Dan Glickman, former U.S. representative and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, spoke at Moment’s zoominar this week promoting his new book, Laughing at Myself: My Education in Congress, on the Farm, and at the Movies. He was interviewed by his son Jonathan Glickman, now a Hollywood producer. They came together to tell stories of growing up in Kansas, tales from the Capital, and discussed the state of American democracy today. Click here to watch the full zoominar, or read the transcript below.
Jonathan Glickman Mr. Secretary, is it okay if I call you dad?
Dan Glickman Yes, finally after all these years you can call me dad.
Jonathan Glickman I’ll make sure they don’t realize our whole family addresses you as Mr. Secretary at home, even Mr Secretary grandpa.
So, first of all, I think the book is a fantastic education, even for myself, of what it’s like to grow up in the Midwest as in a Jewish family. I don’t know if you have the same experience that I have, which is probably the most common reaction to when I tell people I’m from Wichita is: how did a Jewish family make it to Wichita? Are you asked that question as often as I am? And for the benefit of the audience can you explain how this happens?
Dan Glickman Well I tell people first of all, that your great grandfather and my grandfather got there because they took the train from Chicago. So that’s how they got to Wichita.
But like most immigrants from Eastern Europe, my grandfather came from Belarus near Minsk, my grandmother came from somewhere in the Austrian Hungarian Empire. I’m not sure whose border it was when she actually left. One of them had a cousin in Kansas City, and the other one was told that he had to go to Kansas because he would be productive. He had some long lost relatives there, and they ended up in Wichita, Kansas around 1915 right before the First World War. When he got started, he went into the scrap iron business. The rest is history. They had a family, they had two sons, they had grandchildren.
Wichita was a town of about 100,000 people, and always had about 200 Jewish families. They always had two synagogues. you never had one synagogue, that it was for sure. Because you always have to have the synagogue that nobody would go to. So we were in the one that everybody went to.
Jonathan Glickman That’s funny. Now 200 families is not a lot of Jewish families. I’m curious when you grew up was your circle of friends, your social world, and your parents based around that community or was it around the city at large?
Dan Glickman I’d say it was both. There were only maybe five or six Jewish kids in my high school. I had friends in the general non-Jewish community.
I was on the golf team at Southeast High School, I was the only Jewish kid on the golf team that was for sure. I wasn’t such a great golfer but I still managed to get on the team. I was also active in B’nai B’rith Youth Organization. We had a Jewish life, as well and a lot of Jewish friends, but it wasn’t exclusively Jewish. It wasn’t large enough to be like that.
Plus, your grandparents, my parents were very active in the community as a whole. Your grandfather owned the AAA baseball team in Wichita, and was active in community affairs.
Jonathan Glickman Did you face any anti-semitism growing up, or was it sort of a non-factor that you were Jewish?
Dan Glickman I’d say it was generally a non-factor. When I got into Congress, periodically I might get an anonymous letter that would refer to my religion. But I made it a point to always reach out.
I was involved in agriculture, which was not a typical Jewish industry, particularly farming wasn’t. There are a lot of Jewish people in the food business, but not so much in agriculture. I think that helped me. Once people saw me, and they saw that I was just like anybody else and talked about the issues they cared about, they were more interested in getting their farm program payments through than they were on what religion I was. I recall, I did have one woman once tell me ‘well you know Mr. Glickman I think you’re probably going to go to hell, but I’m still going to vote for you because you did me a favor on Social Security.’ So I learned that politics stopped at the water’s edge when it came to all of these programs.
Jonathan Glickman To specify that comment a little bit, I know that you certainly were brought up culturally Jewish. This book is called Laughing at Myself it’s about humor and self deprecation, and there is certainly a Jewish vaudevillian sense of humor that ran inside of that house, and I’m wondering if you thought that you needed to be funny in order to fit in Wichita as somewhat of an outsider.
Dan Glickman First of all, your grandparents, my parents, both had this tremendous sense of humor, it just natural. My grandfather used to make the joke the moment they asked him, they’d say, ‘Well, how did you get to Kansas? Weren’t you one of the first settlers?’ He said ‘Yeah I was one of the first settlers in Kansas, I settled for 10 cents on the dollar.’
It was this kind of a natural wit. My father was a Rodney Dangerfield/Henny Youngman type of humor. He had lots of jokes, one liners, all the time.
My mother was also very funny. She was more authentic and natural, situational humor. It was just part of their Gestalt I would say.
We also had our fair amount of acrimony in our house too. There was a lot of laughter, and there was also a lot of screaming. I think that’s continued on.
Jonathan Glickman How important was politics at the dinner table? Did you discuss politics? Is that why you wanted to become a politician? What were the roots of your interest in politics in Kansas?
Dan Glickman My parents were not particularly politically active. They were both registered Republicans because Kansas was always one of the most Republican states. It was a different kind of Republicanism than what you see right now. They were kind of moderates. My dad and mother supported both Democrats and Republicans. They weren’t ideological at all.
My interest in politics, I don’t know. I was president of the sixth grade in Elementary School in Wichita, maybe that’s where it got started.
It wasn’t because of any ideology, it may have been because I was a middle child. I found I always wanted to prevent conflict, and I always wanted to bring people together.
Jonathan Glickman I do think it’s worth mentioning, it’s in the book, there is a story where you had an encounter with an important politician early in life, where you and your father drove somebody across the state of Kansas.
Dan Glickman My dad was part of the local UJA United Kansas Jewish Welfare Federation, active in B’nai B’rith too. One year, Harry Truman, the former president, lived in Independence, Missouri, which isn’t too far from Wichita. It was just outside of Kansas City. He spoke at an Israel bond dinner.
He was the president of the United States and he didn’t have transportation to come to Wichita. Remember, he left Washington with nothing. It was only when he wrote his biography, called Mr Citizen, that he made enough money to live. He lived with his mother in their house in Independence, so we picked him up.
My dad, my brother, and I were in the car. A Missouri highway patrolman drove him to the Kansas border. Then we drove him to Wichita. This was before they had a Turnpike there, and so we spent about four hours in the car with Harry Truman, just the three of us.
I remember we talked about a lot of things. We talked about Israel and why he was involved in the formation of the State of Israel. We talked about his business partner Eddie Jacobson, they ran a haberdashery shop together, which actually failed. He talked about Richard Nixon. I’ll never forget, he says you gotta watch that guy, I’m not too sure about him. We asked him about Eisenhower, and he had nothing really to say, good or bad. I just remember this conversation, then we drove him back.
It turns out you know I remember that fondly even to this day. I still think that Harry Truman was one of our really great presidents, and I always say he had the perfect name, true man. He’s not like any of the Presidents we’ve had since that time. He did not bask in the glories of that office; he was really a common man.
Jonathan Glickman So you left Wichita, you went to the University of Michigan, where most importantly you met somebody who you fell in love with, and I think is a very instrumental person in your career, Rhoda Yura. I’m curious during your tenure at Michigan, Tom Hayden was there with the SDS and it was the beginning of some very volatile times, some political unrest, and changes in the 60s. How much were you part of that world and that scene at Michigan?
Dan Glickman Well first of all, Rhoda Yura became Rhoda Glickman, after 55 years, we’re still married, and of course it’s your mother
Michigan, Berkeley and Columbia were the three schools that were just the heart of the Vietnam War protest movement. Tom Hayden, Jane Fonda’s ex-husband, was very involved in Michigan and for the Students for a Democratic Society and started a lot of the anti-war protests, I was not extremely involved. I was what you call a secularly anti-war but not what you call visual and not active in the anti-war movement. But then people started getting drafted around 1965-66. I graduated in 66 and got married that year. I remember your grandfather was very anti-war, and he said, I want you to get married. I responded that we are going to get married in August. He said well then I want you to have a baby. I said when? He says, before you get married because you could get a deferment back then. That was political heresy to talk like that. We didn’t have you before then. I want everybody to know that you were born after we got married.
Jonathan Glickman Thank God. It was interesting that you weren’t really part of the political unrest, in fact I think that your party registration when you were at Michigan was not as a Democrat, you were a Republican, am I right?
Dan Glickman I think I was a Republican, it’s certainly what my parents were. The Democratic Party in Kansas was always very weak. We’re the longest-running state in the country that has not elected a Democratic senator and the last one was in 1932. I was probably what you call an agnostic Republican, and I was that way until the early to mid 1970s. The war had an impact on me, but I was not engaged in it actively.
Jonathan Glickman To be clear, you were interested in politics. You went to George Washington Law School. And you worked for politicians, you worked for a Congressman, and I believe that you had a key meeting with the Senator from Kansas. That conversation guided the future of your career. Can you tell the audience who that person is, and also that he became a mentor of yours for the rest of your career in a very odd way.
Dan Glickman Yes so this actually occurred, once I finished law school. I worked for the government for a while. Then I went back to Kansas.
By the way, even in Michigan I was involved in what I call secular politics. I was president of the senior class of the liberal arts college at Michigan. I was also involved in an organization called Michigan Students for Romney and Johnson, I was splitting my loyalties. George Romney, Mitt Romney’s dad, and then Lyndon Johnson was for president. We weren’t for Goldwater, that was for sure.
But anyway, I went back to Kansas after law school. I decided I’d really like to go to work for a senator, so I went to see Bob Dole, who was then the junior senator from Kansas. We had a common friend, Sam Marcus, who knew Bob Dole very well. He got me a meeting with him. Dole was very courteous. I said, Senator, I’d really like to come back and work for you. And he said, ‘I see a future budding politician right before me. I don’t think you ought to go to work for me now, I think you ought to go back to Kansas, and establish your roots, before you start thinking about coming back to Washington. I think he thought I was going to be Republican and go under his umbrella.
It turned out that he became an interesting person, he became a longtime mentor to me. At the same time we used to politically spar with each other. Many times I thought about running against him which would have been suicide because he was an unbeatable.
He’s turned out to be the kind of political leader in Congress that we don’t have anymore, because he was a guy who was sent there to get things done. it doesn’t really exist anymore. Even though we were different political parties, we got along very well.
Jonathan Glickman When you went back to Kansas was it with the intent of running for office, or did you move back to Wichita just to practice law and watch some minor league baseball?
Dan Glickman I went back because I thought that I needed to establish roots somewhere besides Washington. I think politics was in my blood, because after about two years I decided to run for the Wichita Kansas School Board. So I ran for the school board, you were like four or five years old at the time. I won and became a member of the Wichita Kansas School Board, and then became president of the School Board and that gave me a lot of visibility around the area, because that was the largest school district in the state of Kansas. That really became a springboard for running for higher office.
Jonathan Glickman When you ran for office you ran against an eight-term incumbent named Garner Shriver, Republican. There are countless Democrats in the primary running against him. It was such an underdog race. How important is the Jewish community in Wichita to you running your campaign, as well as winning that race?
Dan Glickman It was really important. I mean, there weren’t a lot of Jews around, but those that really helped me, the inner circle, were almost all Jewish except for my campaign manager who wasn’t Jewish. She was my debate teacher in high school, who became my campaign manager. Your grandmother and a bunch of her friends were the phone callers and the phone bankers. I think the Jewish community, small as it was, was a really important part of my effort and it turned out that my opponent Garner Shriver, his chief of staff, was Jewish, his name was Lester Rosen from Wichita. I used to date his niece! I ended up beating him.
Jonathan In this race, really kind of counterintuitive to what you would think would happen, you actually were able to beat Garner Shriver by winning in the rural and agriculture areas, and he was more successful in the urban areas, which is sort of the opposite of what we think of Democrat and Republican politics. I’m curious, how did you learn about agriculture enough to be able to convince these people to vote for you?
Dan I didn’t know anything about agriculture, other than once in a while I’ve met farmers, because I worked for your grandfather in the scrap yard business, so a lot of farmers would bring in scraps and he would also go out in the field sometimes and I’d go with them.
I think my campaign manager said I want you to focus 75% of your time in rural areas, and only 25% of your time in Wichita urban areas, because she says I think you can win this race if you can build up margins in the small towns and rural areas. So I just made it my specialty and I spent a huge amount of my time there. I talked about agriculture and farming. I had some good advisors. The Jewish issue never came up. The race was tight, but I won about 60% of the vote in the rural areas and 40% of the vote in the city of Wichita.
Jonathan You say the Jewish issue never came up, but on election night, which was very tight. I know the news covered the campaign headquarters live, can you explain what was the celebration that was on live TV in Wichita, Kansas?
Dan I think my mother and her friends were dancing the hora. I saw on my election night and then in one of the newspapers in Kansas said, I remember the exact words they said, ‘it was a veritable political kibbtuz at headquarters.’
Jonathan So you went to Washington with this incredible class of congressmen in 96, both on the Republican and on the Democrat side. In fact, I think on the Democrat side, when they would sit you alphabetically it would go Gephardt, Glickman, Gore, and so I know that those two relationships were critical to you. You were also close with Republicans that came in too. Can you explain what the tenor of the house was when you first came in and 1977.
Dan We had a class of I think there were 47 democrats and 25 republicans or so, but we operated pretty much as a class that party differences weren’t as great as they are right now. The Democrats had been in the majority for a long time, and Republicans were in the clear minority. It was almost two to one Democrats to Republicans and so there was a lot of camaraderie. Our spouses were there, and I remember Rhoda was on the floor of the house when I was sworn in, and opposed to a day where so many members of Congress don’t live in Washington. No one brings their spouses to Washington. They live in their home, and so people aren’t as close as they used to be. I was able to develop relationships, not only with Al Gore, who later became Vice President, or Dick Gephardt, who became chairman of the Democratic caucus, but Leon
Panetta, who became White House Chief of Staff and head of the CIA at the Pentagon, was in my class as well. Dan Quayle, a Republican, was in my class who became Vice President under George H.W. Bush. Those relationships were great and we had a lot of fun. It was a much less partisan era, there’s no question about it.
Jonathan I think you particularly exemplified being bipartisan. I know that you voted on both sides and certain issues. But what I want to ask is, how important was your experience of being on the Agriculture Committee to creating a bipartisan interest behind your politics?
Dan The Agriculture Committee was critical in that. First of all, I was the most urban member of the Agriculture Committee coming from Wichita, Kansas, which is still a small town compared to big cities in the east. It was very bipartisan, Republicans and Democrats worked across the aisle all the time. The committee had jurisdiction not only for all farm programs, but also for all the feeding programs, such as the food stamp program, the National School Lunch Program, and the Women Infant Children program. We were able to work with coalition building bridges between rural and urban America. It was very bipartisan, and much less so than what we see today.
Jonathan I know that you were very active when you came in. You passed a lot of amendments, and laws, is there anything particular before 1994 that you passed that you were proud of, and you still think of today as a big accomplishment?
Dan My hometown was the general aviation capital of the world. We were the headquarters of Beach, Cessna, Learjet and the Boeing Company had 30,000 employees in Wichita. Besides agriculture, I worked a lot on legislation affecting airplanes and airplane manufacturers. That’s been one of the loves of my life, the airplane industry and airplane schedules. At some point we get to 1994 after my 18 years in Congress, the voters in my district had other ideas about what my occupation ought to be.
Jonathan I do want to get to that. Especially, getting back to humor and how you were able to use it to help persevere and create relationships. I know that was a period of great adversity that you had in Congress, and I want you to talk about a little bit but also how you use humor to get yourself through it.
Dan Some folks on this call may remember years and years ago that the House of Representatives had a bank. We would bank checking accounts and we often had overdrawn balances. The bank was a cooperative. Let’s say you were a house member and you had money in your account at the end of the month, I didn’t have money, they would just take money from your account and put it in my account, so there were actually never any bounced checks.
It became a big scandal: the House of Representatives bounces checks. There were technically never bounced checks, but they would have been classic overdrafts. It was a really hard time for me and overnight I turned from the most popular guy in the world, to the guy who bounced checks. I had to figure out a way to get out of this jam I was in, or a thought for sure I was going to lose. I was invited to the local gridiron Club, which is a club the journalists run, and there are gridiron clubs all over the country. Your mom and I and one other person helped write a song to the tune of Hey Big Spender from the show Sweet Charity and I made fun of myself. I couldn’t learn to add or subtract. I was not a crook like you-know-who-was in previous times. I performed it to a large enough crowd that it was all over the media. It taught me about self deprecating humor. If you’re genuine about it, you can get you out of a jam. Then people started walking up to me on the street and they said, ‘I’ve bounced a few checks, it’s really not so terrible.’
And so, I learned that self deprecating humor, which we don’t see today very much, in fact most of our politicians are pretty humorless in today’s modern world. It helped me, both in terms of leadership responsibilities, but it also helped me cope, as well.
Jonathan Let’s just jump ahead a little bit and talk about that. You don’t see self deprecating humor really in any of our politicians today. And, in fact, if you see anything it seems like you see the opposite, which is, it’s more insult-comedy. I’m curious as to why you think that’s the case. And do you think that it would even work in today’s atmosphere where people are so concerned about saying something that could potentially be misconstrued or make you appear as weak?
Dan Today if you say something that’s even moderately edgy, it will go on the social media and the internet and be there till the end of time, and can be dredged up and used against you. I think it’s made people very cautious to be themselves. I think that’s a factor that we haven’t really appreciated as much and the nature of our media today, the nature of politics, is that even making fun of yourself may be viewed as not a sign of strength at all. And so that may be another factor as well.
I always say if you look back at the Presidents that have had the most impact. They’re usually the ones that have had the best sense of humor. Lincoln, FDR, Ronald Reagan, John Kennedy, and some of the others as well. These are ones that have been known to either they had good writers, or they just had the natural inclination, and wit to be able to make fun of themselves and I think it made them better leaders.
Jonathan It’s also interesting with Rubbergate, but I think that people in today’s world almost seem as if you can’t admit any failings as a politician or a leader, and actually the key to success is sort of just to either not acknowledge it, or deny that anything bad has happened to you.
Dan Certainly, we saw from our previous president, and again I try not to be overly partisan. He never admitted doing anything wrong. Ever. I think it will have a lasting dark mark on his legacy. Now fortunately we have a President who certainly has a much better tone, much more empathy, much more respect, but I think it was tragic that he was the President who helped create that environment.
I’m not saying it wasn’t out there in the country that encouraged some of this toxicity. I served under many Presidents and everybody I served under from Carter, to Reagan, to the Bushes, I didn’t serve under Obama or Biden but I would put them in this category, all had a good sense of self, and we’re all very decent people, and most of them had a reasonably good sense of humor.
Jonathan Speaking of humor in times of adversity, and just sort of acknowledging your foibles. Let’s talk about 1994 because it’s interesting you know Newt Gingrich came in and sort of led this period in time in which humor and bipartisanship sort of went down the drain. When you ran, you had done more for the district in job creation than in the entire time period you had served up until then, and yet you lost. Did you see that you were going to lose early in the election? Could you tell the tides are changing? How did that loss affect you personally?
Dan First of all, I really didn’t see it until about three weeks or four weeks before because we did a poll in September around Labor Day and I was up two-to-one and I had won nine previous elections. The election before this one, I had only one by 10 points, which today would be considered as great but back then it was considered as tight.
Then I could see two things happening that hurt me. One is guns and firearms. I voted for the Brady Bill and the assault weapons ban and in the heartland particularly in rural areas and in working class areas that was just a vote that was really problematic. We can talk about why but it created a lot of enemies from people who were my supporters in the past. Then the abortion issue would became a huge issue in Wichita. Wichita, Kansas is the headquarters of the Summer of Mercy, this national anti-abortion movement. The third thing was Bill Clinton wasn’t all that popular. He had this national health care proposal and so putting all those things together.
The Republicans did a very good job of messaging and they swept the Democrats 60 of us out and especially the moderates like me, the liberals were able to survive it. The moderates were swept out, and so that happened to me.
For about three days it was pretty depressing but your grandfather, who’s old school and very tough, said, ‘get your act together, don’t feel sorry for yourself.’ Go out and grab hold of the future and that’s what I did. I was lucky, because I got a very good job within about four weeks.
Jonathan I do want to talk about the fact that you lost this election, and unlike other people, you were able to have this knack of failing upward, I’d like to say. I don’t think that it’s luck, I think that there are certain key relationships you had that allowed you to get into the position of getting the cabinet nomination. Do you have a philosophy of ‘hey, I’m going to be nice to this person because you never know this person may help you’ or is there any sort of clever thinking that you go along with in politics that you had a philosophy of dealing with?
Dan I was not the kind to build walls, and so I tried never to burn bridges. I never had any permanent enemies. I lost the election, and I’m a pretty likable guy. I was on the Agriculture Committee all these years, and then Secretary of Agriculture, his name is Mike Espy had announced he was resigning because of ethics charges that were filed against him. He was largely exonerated. So Bill Clinton had lost the Congress, both houses, and had to pick as one of his first tests, a new Secretary of Agriculture. He had to pick someone who the Republicans could support, and could get confirmed. And so I had a couple of pretty good allies, and one of my allies was the senate majority leader, a Republican named Bob Dole. and then I had a second ally named Leon Panetta, who was the White House Chief of Staff for Bill Clinton, and I had a third ally, Al Gore, who is the Vice President, I mean, again, these are people have been with me from way back, and I managed and keeped good relationships with. Clinton didn’t know me very well.
So the story is that Clinton said, ‘I better go talk to Dole.’ I was asked to take this job, but he said you better go talk to Dole. I think Bob Dole had an interest in keeping me out of Kansas, to be honest with you, but the secondary motive was that we got along well in agriculture and so those relationships, as long as you keep them good they can keep you successful. So I tell people the most important thing is don’t burn your bridges, even if you’re fighting on a big political issue or a legislative issue after it’s over forget it, because you’re going to need that person in the next battle.
Jonathan When you went into the US Secretary, you found yourself at the receiving end of assaults, I mean some real crazy attacks on you. I wonder if you can talk about that, not just in terms of what happened to you and how you use humor to protect yourself from it, but also why people were so angry at you?
Dan What I found is that people care very much about food, and I know the Secretary of Commerce wasn’t getting pies thrown at him all the time. I had a tofu cream pie thrown at me by a lady that called me a pimp for the meat industry and it missed me and hit Donna Shalala on the back. I remember I looked at Bob Dole who was with us at the time and I said to Bob, ‘I don’t think we’re in Kansas any longer.’ And then I had a woman who threw infected buffalo guts at me in Montana because she thought I was poisoning her family animals. The most interesting one was at the World Food summit in Rome. I had a bunch of protesters who stripped naked and threw genetically modified seeds at me and written on their bodies, I didn’t look, but written on their bodies was ‘the Naked Truth’ and’ no gene beans.’ The story I tell is it is dangerous to be Secretary of Agriculture and to when I talked to your grandparents. That night, CNN had this story about the protesters, so your grandmother says to me ‘this is a dangerous job you need to get out of this job. It’s worse than being in the Defense Department.’ and then she says, ‘Just a minute. Your father wants to talk to you.’ And so your grandfather got on the phone and said, ‘Tell me, what did it look like?’ t I tell that story a lot.
There are other things that have happened to me with food. It is very interesting, we had the lowest pork prices in history during the time I was secretary. I don’t make it a habit of eating pork, although I have deviated from that once in a while on occasion. President Clinton used to say, ‘What a country it is that we can have a Jewish Secretary of Agriculture, promoting the pork industry.’ I got a kick out of that as well.
All these things kind of added up to using these experiences and using stories to let people know that you know the job could be fun, as well.
Jonathan Well, I think that nothing exemplifies telling stories and having fun and being self-deprecating more than the moment where you were almost the most powerful man in the entire world, if you can tell that story to the crowd. I’ve certainly heard it, and not pretend like I’ve never heard it before. But if you can tell the story about how you were the Designated Survivor at the State of the Union.
Dan Every state of the union message they have one cabinet member stays away. The Designated Survivor in the event that the place blows up and of course ABC did a TV show about this with Kiefer Sutherland. They usually pick the Secretary of Agriculture, or Interior or Commerce. They would never pick the Secretary of State or the Secretary of Defense. I used to tell people that was because the Secretary of Agriculture was the most important cabinet job and that’s why they picked me, because if we didn’t have food then we would all die anyway.
That year I went up to New York. The military took me up there in their plane. And I had a secret service, and the guy was carrying the nuclear codes, and a military guy. And I went to visit your sister, Amy who lived in New York in lower Manhattan.
We went to her apartment where I watched President Clinton give his speech, and as soon as his speech was over they went back to the White House, and then they didn’t need me as Designated Survivor anymore. I took Amy out to dinner that night, and it was in January of 1977, a big huge sleep storm came out. We left the restaurant about midnight. There was no such thing as Uber or Lyft, or even cabs at that time. And so Amy and I walked back about 13 blocks back to her apartment. And I commented I said, ‘you know, three and a half hours ago I was conceivably the most powerful man on the face of the earth. And we can’t even get a cab today.’ And I tell that story because it’s a great story about resilience, the one day you could be down the next day can be up. It’s like the old Frank Sinatra song ‘That’s Life,’ I’ve been a poet, a pauper, a pawn, and the king. At graduations and other places I tell the story, I said, ‘you may be down today, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to be down tomorrow. You may be up today, it doesn’t mean you’re going to be up forever.’
Jonathan How do we fix the tone in politics? Or the more extreme. How do we fix democracy? or is democracy over?
Dan Democracy is not over, but I will tell you the last six months to a year with the insurrection in the capital and with the way so many members of Congress, mostly Republicans, voted against certifying the elections, does really show you that our democracy is in trouble. There are no magic answers but part of it is just good, strong leadership. Part of it is getting rid of gerrymandering, because gerrymandering tends to produce members of Congress who are only in like-minded districts. I had to play the center, because I represented a district that had both Republicans and Democrats.
Today, most of the districts are drawn either pure Democrat or Republican districts, and it’s not a place where it encourages reasonable behavior, which is certainly part of the nature of our media today. Not being nostalgic, but I grew up when local newspapers were really important, and we had three television stations. Today people generally watch the news that agrees with them. So hardly any liberals will watch Fox and hardly any conservative will watch MSNBC, and I’m not telling you they ought to do it on a routine basis, but all these things contribute to this toxic tone that we have. I’m not Pollyanna about it. Pogo said, we had met the enemy and he is us. As bad as Trump was, a lot of these issues existed before Trump became President. We’re just going to have to continue to work on these problems systematically. There is a systemic problem impacting our democracy right now, there’s no question about it.
Jonathan I did some research and just for the crowd, this is a common conversation I have with my father. It’s one thing to say Americans should start watching others, it seems like we have to put in some systems to correct ourselves. I noticed that in the 1996 Congress the average age of a congressman was 48 years old, today that the average age of a congressman is 59, the average age of a senator was 51 and today the average agent Senator is 61.
When a young upstart ran for congress in the fourth district. He ran saying that he was going to serve five terms at most. Now of course, you went on to serve more than five. I’m wondering if term limits actually may be a solution to this? There aren’t these professional politicians who are continuing to be concerned about the next election or the next race, if they know there is an end date with their time of serving, would that make a difference in your opinion?
Dan The problem with term limits is congressional staff become the drivers of policy because you’d have to put term limits on staff in order to make the system resilient. We of course have term limits on Presidents, thank goodness. Term limits may be part of the answer.
I also think getting rid of the electoral college may be part of the answer, because we have more and more states that are putting on these crazy rules on voting and voter suppression and you know the electoral college may have made sense in 1787, but we ought to elect our president at large. We have the United States Senate to protect small states. And what I worry about is the same thing that’s happening now in Arizona where people are challenging the elections in that state and the Electoral College and remember when Trump says All I need is 12,781 more votes in the state of Georgia and what we saw there. That’s another kind of systemic or structural answer.
One positive thing is I’ve worked at the Aspen Institute for the last 10 years, and I worked with members of Congress and what I found is a lot of the younger members of Congress, the newer members of Congress, because there’s been a lot of turnover in the last five years or so, They’re actually as good as anybody I ever served with.
Jonathan How can somebody run for office without having had a huge amount of money? When is there any way that we can remove the influx of money in politics? Do you think that would make a difference?
Dan I think it would make a difference, but I think what we saw in the last election is in some sense, big money was replaced by huge quantities of small money. So the Internet has allowed people to raise money differently than they did before. I think the jury’s out, history will prove which way is better or worse for democracy. I think this dark hidden undisclosed money is unhealthy, we raise too much money as I mentioned before, I spent $100,000 on my first race, which allowed me to spend virtually all my time walking door to door meeting constituents. When you raise money you don’t kick the person in the rear end after you get a check from that person, it’s just a fact of life that you owe them for what they’ve done to you.
Jonathan Just to switch topics to something even harder to talk about, probably more critical at this moment or equally critical is, there’s a lot of questions about America’s relationship with Israel that we’re getting and my question for you is, you’ve had a lot of background and visits with Israel and Israeli leaders, you know, even with the, the Begun-Saddam partner summit, all the way back then. Are we at an inflection point in this country right now with a relationship with Israel? And is there anything that can be done to improve our relationship, especially when you see the demographics and young Jewish people and where they stand on the stage in Israel?
Dan I will say this, the support for Israel has become much more partisan than it used to be. Even as recently as 10-20 years ago, Democrat and Republican support for Israel was strong across the board. Not too long ago I remember the Speaker of the House invited Netanyahu to a joint session of Congress without telling the President he was going to do that, and it became a very partisan thing. All the Republicans cheered and the democrats thought that the Republicans were using Israel as a partisan thing.
I think support for Israel is still strong, but among younger voters, and particularly among more progressive Democrats, there are more and more questions being asked about what Israel is doing, how much we should be supporting them, what’s the role of a Palestinian state and, how we get to some sort of peace agreement with Israel. Right now, I think that support for Israel remains very strong. I don’t see any evidence the United States is going to disassociate itself from Israel, but I do see that in politics today, there is waning of unconditional support for Israel, no matter what it does. That’s why, from a personal perspective ,I was glad to see a change in Israeli leadership. I don’t think that change is going to necessarily mean revolutionary change in Israeli policy, but I think Netanyahu has been in office long enough, 12 years plus the previous two years. It’s the same thing as term limits. It’s time for new thinking and I think that’s what we’re seeing right now.
Jonathan I’m going to end with three quick questions. One of the great stories I remember you telling you had the opportunity of seeing the play Hamilton before most people happened to see it and you just sort of wandered into the theater and saw it off Broadway. There’s a great song in the show Hamilton called ‘In the Room Where it Happened.’ Can you give one example where you were in the room where it happened that all of us would have been dying to be in there?
Dan This is slightly controversial, but I was in the Cabinet Room, after President Clinton had his problems and issues with Monica Lewinsky. He came into the Cabinet Room, after he had said I did not have sex with that woman, he came in the Cabinet Room and and told us that he didn’t have a relationship. Then later on we had what I call the highest price group therapy session in the history of the United States of America. The President met with all of his cabinet. I was in the room. He not only apologized but let everybody say what they thought about him, and that process. A female member just took him to shreds for what he did. Just right in front of the rest of us she said you ought to be ashamed of yourself. I’m thinking, it’s pretty hard to say to a President of the United States. He didn’t fire her and she stayed on. That I still remember being in the room.
Jonathan I’m wondering if there’s one particular movie that kind of perhaps changed your thinking or sort of guided the way you behave for the rest of your life?
Dan You know I don’t think there was one movie, and of course you ended up in this business at an actual production career. I think you got the career in part because we just went to movies all the time, and we talked about him. And we talked about them almost like they actually happened. And of course the movies we talked about most were The Godfather I and Godfather II, and we used to relive the scenes. Your sister, your mother, and our dogs became part of the scenes as well. I wouldn’t say that that movie set any great moral things in my life in terms of the change, but I think it’s probably when people ask me what’s the greatest movie I’ve ever seen. I say the first two Godfather movies are still the best, there are a lot of other good ones. Animal House, I know that that’s not a great movie but it was a movie of my generation, and you know in my fraternity. There are a lot of other good ones that I’ve seen, but I still think Godfather.
Jonathan I’m kind of shocked you didn’t mention any of my movies, but we’ll get past. That’s a different therapy session. I want to close with I saw a Moment Magazine, they are asking people for their best Jewish Jokes. I’m not going to put you on the spot, but I do want you to close with a story about your mother and you meeting with George Herbert Walker Bush, 41, and the story when she first met.
Dan I took my mother to the congressional picnic that we’d have every year and this year it was for George Bush, the first wonderful man. I and he knew all the members of Congress, he used to come down and talk about bipartisanship. He used to come down and play racquetball in the House of Representatives gym, once a week, to build relationships with Congress. I met him and I came up to him and I said ‘Mr.President, I’d like you to meet my mother, Gladys Glickman.’ The President looks at her and says we just love your son. We just wish he would convert, and of course he meant from Democrat to Republican. My mother without missing a beat says, ‘Mr.President, we like being Jewish.’ I used to see the President on occasion and he says, ‘Is your mother still upset with me?’ I say no, and he says, w’e won’t try to convert you anymore.’