members of Congress make their minds up.

Cooper: Has your personal judgment evolved over time?

Daschle: It has. Clearly on some issues more than others but a good [example] might be with civil rights issues around sexual identity. And I was one who thought that marriage was really between a man and woman 25 years ago. Obviously I don't think that anymore. In fact most people don't think that anymore. It’s alright to act with integrity and allow yourself to change if the situation warrants such a change.

Cooper: I’d like to ask about a politician’s motivation for voting their mail. Suppose there was a term limit and those guys who ‘voted their mail’ would have been ineligible for re-election. Do you think any of them would have ever chosen to vote differently?

Daschle: I think there are still times when I would say that it wouldn't have the same influence it once did. But I would want to emphasize that constituency views are always critical to a member of Congress. But I think for a lot of reasons sometimes there are far more vocal constituencies than others and that vocal constituency sometimes can have enormous influence especially given the threat of primaries now and [in light of] gerrymandering that occurs where you don't have as much political pressure in the general election as you do in the primary. Voting your mail will influence you as a moral obligation to act according to the people's will.

And I would but I would draw distinction, Jordan, between voting your mail and listening to your constituents. You can listen to them, take them into account, along with the input of experts and the input of your caucus, and along with your personal judgment. And then when you find an amalgam that works, that is how you're going to act.

[In essence,] voting your mail is sort of a shorthand for overriding everything else and just looking at the mail count to make your decision.

Cooper: So Tom, somehow you became the Majority Leader of the U.S. Senate. What's that difference between your role as a public servant when you were a freshman United States Senator compared to when you were the most powerful United States Senator in the country?

Daschle: Well I think all senators are leaders so I wouldn't draw the distinction necessarily between a follower or a leader, but there are leaders of leaders and that's really what the majority leader is. He's the leader of the leaders and he is one who's charged with the responsibility of helping to lead one of the most important institutions of our government: the United States Senate. The Majority Leader works in concert with the Speaker of the House, the President of the United States, and with foreign leaders as well. He works quite closely with leaders around the country. So you're in an elevated status that [comes with] enormous responsibility but it also provides a really unique opportunity like no other in life.

Cooper: But why you? Everyone wants to be majority leader. Now of course if you're in the wrong party that's not in the majority then you might be a minority leader which you also were, but everyone who is in the U.S. Senate has ambition. I think that's a fairly true, absolute statement. So you know that ninety nine senators are not going to be Majority Leader; why is it that your peers elected you when they could have elected or tried to elect themselves? Is there something about you that led to your election? Is there a common thread between you and your predecessors and those who have subsequently held that seat?

Daschle: Well there's an eclectic array of personalities and characters who have had the role of majority leader. Lyndon Johnson was I think by most accounts viewed to be the most successful and he was only majority leader for six years. Harry Reid was totally different than I was. Trent Lott, a good friend of mine on the Republican side, was different in some respects but similar in many respects to me. I worked with three Republican leaders both in the minority and majority: Bob Dole, Bill Frist, and Trent Lott. And we all were different but we all had some similarities as well.

But as to your question why was I chosen, I think I happened to be at the right place at the right time. George Mitchell was my immediate predecessor. He asked me to take a lead role in our caucus as Chair of the Democratic Policy Committee. It's an elevated position that puts you in front of your caucus every week in various roles. He asked me to be his lieutenant.

Cooper: So in that role senators got used to seeing you as leadership?

Daschle: Exactly so. I had an elevated opportunity to be visible in front of my caucus for a number of years. So when he retired, even though I was younger and less senior than a lot of members, I decided once again to take the risk in and make a run for it. And, fortunately, I was successful.

Cooper: Yet when you had an opportunity to run for the United States President when there was a small window, you decided not to take the risk. How could you decide at one point when running for Senate Majority Leader to say ‘carpe diem’ and then later in your career just let the opportunity slide?

Daschle: Well it's funny you asked. It's a question that I prefer not to dwell on because I find it somewhat ironic that I can look back at those times when I took a risk my greatest degree of fulfillment and satisfaction. And the one time when I chose not to take risk that I look back with my greatest disappointment. But I had just lost the majority and I felt an obligation to my caucus to see if we could win back the majority and regain the role as majority leader. And then I thought I could move on and have a run at a later date. I was relatively young by presidential standards at the time so I thought I had time.

Cooper: Your first grade teacher spoke about lighting the curiosity candle and of course you've tried to perpetuate that when you found out that you had missed your opportunity to run for the presidency; you passed along that same advice to Barack Obama and he was able to take that opportunity as a very young freshman senator. As we approach the end of this podcast I’d like to ask you to speak to those grandkids, the grandkids in the picture on the mantle that the elderly man told you about on the last night of his life. He told you two things that hoped you’d remember: that you’d remain be grounded and that you’d remember where you came from, that you’d always have hope, and that you’d always give his grandchildren a reason to have hope. He told you to have a positive impact on them and reminded you that you weren't going to Washington for you but for them in a metaphorical sense.

My final question to you is would you speak to those grandkids and tell them how you've affected them? What is the legacy of your lifetime in public service? You've been on this Earth, working hard, making sacrifices, and missing dinners with your family. You have missed golf vacations. You've missed just relaxing with a beer on the beach you’re your buddies because you had a higher calling. Why? Why have you made these sacrifices? What have you done for his grandchildren and what would that man say to you if he were alive today and what would you say to his grandchildren?

Daschle: Well I would say that my job is still not done. I believe even though I'm at a different stage in life [than I previously was,] that this is still a work in progress, even though I've graduated from Congress and have moved onto different roles.

I see my aspiration as the same as it was when I was a very junior, very young freshman congressman. My inspiration is to give those children better healthcare, better education, provide them with opportunities to move up in the world, and to enjoy a quality of life that maybe their parents and grandparents didn't have. I want to give them hope, just as he asked me to give them hope. Maybe now, close to 40 years ago, I think I've done that to a certain extent, but my job is still not done.

Cooper: That has been former United States Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who, despite everything he has given for decades upon decades of his life to public service, he still does not see his mission, his calling as having been completed. He still looks forward to doing more tomorrow. He's the founder of the Bipartisan Policy Center, which emphasizes that in a world of hyper-partisanship our attention should be focused upon the people and not the ideology; he focuses on creating practical solutions, on getting together, and on making a deal. For Tom, it's about a half of a loaf being better than no loaf at all. And by working across the aisle, as is the term in Washington, which really is to say that by acknowledging people with different perspectives and different attitudes, Tom acknowledges that those with whom he differs also seek to advance the public interest despite having a different conception of what constitutes that interest and how to get there. Tom is somebody who has put his ideas into practice, who's always remembered where he has come from, and who always draws upon the earliest moments of his life as he executes the duties of his office.

He sees public service as a mission, as a calling, and as something more important than himself. He is always reminded of where he is, where he has come from, and whom he serves. Despite having reached the highest heights in American politics and in society at-large, he's always humbled by his obligation to be a servant to the children of tomorrow. He creates opportunity for those who also dream the American Dream that he has lived and that he has embodied throughout his life.